N.C. State vs. Temple 1:40 p.m., TBS

NC State’s C.J. Leslie rolls with criticism

jgiglio@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2013 

— Go ahead and take your best shot at C.J. Leslie.

Find a message board thread to vent about the N.C. State forward’s inconsistencies or cut out the middle man and hammer him on Twitter. After three years, Leslie is not only used to the criticism, he’s actually kind of OK with it.

“You have to take the good along with the bad,” Leslie said Thursday. “I’m well aware of that. I think I do a great job of taking that (criticism).”

On the day before N.C. State’s NCAA tournament game with Temple, Leslie offered up one of his most honest interviews. That he did so while sitting on the floor of the locker room – and fiddling with his iPhone – tucked in a corner behind a 5-foot white board, is also revealing of Leslie’s personality.

He hid from the television cameras on Thursday but not from any of the questions about his junior season.

Leslie is looking for more honest and enjoyable moments in the NCAA tournament, one like his celebration from the bench when senior walk-on Jay Lewis made a 3-pointer at the end of the Wolfpack’s home win over Wake Forest on March 6.

One like the roar he let out after a second-half basket in the Wolfpack’s ACC tournament win over Virginia last Friday. The scream and double-clenched-fist release of emotion was a raw moment, and a rare one of unadulterated joy for Leslie this season.

He wants more of those in Dayton.

“I’m just going to be me,” Leslie said. “I need to get back to more of that and not just relaxing and trying to let everybody find their way. I have to just go for it.”

Leslie led the Wolfpack in scoring, which at 14.9 points per game was a slight increase from last season. He added 7.4 rebounds per game, also a slight increase from last season.

His turnovers were up, 102 compared to 79 last season, and his blocks were down, 41 from 54 last season.

All good enough for spot on the third-team All-ACC, but more was expected from the coaches’ and media’s pick for the conference’s preseason player of the year.

There were games when Leslie was really good – he scored 25 points in the home win over Duke in January, set a new career-best with 33 in a home win over St. Bonaventure in December and had 19 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and four assists in a home win over Wake Forest in March.

And there were games Leslie wasn’t good – the 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico in November, the six-turnover disaster in a loss at North Carolina in February, the mindless technical foul in a loss at Florida State in March.

If any one player took the majority of the blame for N.C. State’s 11-7 fifth-place finish in the ACC this season, it was Leslie, and unfairly so, teammate Lorenzo Brown said.

“That’s what happens to star players,” Brown said. “But he has taken it better than anybody. He’s only in college and he’s getting bashed more than anybody.”

Second-year coach Mark Gottfried was lauded for how he handled Leslie last season. Expectations followed Leslie, a McDonald’s All-American from Holly Springs, from high school to N.C. State. After an inconsistent freshman season under Sidney Lowe in 2010-11, Leslie developed into one of the best post scorers in college basketball under Gottfried.

Like N.C. State, Leslie – or “Calvin,” as Gottfried still calls him – wasn’t able to build on the momentum from last year’s finish or live up to the preseason expectations. Gottfried, who has spent a good deal of time this week trying to squash comparisons to last year, said Leslie has had to handle an inordinate amount of scrutiny.

“He’s watched so closely at times and he is picked apart at times,” Gottfried said Thursday. “Other players can afford to have ups and downs and he really can’t. When he has a down, we all notice it, even me, because my expectation for him is really high.”

For the most part, Gottfried has used positive reinforcement with Leslie but after the 76-65 loss at UNC on Feb. 23, Gottfried challenged Leslie publicly.

“I love him as much as anybody but when you’re a good player, then you have to play better,” Gottfried said after the UNC loss.

Brown said Leslie has worked harder in practice and been more focused in games since the UNC loss and subsequent challenge from Gottfried.

“He has changed his attitude,” Brown said.

Leslie didn’t take Gottfried’s comments as a challenge, but as an obvious reaction to what he called a bad game, which included six first-half turnovers and only six points and four rebounds in 30 minutes.

“I think everybody knows that,” Leslie said. “In order for us to be great, I have to be aggressive on both ends of the floor.”

With the exception of the Florida State loss, when he got a first-half technical and scored only five points in 18 minutes, Leslie has been aggressive, especially on defense, in the seven games since the UNC loss.

Sixty percent of his blocks (14 of 23) and 47 percent (8 of 17) of his steals have come in the six of the seven games since the UNC loss.

Even in good times, Leslie can be elusive and aloof with the media. He didn’t have much to say on the podium on Thursday in Dayton, or last week in Greensboro, but he was forthcoming from his spot on the floor in the dingy Dayton Arena locker room.

While Leslie finished answering questions, one of his teammates playfully pushed the white board toward him.

He pushed back and gave a quick laugh. Then he collected his thoughts and gave what was the last answer in a four-minute interview, which is an eternity by open-locker room standards during the NCAA tournament.

“I just have to come out and be the person and the player that I am and be very aggressive,” Leslie said. “If I do that, I know that at the end of the game our team will be in it.”

And just like that, Leslie was done. He got up from the corner and headed out to the arena floor for practice.

Only Leslie knows what he will do next.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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