Meyers Leonard has exploded onto the scene as an athletic center with unlimited potential. The Illinois coaching staff saw his ability early and secured his commitment before the national powers could get hold of him. He has never wavered since.
Leonard has waited a long time for signing day.
"Oh yeah. I committed rather early in the recruiting process. Of course, I wasn't noticed when I was in junior high like some kids today. They are committing earlier than I did. But it's been a long wait I'd say. The signing day has been on my mind ever since I committed."
Even then, he must wait one more year before he can don the Illinois uniform and begin his college career. It will come eventually, but patience is required.
"I'll sign, but I'll still be practicing basketball (for high school). Then the games will start. When school is over, I'll have a couple weeks off and then I'll finally be there. So it'll be a long wait even after I sign."
"Yeah, it's gonna be good. We want to bring it back to a national championship level. They have all the key components. Even this year, I think they'll surprise a lot of people. Not really surprise because everybody knows they have talent. But it's just gonna be when they put it all together. Coach Weber talks about guys playing their roles. If they do that, they can have a pretty good team."
Leonard is a growing seven footer with leaping ability, fluid movement and a desire to work the weights to add strength and bulk. He can handle the ball, enjoys hitting the open man, and can shoot both inside and out. He is a state dunk champ who may eventually play some power forward due to his ability to defend out on the court.
His development has been hampered in the last month by a minor knee problem.
"The thing that was actually bothering me was a bone contusion. It was just a bruise, but it wouldn't allow my knee to function the way it normally would. I also had a strain in my Popliteal muscle, a little muscle in the backside of the knee, due to hyperextension. I think I have cysts in both knees, so they don't think that's really a factor in the pain I have. So they'll just leave it."
Eager to return to action, he may have pushed himself too quickly.
"Well you see, it was getting a lot better. I was told to wait a couple weeks. I waited a couple weeks, and then I started doing some conditioning, some bounding drills for my vertical, running the mile and stuff like that.
"This weekend, I came back (to Illinois) and talked to the trainer because it was really sore again. Also this weekend my other knee started hurting, I guess because I favored it. Now they tell me I have to take another week off before practice starts so I can get both knees healthy."
With rest, Leonard should be fine. His high school team plays 1A competition, and opponents surround the big man to neutralize his skill. He doesn't score as much as some might prefer, but he enjoys setting up his teammates. That teamwork should help Robinson do well this winter.
"I think we'll be really solid. We've got our three top scorers back from last year. We've got four solid seniors, actually we have six solid seniors. One will come off the bench. And then we've got a real good freshman class. They may not be able to do a lot, but they'll certainly help. We have good chemistry, so if we can handle the ball, we should make it to state."
In order to increase the competition level and showcase his skill for the national talent evaluators, Leonard joined the Mac Irvin Fire AAU team for games last spring and summer. He had to travel long hours by train to join the team for its flights to various venues, but it was worth it despite issues with team chemistry and a playing style that favored individual play over teamwork.
"It was great. Playing with the Fire is always a wild experience. We pretty much had all D-1 guys, so it's hard to get everybody shots and keep everybody happy. Bringing guys in that haven't been together, which for a summer may seem easy but isn't.
"We got better as things went along, but it was hard getting used to some of those guys. But we jelled together definitely, and I really enjoyed playing with them. I'd say I got a lot more of the spotlight with this team since it's a major Nike team. I went to the LeBron (James), Amare (Stoudamire) and Top 100 Camps. It was a real good experience overall."
However, the team did not win tournaments. Besides the lack of chemistry and teamwork, it was impossible to know who would show up for any given event. Meyers admits that made it tough for team players.
"Yeah, it did. It's hard to get everybody shots, and everybody was showing what they could do on the floor. I still had the camps to showcase my skills, which I did. Otherwise, I had already committed, so I was pretty much trying to get better with Jereme, Crandall and then Tracy (Abrams, 2011 commitment) at the end."
Despite all the travel, Leonard found plenty of time to work on his still-developing body and his game.
"This summer, it was just working on my all-around game, working on my post moves and boards. I was working in the weight room especially. I've put on some more weight. I'm about up to 230 now. I'm benching 225. I'm trying to become a better player with rebounding, defense and all that stuff."
It is easy to imagine big things in the Illini's future when adding the three 2010 players to the present freshman class of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand. Leonard knows them all and is looking forward to working with them.
"I've actually played with them a lot. I played with Brandon Paul a lot two summers ago. D.J. is a real nice guy. After I committed, I came down for that big practice and D.J. was really nice.
"Tyler played for the AAU team in St. Louis, so I kind of knew him. And then Joseph I knew a little bit from the dunk contest. So I know those guys pretty well already. They're all really nice guys, and they're fun to be around."
Leonard and his future Illini mates have cared enough to communicate with uncommitted prospects interested in Illinois. For instance, Leonard texts with star St. Louis guard Brad Beal. He says Beal hasn't given away where he's leaning, but he's hoping for the best.
He has also befriended a couple of 2013 supers in Tommy Hamilton, Jr. from Chicago Whitney Young and Jabari Parker from Chicago Simeon. Leonard shared his thoughts on the 6'-8" Hamilton.
"He's fun to be around. First off, he's a great basketball player. Off the court, he's a real down-to-earth guy. He doesn't let all this stuff get to his head. Hopefully, we can get him early. I'm working on him too.
"He and Jabari, I talk to Jabari all the time. They feel like this is the best place for them. They'll probably wait just a little longer."
If Leonard has anything to say about it, the future of Illini basketball will be bright indeed.