Somehow, C.J. Leslie got lost in the conversation about NC State basketball.
Leslie seems to only draw attention on two occasions – when he’s playing like the best player in the league and when he becomes the scapegoat for a poor Wolfpack performance. But up until Saturday afternoon, when Leslie dominated St. Bonaventures to the tune of 33 points, Leslie’s consistent solid play had gotten lost in the conversation.
Since the loss to Michigan, where Leslie had a double-double but shot under 50 percent from the field and had six turnovers, the junior forward has been quietly putting together a string of efficient offensive performances. You can easily see the difference in his game after the Michigan loss, where he’s shooting better and getting to the line substantially more.
Those last five games are the sort of lines that Leslie should be putting up night in and night out. But because of the emergence of Richard Howell and some hot shooting recently by Scott Wood, Leslie’s improvement didn’t get noticed. Of course, all that changed on Saturday when his 33 points on 10-of-13 shooting reminded everyone that yes, Leslie is still one of the top players in the ACC and still a legitimate contender for Player of the Year.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Leslie said. “We have some very important games coming up and it’s starting to get more serious. I’m not saying I wasn’t serious earlier but it’s time to buckle down and really get to playing.”
That aggression is obvious when looking at his free throw attempts. Over the first six games of the season Leslie was averaging less than four free-throw attempts a game – since Michigan he’s yet to go to the line less than five times in a game and has double-digit attempts in two games. He’s attacking the basket, getting better shots and getting rewarded with trips to the charity stripe. He’s also improving his free-throw shooting, hitting above 70 percent in the Pack’s last two contests.
“Calvin was tough to guard today,” Mark Gottfried said after the game Saturday. “I thought he attacked the rim and was aggressive... he either scored or got fouled. I thought he was really good today."
“Anytime [Leslie] comes out like that, I don't know if there is anybody that can stop him," Wood added after the game.
The difference on Saturday for Leslie might have just been a matter of need, as Howell simply could not stay on the court – fouling out with no points in just 12 minutes of play one game after setting a career high with 39 minutes against Stanford. With Howell out of the game the interior scoring load fell on Leslie, who was happy to pick up the slack.
“That's one of the big parts of being a veteran, doing what you need to do and stepping up when you need to step up," Leslie said.
The Pack has two games left, at home against two of the easiest opponents on its schedule, before kicking off ACC play with a trip to Boston College. When a reporter asked if the team was ready to start ACC play, the junior’s answer was quick and clear.
“I tell you, I am,” Leslie said. “I’m ready for the ACC.”
The rest of the ACC? They might not be ready for him.