RALEIGH — The answers come easy to C.J. Leslie, maybe too easy. Just like basketball.
Why is he so much better as a sophomore at N.C. State than he was during an uneven, and often disappointing, freshman season?
The talented 6-foot-8 forward from Holly Springs, who leads the first-place Wolfpack (15-5, 4-1 ACC) into the Smith Center tonight for a showdown with No. 7 North Carolina (16-3, 3-1), rattles off a list of reasons - he's older, smarter, stronger and more comfortable with college life.
Yes, all of the above, says teammate Lorenzo Brown, who is one of his good friends, but the main reason Leslie's production is up, and his inconsistencies are down, is because of how he has responded to first-year coach Mark Gottfried.
"Coach doesn't tolerate any attitude," Brown said. "If you have an attitude, you're sitting on the bench. (C.J.) recognizes that and he's more mature this year."
The limits of the player-coach relationship have been tested (see Leslie's benching for the Wake Forest game on Jan. 14) but the results have mostly been positive in an already eventful season for Leslie and the Wolfpack.
For the first time in eight years, N.C. State is off to a 4-1 start in the ACC, after winning five conference games all of last season. Leslie, with his improved game and mindset, has been a major reason for the Wolfpack's success, despite missing three games with an NCAA suspension for taking improper benefits and parts of four others with dehydration issues.
"Through it all, it has been a great season," Leslie said. "And I think it's going to get better."
By his own admission, Leslie is more engaged and focused as a sophomore. During his freshman season in 2010-11, he had a tendency to disappear for stretches, sometimes within a single game and sometimes longer.
He clashed with former coach Sidney Lowe, resulting in a one-game suspension early last February, and often bristled at the idea of coming off the bench. Despite the inconsistencies - he had four ACC games with five points or less and four games with 18 or more - Leslie finished second on the team in scoring (11.0 points per game) and first in rebounding (7.2 per game).
His innate talent - he has superior quickness and a 37.5-inch vertical leap - was never in question, rather his ability to harness it on a consistent basis.
"He does present you problems," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "Six-(eight), long arms, athletic, block shots, put it on the floor, take it to the basket, can dunk the ball in a crowd, big-time offensive rebounder. He's really an effective, effective player for them.
"He has another level that I'm sure Mark would like to get him to, that he shows flashes of. He's showing it a lot more consistently now than he has in the past."
Last season is not Leslie's favorite topic. As a high school junior, he had played at Raleigh's Word of God, paired with current NBA star John Wall. As a senior, he was a McDonald's All-American.
The expectations were for Leslie, along with classmates Ryan Harrow and Brown, to save Lowe's job and end an NCAA drought that started in 2006. After a 15-16 season, Lowe resigned in March and was replaced by Gottfried. Harrow transferred to Kentucky, but Brown and Leslie stayed and are playing up to their high school hype.
"It wasn't the easiest road but you know I think you can learn from it," Leslie said. "You can't change the past, so I'm trying to take those things and turn them into a positive."
Gottfried uses pyramid
Gottfried spent eight seasons as an assistant at UCLA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He has adopted the late coach John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" and "12 lessons in leadership" for the Wolfpack. The pyramid is painted on the wall facing N.C. State's locker room on the first floor of the on-campus practice facility. It's accompanied by the following quote from Wooden:
"Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable."
"Peace of mind" is the key phrasing with Leslie. Gottfried, and assistant Orlando Early in particular, have connected with Leslie. Instead of barking at him, they've worked to help him get better, an approach Leslie appreciates.
"They wanted to understand my thought process and have tried to figure out why I do things I do," Leslie said.
Early, who has been part mentor, sounding board and babysitter to Leslie, has been impressed with his work ethic and attitude.
"C.J. was a guy who had a reputation prior to us getting here," Early said. "He has proved a lot of people wrong, in my eyes. He plays hard, he competes hard and he has done everything we've asked."
Leslie's willingness to work hard was evident in the waning moments of an 82-71 loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 11. Instead of sitting at the end of the bench and sulking as the clock ran out (think N.C. State's 87-48 loss at Wisconsin last season), he and the starters were defending, diving on the floor and fouling up to the last seconds, trying to avoid the loss.
"We knew we were going to lose that game in the last 2 minutes but I wanted to make a statement about the next game," Leslie said. "And we came out the next game and had a great game."
The next game was N.C. State's 76-40 win at Wake Forest. Leslie watched the first 5 minutes from the bench because he had been thrown out of practice by Gottfried the day before.
Gottfried said after the Wake Forest game, in which Leslie was held scoreless in 17 minutes before injuring his left ankle, he expected him to bounce back. Leslie didn't disappoint, with a steal on the first play against Boston College, a 76-62 win on Jan. 19. He had 14 points.
Leslie's second half against Boston College was cut short by his reoccurring cramping issues. He went to the locker room for an IV fluid treatment. He also missed parts of the second half of losses to Vanderbilt, Stanford and Syracuse, with the same dehydration problems.
Gottfried, who calls him by his given name, Calvin has been frustrated by the intermittent absences because he is so valuable to the team. He's sometimes frustrated by Leslie, who's still prone to the occasional errant pass and taking shots too early in the shot clock.
But Gottfried has been effusive in his praise of Leslie and compares their give-and-take relationship to a marriage.
"I've really enjoyed getting to know him," Gottfried said. "Some days are challenging, but it's like I told him, I fight with my wife, we fight, but then you make up and you get on with life."
Leslie has done just that, moved on after a difficult first season and for the better. He plans to continue do so for the Wolfpack.
"With time you should be getting better," Leslie said. "If you're not getting better with time, then it's time to give it up. I want to make sure I go as far as I can go with it."