N.C. State's C.J. Leslie draws a Virginia Cavalier crowd as he kicks the ball out during the first half. CHUCK LIDDY - email@example.com
One of the big differences between pro sports and college sports is that, for the most part, the college kids are just that -- kids.
There’s the odd 18- or 19-year-old on a pro team, but for the most part they’ve been to college or fought their way up through the minors. College teams are loaded with 18-year-olds, of course, and there are times where boys become men before our eyes.
That’s happening right now with C.J. Leslie, who is growing up so fast on so many levels. The detached, sulking Leslie that stumbled through his freshman year at N.C. State is gone, replaced by a confident, driven young man who’s taking over games. He may sense the NBA approaching rapidly, but that’s no reason not to appreciate the growth in Leslie, who will turn 22 in June.
As he has been for the last month, Leslie was a demon on the court in today’s win over Virginia. At one point, Lorenzo Brown asked for the ball back. Leslie shrugged him off, took his man to the rim and scored. Not long after, while his teammates conceded a rebound and went back on defense, Leslie tore the ball out of Akil Mitchell’s hands in what may have been the hustle high point of his entire N.C. State career.
Leslie finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, yet none of that was impressive as his performance in the postgame press conference. There were no mumbles, no monosyllables from Leslie today, only a speech that would have seemed patently impossible 12 months ago.
“First off, I want to say this: Coach (Mark) Gottfried has done an amazing job with me, keeping me in the game, telling me I can do it, just sticking with me through all the tough times I’ve had,” Leslie said. “He’s done good making sure my head is in the right place.
“I can’t say I did it on my own. He’s done great with that. For that, I basically patted him on the back and did everything he wanted me to do and put myself and our team in a great place.”
Sitting next to him at the podium, Gottfried positively beamed with pride, like a parent whose child just aced the SATs. Leslie was his project from Day 1, from the day he took over at State for Sidney Lowe, the whole insistence on calling him “Calvin” included. Now, he’s seeing results.
“C.J.’s a changed guy this year,” said Brown, who was also on the podium with Leslie and Gottfried. “I’ve known him since he was 14 and I’ve never heard him say anything like that. I’m so happy for him that he’s acting like this now.”
Gottfried’s other big project was getting N.C. State back on the national map. Maybe today’s win did that. Maybe not. But helping Leslie emerge from his shell both as a player and person may, in the long run, be more impressive -- and more important.