Should Illini's Leonard stay, or go to NBA?

Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard won’t have much time to decide whether to return for his junior season or enter the NBA draft after the Illini’s season is complete in the coming weeks.

The NCAA’s deadline to choose this year will be April 11.

For some players, like Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, the decision will be a no-brainer to enter the draft. But for someone like Leonard, it’s more complicated. There are pros and cons of both staying in college and going to the NBA.

During Illinois’ recent game against Iowa, former NBA scout Mike Procopio watched Leonard exclusively. He critiqued Leonard’s game, projected him as a NBA player and provided some advice.

Procopio was a Boston Celtics scout for four years and an assistant in the NBA Developmental League for one season. He’s also in his seventh year as the director of basketball operations for Tim Grover’s ATTACK Athletics, where he’s trained around 200 NBA players, is Kobe Bryant’s personal scouting consultant and runs HoopConsultants.com, a basketball consulting website for players and coaches.

On this day, Leonard had one of his finer performances. He was 7 of 13 from the floor, scored 22 points, grabbed six offensive and 14 total rebounds, blocked two shots and played 36 minutes in a win.

Here are some of Procopio’s observations on Leonard:

  • He’s got great activity. That’s his NBA skill. He has true center size, is active and has athleticism. He can rebound and block shots. That gets him into a NBA game. That’s my thing with him -- if you’re on a back-to-back in January and you’re on the road and it’s 24-17 on the scoreboard, and I put him in the game, what’s going he give you? How’s he going to help you? What’s his skill?

  • There are not a lot of centers and point guards in the NBA. How many serviceable big men are in the NBA? There’s not a lot. Teams have to stockpile them. He’ll get drafted in the first round.

  • He’s a below-average scorer, but that’s OK. He’s never going to be a go-to guy on the block. Big guys tend to feel like they have to score a lot. If you can get a rebound every 3-3 ½ minutes or less, have two blocks a game, you’re in good shape. Active bigs stay in the league. Jeff Foster has made millions doing that.

  • He needs the control the block better. He doesn’t get low enough. If he were to stay another year, I’d make him develop a move on the block.

  • If he stays at Illinois, the best thing for him is for a coach to say, ‘We’re going to run an offense through him.’ They do that some now, but he gets a lot of points off activity. He doesn’t need stats and numbers, he needs the ball in his hands. The big thing is he’s going to through adversity. It’s a lot easier to do that in college and then come out to the draft. You run the offense through him, he gets more shot attempts, he passes the ball out of the post, then struggles and plays through those struggles and battles his way out, and then the transition to the NBA will be a lot easier.

  • Indiana’s Cody Zeller is more skilled than Leonard. You can run the offense through Zeller and he can score on the block and pass the ball. I’d pick him earlier than Leonard.

  • I think he’s somewhere between 10-25 right now in the draft. If he stays another year and improves, he could be a top-10 pick.

  • I think NBA comparables are Tiago Splitter from San Antonio, Jeff Foster from Indiana, Andris Biedrins from Golden State, Louis Amundson from Indiana. Some of those guys are at a higher level. It all depends on how focused he is coming into the league. If he’s a guy who is focused like Tyler Hansbrough, he can get better. If he’s not focused, he can be like Leon Smith and fall on his face.

  • If he goes to the draft, he’ll play next year in the D-League. He’ll play against better guys and play against men.

  • Even if he does play next year in college, he’ll probably still play in the D-League the following year. He could be someone like Byron Mullens who spent time in the D-League and now is not a bad player for Charlotte.

  • Who he gets drafted by, their coaching staff and commitment to player development is very important to him. There are some really good teams who can develop talent in the NBA, and some who don’t. When I say they don’t, I mean they expect a player to sink or swim. They’re not going to invest time in guys. He needs time. He needs to be assigned a coach.

  • There are pluses and minuses for him to stay and go. I think there’s more risk for him to leave. Bottom line, he’s seven feet tall and has an NBA skill that he can rebound, run and be active. In my opinion, he hasn’t played in enough big games and had to carry a team. Granted you don’t have to play in big games to be an NBA player, but battling with adversity is a very underrated skill. Even if his numbers dip, I don’t think he’ll fall much in the draft. I think many can say he can dip and raise his stock with all the bigs ahead of him this year. Only thing he has to worry about [if he stays] is a freak injury.