LAST SPRING, AS THE CALENDAR TURNED FROM MARCH TO APRIL, A PAIR OF QUESTIONS gripped Wolfpack Nation. Who would be N.C. State's next head coach, and would he have C.J. Leslie on his roster? The second answer depended on the first. Leslie, a heralded recruit out of Raleigh's Word of God Christian Academy, had broken out during his first year with the Wolfpack, averaging 11 points and 7.2 rebounds en route to ACC All-Freshman Team honors. But Leslie was frustrated by the means to those ends: coach Sidney Lowe's plodding attack, and having to spend too much time in the paint when the forward had expected to play an inside-out game. So before Leslie decided whether to return to N.C. State—or instead to try his fortunes in the NBA draft, where he was projected as a late-first to early second-round pick—he wanted to know what its new leader would have in mind.
Enter Mark Gottfried. Soon after he was tabbed to coach the team, Leslie's concerns began to dissipate. Though the two never directly discussed the draft, Leslie grew more encouraged with each conversation with the new coach. Not only was Gottfried a nice guy, but he also had the same visions of the team's playing style and Leslie's role in it. Gottfried said he wanted Leslie playing inside-out, as the similarly built Lakers forward Lamar Odom did at Rhode Island. The comparison stuck with Leslie, who was convinced that his second season with the Wolfpack could be even better than the first. When the NBA finalized its early entry list for the draft in late April, Leslie was not on it.
The forward had initially committed to his hometown team after his freshman year of high school but reopened his recruitment two years later when he felt he had decided too hastily. The sport's marquee names quickly came calling, with Leslie making trips to Chapel Hill, Storrs and Lexington. But after a year of the courting process, Leslie decided nothing compared to playing at home and having his collegiate career unfold live in front of his friends and family.
Of course nothing would be official until Leslie inked his name on a letter of intent. In May 2010 he and his family showed up at Sammy's Tap & Grill, a popular local sports bar, to do so. He was overwhelmed by applause, high-fiving a throng of fans on his way to a table adorned with Wolfpack banners. "We cherish that moment," Leslie says. "We took all the pictures we could."
Come spring 2012, there will undoubtedly be another round of speculation about Leslie's pro prospects. But in the meantime he is preparing for another year in Raleigh, working on his catch-and-shoot game. Helpful too will be more consistency from Leslie, who during one stretch last season scored a total of three points in two games, 100 over the next six and then a combined 10 in the following two. The coach will need not only to help his talented combo forward improve his outside shooting (Leslie shot 25% on threes last year) but also to help him develop a more well-rounded game. "All the kids want to score," Gottfried says, "but C.J. Leslie could be one of the best defenders and rebounders in the nation if that's where he concentrates his energy."
Will the improvements help N.C. State return to the tournament? If Gottfried and Leslie's plan works, Wolfpack Nation will be happy with the answer.