After Thursday's draft ended, the Knicks wasted little time in signing undrafted forward/poet C.J. Leslie from North Carolina State. I originally mentioned this as a Summer League signing, but-- while Leslie will indeed join New York in Vegas-- the Knicks have already invited him to training camp. He should have a real chance to make the team. That said, here's Paul Chillsap with some analysis. -Seth
Hello friends! How are we feeling? The Knicks did what the Knicks tend to do and acquired some young prospects that we haven't talked about much. One of them went undrafted and the Knicks pounced on him.
C.J. Leslie is a long, athletic forward from NC State. He led the Wolfpack in scoring for a second consecutive year and was their second-leading rebounder with 7.4 per game, but did not hear his name called in the 2013 NBA draft. Honestly, it was a bit of a surprise to see him go undrafted. Despite a relatively disappointing college career, Leslie still possesses the great physical tools that made him a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Let's take a look at what Leslie did in college, and try to predict what he might be in the pros.
D.O.B. - 06/25/1991 (22 years old)
Hometown - Raleigh, NC
Measurements: Height (w/o shoes) - 6'7.5"; Height (in shoes) - 6'8.75"; Weight - 209 lbs; Wingspan - 7'2.25"; Max Vert - 40.5; Lane Agility - 10.19
Amateur Take - Offense: A large part of Leslie's slide down and out of the draft is likely due to his disappointing production on the offensive end for his career at NC State. Though he averaged a solid 15.1 PPG in the ACC, he was not a very efficient scorer despite his tremendous physical gifts. Leslie fits the stereotype of a tweener forward and doesn't have a projected NBA position just yet in large part due to his poor perimeter shooting.
Leslie is a career 27.1% from college three, making it difficult to imagine him starring as a wing in the NBA. His final season at NC State marks a career-high in PPP on jump shots at .759, a very disappointing number. He simply does not look comfortable taking open jumpers and shows poor fundamentals: Altering his release if the defense closes out on him, needlessly fading away at times, not consistently holding his follow-through, etc. Defenders could very comfortably sag off of Leslie and dare him to shoot, making it difficult for him to use his athleticism to his advantage. Leslie wants to attack the rim, but he'll find more opportunities to do so if he can force defenders to respect him outside of the paint. He has solid form on his jump shot, but he needs to build consistency and work on keeping his mechanics through pressure. Leslie needs significant work on correcting his jumper, but improvement in this regard would go a long way towards finding him a role in the NBA.
Leslie wasn't dominant inside the three-point arc, but shows the potential to be a solid scorer in the NBA. He isn't a great finisher at the rim largely due to his mediocre handle, loose control of the ball, and lack of a left hand. Still, the rangy forward is difficult to stop with a head of steam as he can elevate over defenders to throw the ball in the bucket or draw a foul. Leslie is explosive when offered an open lane to the rim, and uses his great leaping ability to finish over or around his opponents. His average handle restricts him largely to straight-line drives, but his deceptive quickness makes him a dangerous threat in the high post. He has a solid first step to blow by slower forwards, and used it to great success in the NCAA. He also used his speed to create transition baskets for the Wolfpack and showed a willingness to run the floor hard after defensive rebounds. It's fair to consider Leslie an elite athlete even among NBA talent, and he should be able to find some success taking unsuspecting NBA defenders off of the dribble. He's right-hand dominant and smart defenders will make him uncomfortable by pushing him towards his off-hand around the rim, but he should be an improved finisher with better talent around him to find him easy looks at the iron.
Leslie was not great at finding his teammates for opportunities to score in college. He is definitely more finisher than creator at this point, to which his .49 A/TO ratio can attest. Still, Leslie is by no means a selfish player and found his teammates for 1.8 assists per 40. Not all of his turnovers came from passing, either: Leslie saw a significant number of possessions in the post, and he simply doesn't have the polish to score efficiently there. He often turned the ball over trying to force the action on the block. He won't be asked to create offense as much in the NBA, and his TOV% should improve because of it.
While some aspects of his offensive game disappointed in college, Leslie did show skill at embracing contact. He averaged 7.8 FTAs per game, a top-5 mark among power forwards in DraftExpress' Top 100 and good for 1st among small forwards in the DraftExpress Top 100. Leslie has faced questions about his toughness and motor since his high school days, so his consistent willingness to draw contact alleviates some concerns about his ability to handle the physical play of the NBA. He was not a very good shooter when he got to the charity stripe, unfortunately: His career-high 61.2% last season ranks among the worst posted by a forward in the draft. He has improved his numbers there every year of his college career, but Improving his free throw shooting would certainly make him more dangerous in the paint.
Speaking of threatening the paint: Leslie saw a solid amount of possessions with his back to the basket near the paint. He was not much of a threat on the low block, but his physical tools helped him overwhelm poorly-matched opponents. Leslie's length and leaping ability makes his jump hook a threat in a pinch and he shows some promise using his agility to spin past defenders and finish around the basket, but it doesn't appear likely that Leslie will ever be a particularly dangerous scorer with his back to the basket.
Leslie brings energy to the offensive glass and many of his NC State highlights come from him slamming down missed shots from his teammates. His 2.2 pace-adjusted offensive rebounds per 40 minutes look well below-average compared to other PFs in this draft, but it's possible that he rebounds better on that end in the NBA. He spent much of his time floating around the perimeter and posted better numbers during his sophomore season. In any case, Leslie uses his length to hunt down loose caroms around the rim. His inconsistent motor rears its head while watching him on the offensive glass. When dialed in, Leslie's length and quick second bounce make him one of the most dangerous threats around the rim in the nation. Unfortunately, Leslie seemed listless when things weren't going his way and wasn't always able or willing to make that impact. He'll need to keep that energy up to produce next to some of the most talented scorers in the league.
Amateur Take - Defense: C.J. Leslie has enormous potential on the defensive end, but ultimately did not excel on that end in college. There is still a lot to like about Leslie here, and it once again starts with his fantastic physical gifts. His tremendous 7'2" wingspan renders him capable of highlight defensive plays: Leslie can both erase a field goal attempt with a block or disrupt the opposing offense by forcing turnovers and playing the passing lanes. His block and steal rate fell between his sophomore and junior years, but he's proven capable of making plays on that end of the floor.
At this point in his career Leslie is more suited to guarding wing players than trying to shut down NBA power forwards. Leslie could use some time in the weight room, as he'll need to grow stronger if he wants to consistently defend the 4 in the NBA. Fortunately, Leslie has shown the potential to be a tough perimeter defender in large part due to his quickness. He measured out with the highest score in the Lane Agility test of all prospects in the 2013 draft and it wasn't much of a surprise after watching him on the court. Leslie moves like a guard; he puts on bursts of speed that allow him to make defensive plays even after being beaten to the rim. His main issue as a perimeter defender is focus. Even with his unrefined defensive fundamentals, Leslie could make a big impact by simply committing to 24 seconds of defense during every possession. It was too easy to remove him from plays by running him through screens in college, and his coaching staff will surely encourage him to battle through contact while playing defense. He is loaded with potential as a perimeter defender but still has plenty of work to do converting some of that potential into production.
Leslie is probably incapable of consistently defending the post right now. He's light and doesn't show a lot of toughness when posted up. He allows scorers to carve out deep post position with little effort, and his length only affords him so much advantage. Still, with work Leslie could become a staunch post-defender. He's long and athletic and can really bother scorers around the rim. He's almost certainly a few years from that becoming a reality, though. Leslie is a very good defensive rebounder, but only if you consider him a small forward (6.8 DRB/40). He ranks towards the back end of power forward prospects in terms of defensive rebounding. He should be able to hold his own on that end on a team with several good rebounders like New York, but he isn't tremendous on the boards.
Random Red Flag: The biggest red flag concerning C.J. Leslie is the possibility of character concerns. Leslie wasn't always the hardest worker in practice, and he often appeared withdrawn following losses or poor personal performances. He responded well to the tough attention of Coach Gottfried, but his attitude and inconsistent motor will be something to watch for through his early years in the NBA.
- Attended Word of God Christian Academy; was teammates with John Wall. Yes, it was all of the dunks.
- Born Calvin Leslie, Jr.
- One of four brothers (Jermaine, Jahmar, and Kevin are the other three).
- His favorite players growing up were Kevin Garnett and Tim Hardaway, because of course.
- After Leslie's poor freshman season at NC State marred by academic absences and team suspension, the Wolfpack hired head coach Mark Gottfried. After a disappointing loss to a weak Georgia Tech team (Glen Rice, Jr. went off for 22 points on 10 shots off the bench), Leslie showed up to practice sullen and wasn't showing much effort. Coach Gottfried threw him out of practice and brought him off the bench for the next game, a blowout NC State win. Gottfried believes that moment helped Leslie mature, and the forward began to trust the tough-love coach who constantly showed support of his young, athletic talent. This story sounds familiar, somehow.
- On January 12th Leslie helped lead NC State past then-undefeated Duke with 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks. In the ensuing chaos as Wolfpack fans rushed the floor, Leslie paused his celebration to pick up a fan who had fallen out of his wheelchair in the crowd. Leslie and the fan continued to celebrate together. Despite frequent questions regarding his character during his college career, teammates and coaches of Leslie continue to say he's a great guy.
C.J. Leslie - NC State - Official Highlights - 2013 NBA Draft (via ACC Digital Network) - Leslie has the talent to do a little bit of everything. He hits jumpers, rebounds, blocks shots, and throws down powerful dunks in this highlight reel. It's just a matter of consistency, and putting that all together at the same time.
Video highlights: C.J. Leslie at 2012 N.C. Pro-Am from The Wolfpacker on Vimeo. - Just highlights from a Pro-Am game last year. Nolan Smith and Ben Hansbrough were there! Not the highest level of competition, but these guys are playing to win and Leslie shows some more of his talents here.
C.J. Leslie Draft Combine Interview (via DraftExpress) - He mentions getting NC State back "on the right track" several times in this interview. His mother was very happy he chose to attend college close to home, and he dreamed of starring for the Wolfpack like David Thompson did years ago.
- Athleticism - Elite quickness and leaping ability
- Drawing fouls
- Runs the floor in transition
- Defensive potential
- Positional versatility
- Lack of true position
- Perimeter shooting
- Left hand
- Post game
- Free throw percentage
Final Thoughts: Despite the concerns about C.J. Leslie's game, I'm more than a bit surprised he went undrafted. Players with his talent and upside are hard to find, and Leslie was one of the more productive players in a power conference even with a questionable motor. Still, there's no guarantee Leslie can stick in the NBA. He'll need to convince a coaching staff that he can play hard every night and produce more like he did during his sophomore year, when the Wolfpack made a surprising run into the Sweet Sixteen.
He's a decent fit on the Knicks. He brings youth and athleticism to a team that didn't have much of that last season, and he's a player who can get the ball moving in transition. The best thing Leslie could do for his own career and for the Knicks is show a strong commitment to the defensive end of the floor. Leslie has the potential to comfortably guard three or even four NBA positions, but he'll need to at least show a willingness to fight through screens and battle for rebounds first. He makes for an interesting forward tandem with Carmelo Anthony. Melo can both shoot from outside and guard either forward slot, which lessens the responsibility on Leslie to play like a typical wing. Ideally, Leslie gives the Knicks a long defender who can take on bigger defensive assignments for Melo and allow Melo to conserve energy on that end of the floor. There are not many athletes on the planet with the combination of agility and size to guard big wings like Rudy Gay or Kevin Durant. Obviously, Leslie can't consistently shut these guys down (nobody can, really), but he's a much better option than many teams have access to. Ideally. And that's what a lot of this signing comes down to. Hope and potential.
I like this signing for the Knicks, even with all of Leslie's concerns. It almost feels like a free draft pick, as he wasn't typically considered a fringe prospect. There is a lot Leslie needs to work on to crack an NBA rotation, but he has as much potential as nearly anyone in the draft. I'm not sure he can produce at a high level right away, but Leslie can run and jump and dunk and steal and block shots and be young. Not too many players on this team can do all of that. You've probably seen a lot of speculation into "the next Kawhi Leonard" when reading about this draft. Leslie is not the next Kawhi Leonard, and that shouldn't be expected of him. Hopefully he can be the first C.J. Leslie, and that player can be damn good very soon. The talent is there. It's up to him and the Knicks' coaching staff to tease it out.