Last time we checked in on C.J. Leslie
, he was in the middle of an up-and-down freshman campaign under Sidney Lowe
that ended with North Carolina State finishing below below-.500 for the third time in 15 years. Opting to stay in school despite Lowe's resignation, Leslie has had a much more efficient season for the Wolfpack for first-year Head Coach Mark Gottfried.
One of the most gifted athletes at the power forward position in the college game, the questions surrounding Leslie's NBA potential remain largely unchanged, despite the fact that he's been significantly more productive in a number of areas as a sophomore.
As we noted in our last report, Leslie's biggest strength as a prospect is his impressive blend of length, quickness, and explosiveness. He gets up the floor as well as any player his size in the country and while he lacks significant strength, he has the quick second jump to be an effective rebounder on both ends of the floor and when dialed in can make a major impact defensively.
Despite his merits as an athlete, his ability to consistently make the most of those assets is inconsistent at best at this juncture and is the most significant limiting factor on his impact in the college game and upside as a pro.
The young forward may still struggle at times with his approach to the game, but he has shown improvement in some areas. Getting most of his looks in simple catch-and-finish situations last season, or in transition, where he truly excels, Leslie has become a more prominent fixture in North Carolina State's offense, seeing significantly more opportunities to create his shot in one-on-one situations than he did as a freshman, both on the perimeter and in the low post.
Lacking significant polish on the block, Leslie relies on his ability to face-up and beat his defender to the basket in close quarters. He has little trouble finding his way to the rim or getting his shot off when he uses a simple drop-step, but doesn't always have the fundamentals, footwork, counter-moves, and aptitude for using fakes to regularly capitalize on the looks he does create for himself.
Often making a move and elevating off-balance as soon as he sees daylight, Leslie still manages to score 43.9% of his shot attempts in the post according to Synergy Sports Technology, a near 11% improvement from last season and a testament to just how valuable his athleticism is at the high-major level.
Leslie's propensity to take tough shots around the basket limits his efficiency to some degree, but his athleticism makes him a more than capable finisher around the rim, especially when he's getting the ball with a running start in transition or pulling down an offensive rebound for a put-back. On the whole, Leslie is most efficient when his teammates are creating shots for him, even if he has shown some budding skills in the post.
Away from the rim, Leslie is still in the early stages of his development out on the perimeter. His ball-handling ability remains unpolished, even if he uses straight line drives effectively when he faces up down low, thanks to his tremendous first step. Mostly guarded by power forwards at the NCAA level, Leslie doesn't need to make too many fancy moves to simply blow by his defender from the high post in isolation situations, which is a significant part of N.C. State's half-court attack.
To make the full conversion to playing on the perimeter, and to be able to begin his moves outside the 3-point line rather than at the elbow, Leslie will need to continue to shore up his ball-handling skills and decision making ability, which could have a huge impact on his effectiveness in the half-court.
As a jump shooter, Leslie hasn't made much progress, but he's been significantly more discerning with his shot selection. While he's still making less than 30% of his jumpers, he's not forcing the issue as frequently as he did last season and has shown marked improvement at the foul line, even if he is still only shooting 62% from the charity stripe. Only having made three 3-pointers on the season through 29 games, Leslie obviously still has a ways to go before he can be asked to play out on the perimeter full time.
Playing more like a power forward that he did last season, Leslie has found a way to be more productive and efficient despite his lack of polish, something he did not manage to do last season. If he's going to be successful at the next level, he'd be well served to show a more consistent motor running the floor, be more aggressive crashing the glass, or look to refine his face up game significantly, as questions remain about where he fits offensively.
Possessing all the physical tools necessary to be successful on that end of the floor, Leslie would benefit from playing a role that would allow him to capitalize on his athleticism in transition while affording him a chance to develop a comfort level as a face-up scorer from the midrange.
Defensively, Leslie is limited to some degree by his lack of bulk, but is mostly inhibited by his inconsistent motor. By no means is he an incapable defender, as he's been terrific for stretches, using his length to block shots at the rim and his quickness to deny dribble penetration, but he has not consistently competed with an intensity that let him get the most out of his abilities.
Taking possessions off, not always looking to rebound his area, and not contesting his match-up's short-range shots at all on occasion, the sophomore does not make the most of his tremendous length and quickness off the floor. If the light bulb does come on, his upside on this end of the floor is significant, but that still hasn't happened up until this point in his career.
Moving forward, it will be Leslie's work ethic and approach to the game that dictates how the early part of his career unfolds. With North Carolina State firmly on the bubble after four straight losses, Leslie's ability to get his team into the tournament and his play in March will be significant, as he's had some strong outings for the Wolfpack in recent weeks even if his team has not been winning games.
A potential early entrant, Leslie's draft stock is bound to his upside, and in the right situation with the right group of teammates and coaches at the next level, he could really make a team happy considering where he's likely to be picked. At just 20 years old, Leslie clearly has some maturation and a long career ahead of him, and considering his strengths and weaknesses, is an intriguing a boom or bust prospect to consider in the 20-40 range.