Sorensen: Where Leslie leads, Wolfpack will follow

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comMarch 15, 2013 


N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie, right, reacts with teammate Rodney Purvis after scoring and being fouled in the second half of play.


— C.J. Leslie scored on N.C. State’s second possession, fourth possession and sixth possession. He scored the first three times – basket, basket, free throw – he shot the ball. He scored eight of the Wolfpack’s first 17 points.

Virginia had nobody who could stop him, and he played as if he knew it.

Leslie is, I think, the most talented player in the ACC. He’s not the best. He’s the most talented. There’s a difference.

He also is among the most puzzling. As good as he is, he’s not good all the time.

He underachieved this season only in the context of his great talent. He leads the Wolfpack in scoring, averaging 14.9 points a game. He’s in the ACC’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.

At 6-foot-9 and a lean 200 pounds, Leslie can handle the ball, go to the basket, score with an array of inside moves, hit from the mid range and jump as high as he chooses. Watch him leap for a rebound. He waits above the rim for the ball to come to him.

Leslie can take over a game the way he did Friday at Greensboro Coliseum.

Guard Scott Wood will get the accolades for N.C. State’s too-easy 75-56 ACC basketball tournament quarterfinal victory against Virginia. Wood took 12 shots, all 3-point attempts, and hit seven for a game-high 23 points.

Wood scored 17 of those points in the second half in part because Leslie and forward T.J. Warren hammered the Cavaliers inside in the first half. Virginia adjusted and Wood benefited.

The Wolfpack we saw Friday is the team we anticipated before the season. They harnessed their virtuoso talent and passed beautifully and willingly and unselfishly. They were as entertaining as they were effective.

They have the talent to compete with anybody in the conference – and out of it.

“I knew if I got it going and got the energy started early, my team would follow behind me and we would do a good job of picking each other up,” Leslie says. “On any given night it could be a different person.”

That person will be a starter. N.C. State’s bench is as thin as Leslie. Reserves played 31 minutes against Virginia and accounted for four assists, three rebounds and two points, each of those numbers supplied by point guard Tyler Lewis.

To compensate for the reserves, starters have to star. Richard Howell, the first team all-ACC forward, is a fierce rebounder.

But he can’t do all that Leslie can. Do you remember Leslie during N.C. State’s Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament last season? He averaged 16.5 points and 8.2 rebounds and often was the best player on whatever court he stepped.

He was the media’s preseason pick to be the ACC player of the year. But he’s inconsistent. He’s moody. He sometimes looks disinterested. A bad call, real or imagined, can take him out of his game.

Even though he shot poorly Friday – he was 6-of-17 from the field – he drove his team. To his 17 points he added 11 rebounds, three offensive, and three blocks.

After the game Leslie huddled with Rodney Rodgers, the former Wake Forest star who played 12 NBA seasons for seven teams. Rodgers is paralyzed from the shoulders down, the result of injuries he sustained when his ATV flipped.

What did Rodgers tell you?

“I have to lead my team,” Leslie says.

To go deep into the NCAA tournament, Leslie has no choice.

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