PLAYER: C.J. Leslie
CONTRACT: 1 year, $490,180 (partially guaranteed, fully guaranteed after January 7, 2014)
ACQUISITION DETAILS: Undrafted free agent out of N.C. State, signed by the Knicks to a one-year contract (with a team option for a second year) on July 8.
WHAT TO EXPECT OFFENSIVELY: It is an exceedingly rare thing for a player of C.J. Leslie’s hoops-pedigree to find themselves bypassed in the NBA draft, but that’s exactly what happened last June 27, when the 6’9″, 220 lb. forward slid completely off each and every team’s board. A McDonald’s All-America selection in high school, the Raleigh native was a consensus top-10 prospect when he chose to stay at home and sign with N.C. State, but despite showing flashes of brilliance over his three collegiate seasons, Leslie never achieved the on-court heights many scouts had projected.
Nevertheless, Leslie was intriguing enough to the Knicks that they called him during the second round of the draft — the Knicks had no second round pick last summer — to let him know that they were very interested in signing him if he was not selected by another club. On the surface, Leslie possesses a tantalizing combination of size and athleticism, but those who scouted him in college often raised concerns about his basketball IQ, intermittent focus, inconsistent motor, and the fact that he lacks a true position.
On the offensive end of the floor, Leslie can be a nightmare match-up for the opposition. (In theory.) Too quick for traditional power forwards to guard, too tall for small forwards to contend with, C.J. is a very good ball handler and a truly explosive finisher at the rim. (He averaged 13.7 points-per-game on 49.7% shooting in college.) Unfortunately, however, Leslie never developed a post-up game at N.C. State, so at this point in his nascent professional career, his effectiveness is likely to be limited to getting out in transition or facing up against defenders in half court sets. Making matters worse, he is a poor shooter from the perimeter and the foul line (just 58.9% for his college career), which limits the upside of his ability to get into the lane off the dribble and draw fouls.
Ultimately, Leslie would greatly benefit from consistent minutes in the D-League with the Erie Bayhawks. While there, he can develop his jump shot, add muscle to his undersized frame and prove that the negative chatter surrounding his game is unfounded. Also, New York fans love an underdog, and what better story is there than that of the entitled “future star” who has to battle adversity to achieve that which he previously took for granted.
WHAT TO EXPECT DEFENSIVELY: With a 7’1″ wingspan, Leslie possesses the kind of length that NBA scouts dream about. He averaged 1.4 blocks-per-game as an ACC player and he is a capable and willing rebounder, averaging 7.3 RPG for the Wolfpack. Sadly, however, some of the deficiencies that plague Leslie’s offensive production also carry over to his defense. Labeled as a player with a tendency to check out mentally when things aren’t going his way, Leslie drifts on defense at times, overly eager to deploy his massive reach in swiping at the ball in search of steals and/or leaving his feet too early to try for spectacular blocks. That said, C.J. does have excellent footwork for a player with his height, and his natural propensity to run the floor means that he can get back to stymy the opposition’s fast break opportunities.
As hinted at above, Leslie is awfully slender for his size, making him less than ideal to guard larger power forwards who can bully him on the block. His quickness and length do allow him to frustrate opposing twos and threes, though, so there is a chance that C.J. can carve out a defensive niche for himself in limited minutes if his effort can match his skill set. Everyone knows that coach Mike Woodson loathes rookies, of course, but on a team with limited perimeter defense beyond Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, Leslie would be wise to recognize that his value to the Knicks starts and ends with his defensive contributions.
OPTIMISTIC, YET REASONABLE PROJECTION: Leslie happily accepts his assignment to the D-League and surprises the Knicks by dedicating himself to his craft and his body. He develops a few reliable post moves, works on his perimeter shooting and excels on the defensive end, leading the league in blocks before the Knicks bring him back to New York in late January.