N.C. State vs. Kansas 10:17 p.m. (TBS)

For N.C. State's Leslie, embracing a bigger role has led to breakout performances

Sophomore credits new coach with sticking with him.

jgiglio@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2012 

N.C. State's Jaqawn Raymond, left, celebrates with C.J. Leslie after Raymond dunked the ball during the Wolfpacks's open practice in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Thursday, March 22, 2012. The Wolfpack will face Kansas in the in a Midwest Regional semifinal game Friday night.

ETHAN HYMAN — ETHAN HYMAN - ehyman@newsobserver.com

— The only thing bigger than the hug C.J. Leslie gave N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow after the NCAA tournament win Sunday against Georgetown was Leslie’s smile.

The unbridled enthusiasm was written all over Leslie’s face as the sophomore forward and Yow celebrated the Wolfpack’s return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years.

The moment Yow remembers from Columbus, Ohio, though, was the conversation they had hours after the game inside an elevator at the hotel.

“The first thing he told me about was his economics test,” Yow said. “Here he is at the height of his acclaim as an athlete, and we weren’t talking about wins or the points he scored, but his Econ class.

“I think that says it all about the maturity he has shown this season and where his mind is.”

No one has played a bigger role in N.C. State’s success than Leslie, the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Holly Springs. In five postseason games, he has averaged 16.2 points and 9.0 rebounds. Tonight, he will face perhaps the biggest challenge of the season, and maybe his college career, against second-seeded Kansas and All-American power forward Thomas Robinson in the Midwest Regional semifinals (10:17 p.m. TBS).

Leslie has run through a gauntlet of big men from North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia, Duke and Georgetown the past two months, a 15-game stretch during which teammate Alex Johnson said Leslie was “playing out of his mind.”

The better Leslie plays, the deeper the 11th-seeded Wolfpack goes in the NCAA tournament. And the better he plays, the higher his NBA draft stock goes.

“That’s good,” Leslie said this week of the attention from NBA scouts and the national media. “But right now, I just want to be worried about being a better teammate and taking this team as far as I can take them.”

No smooth ride

Leslie has crammed a lot into his 63-game college career. He was suspended by the NCAA for three games at the beginning of this season for accepting improper benefits from a former N.C. State football player. He has missed parts of four other games with dehydration issues and has played the past eight games with a dislocated right shoulder.

During an uneven freshman season, he was suspended one game for clashing with former coach Sidney Lowe.

Leslie covered the spectrum of his feelings toward first-year coach Mark Gottfried, who has helped “Calvin,” as the coach calls him, become the best possible version of himself.

After the ACC tournament win against Virginia on March 9, Leslie sat at the postgame news conference next to Gottfried and praised his coach for 36 seconds.

“First off, I want to say that coach Gottfried has done an amazing job with me; just keeping me in the game and telling me I can do it and sticking with me through the adversity and all the tough times that I’ve had,” Leslie said.

“He’s done good to make sure my head is in the right place at game time. I can’t say that I did it on my own. He has done great with that. For that I’ve just basically patted him on the back. He has put myself and our team in a great position.”

His eye contact with reporters is up and mumbled answers are down this season, but a week after the impromptu speech, Leslie didn’t quite understand why it was a big deal.

“I just said what was in my heart,” he said.

Gottfried, who has worked hard to build Leslie’s confidence and maturity, was moved by the comments.

“I’m excited about where he is with his game right now, and I see so much more room to grow still, but that was kind of him,” Gottfried said.

Leslie’s game has taken off since a humbling loss at North Carolina on Jan. 26. Against forward John Henson, Leslie had three shots blocked and finished 3-for-12 from the floor and had nine points.

Leslie was trying to score with traditional back-to-the-basket moves against a taller Henson, who blocked 18 shots during the first three games against Leslie, instead of using his quickness and 37.5-inch vertical leap.

It was the kind of “ah ha” moment the Wolfpack coaches seized upon to get Leslie’s attention.

“I think more than being humbled or disappointed, I think it was more, ‘This is how you can be successful, Calvin,’ ” assistant coach Orlando Early said. “And with anybody, once you see a little success, you start to work harder at it and get better. That’s what happened.”

The light goes on

In the rematch in Raleigh on Feb. 21, Leslie pulled Henson away from the basket and used his quickness to drive around him. The different approach resulted in a career-high 24 points.

The third time Leslie faced the Tar Heels, in the ACC tournament semifinals, he used the same face-up strategy to score 22 points in 29 minutes before fouling out with eight minutes left, a 69-67 Wolfpack loss.

“He could have easily had 30,” said Henson, who missed the ACC tournament game with a sprained left wrist. “He’s a tough person to guard when he’s on, and he has been on.”

Henson isn’t the only one to notice. Leslie put the NBA on hold last spring, a move that paid off, but he hasn’t said whether he’ll be back for a junior season.

Johnson, who is Leslie’s roommate on the road and one of his closest friends on the team, said he doesn’t talk with Leslie about the future

“I’m sure he sees it, but right now it’s not about him going to the NBA,” Johnson said. “He truly wants to win. If he keeps playing the way he is, everything will work itself out.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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