Illinois junior commitment Meyers Leonard is playing with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU basketball team this spring. Based in Chicago, that team is loaded with top prospects including several on the Illini's radar. He is enjoying the opportunity.
"It's overall a good experience, just playing with this level of talented guys. Playing against top competition all the time makes me better."
Of course, he must also share the rock with players who want to showcase their skills. Meyers realizes he must wait his turn in the limelight.
"It's neat playing at that top level. It's like playing for an All-Star team. I'm not gonna get a lot of touches. So what you've got to do is get a lot of rebounds and block a lot of shots, run the floor more than I ever have. I've had a few plays on fast breaks and stuff."
Leonard is a valuable member of the Fire team, but he didn't play much last weekend in Fort Wayne.
"This weekend, I wasn't fully in shape because I hurt my knee last week. I wasn't able to do everything. But I ran today and worked out yesterday."
Even when he isn't playing, he's watching some outstanding performers, including future Illini teammates Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head.
"They're awesome. I like to be around them. Jereme is unbelieveable. I think he'll be playing in the NBA when it's all said and done. He's got the full package. Crandall is the same way. He's an amazing athlete and has all the talent. He's got the same chances Jereme does."
Head hasn't played the last two weekends, but he is expected to join the team this upcoming weekend.
"Two weekends ago, he was in Miami watching his brother in the playoffs. And then last weekend he had prom, so he wasn't there either. I'm pretty sure we'll see him in Minnesota hopefully."
Meyers is talking up the Illini to at least one of his uncommitted teammates, power forward Mike Shaw.
"That's right, trying to get him on board. We play good together."
Leonard has enhanced his reputation through AAU ball in ways impossible playing in a small southern Illinois community like Robinson.
"It makes me feel good because I've worked hard for it. They told me I can be a Top 25 player. Basically, I've just got to be more consistent with my game. I guess you could say I have Top 25 talent, but it still remains to be seen if I'll be a Top 25 player."
The down side to all these extra games is the travel, especially for someone who lives so far from his teammates.
"Travel is tiring. When I went up to Fort Wayne, I had to ride a train for 5 hours, and then I had to drive over to the tournament with them, which was another 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours. It's a lot of travel to get up there since I live way down in southern Illinois and have to go all the way up to Chicago."
Since school is in session, he must obtain the cooperation of his teachers and keep up with his school work.
"Normally, I get all my assignments for school and get all of them done by Wednesday or Thursday. I will then ride up on Friday."
Next weekend is an even longer trip for Meyers.
"We're gonna be in Minnesota this weekend. From Chicago, I think the team's riding a coach up there. I don't remember what you call it, but it's like a small bus."
Leonard was 6'-10" last summer, but he is still growing.
"When I'm playing in shoes, I'm 7'-0" now. And I have put on weight. I'm up to 215-220. I work out with weights alot. Yesterday, I did all my reps, then put up a lot of shots, and then ran around the track."
With all the hard work, he is sure to develop rapidly. He knows his body will eventually be much stronger than it is now.
"I don't think my body is fully matured yet. Once that happens, I'm sure I'll put on a lot more weight. Especially with all the weight lifting and eating programs I'll be on."
But all the growing takes a toll on his body.
"I think I'm having more tendonitis now that I'm growing more. I've always just had tendonitis because I'm so tall. You've just got to ignore it and keep playing."
Meyers has a full summer schedule. Besides the AAU season in May and again in July, he will also be attending some team and individual camps.
"Robinson plays in the Assembly Hall the first Sunday in June. I know that I'm going to the NBA Top 100 Camp, June 17-21. And I know I'm going to the Mountie Big Man Camp. After that, I'm going to the LeBron Camp July 4th to 8th I think. Most definitely, I will be busy this summer."
Competing on the AAU basketball circuit can give high school players a chance to show off their skills on a national stage. Reputations are made and scholarships offered for those who excel. But the travel can be tiring, especially if you are Meyers Leonard and live a long way from your teammates.