C.J. Leslie: One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Upside (Or Something Like That)

Going into last Thursday, many expected C.J. Leslie to be among the select few to hear their name called on draft night. The wiry combo forward’s basketball skill was still deemed raw by NBA scouts after a disappointing year for NC State, but Leslie’s physical tools were impossible to ignore. Besides, after supposedly receiving a promise from a team in the second round, he seemed a lock to be chosen. Either way, when Latvia’s Janis Timma came off the board to the Memphis Grizzlies with the 60th and final pick to conclude the event, Leslie found himself as a man without a team; probably near a silent phone and pondering life as an undrafted rookie in the NBA.

Prior to draft night, the Knicks, who selected Michigan shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. with the 24th pick, were reportedly looking into making a deal for a second round pick. In a draft where talents such as Jeff Withey, Nate Wolters, and Tony Mitchell slid out of the first round, a second rounder would have been percious, but GM Glen Grunwald couldn’t get anyone to bite. Still in need of help at the forward position, Grunwald extended his hand to Leslie, signing him to the team and adding him to this year’s Summer League roster.

At 6-9, 209 pounds, the first thing you notice about Leslie is his athleticism. His 7′ 2.25″ wingspan is an awesome tool, and in combination with his explosive leaping ability, recorded a 12′ 1″ max reach vertical; the highest of any participant in 2013 Pre-Draft Combine. To put that in perspective, he can essentially reach the space in-between the white rectangle behind the rim and the top of the backboard. He’s also remarkably fast, as he completed the Combine agility drill in 10.19 seconds, also the best of the event. He even finished second in the three-quarter sprint with a time of 3.10 seconds, just behind Shane Larkin’s 3.08 seconds.

These gifts translate as well as you could imagine to the court, as Leslie was regarded as a highlight machine during his time with the Wolfpack. A unique mix of length, explosiveness and quickness, Leslie is at his best in transition or facing up his defender in the post. His leaping ability and soft hands make him a prime target for lobs on the break, and he’s also a superb finisher in traffic who does well in getting to the line, averaging 6.6 free throw attempts per game in 2012-13.  Although his back-to-the-basket game is still underdeveloped, when Leslie turns and faces his defender, he can get to the rim with his quick first step, causing match-up problems for bigger forwards. Leslie is also an active rebounder, averaging 7.4 his Junior year, and like our own Carmelo Anthony, has a knack for putting back his own misses.

Yet the farther he gets from the basket, the less of a threat Leslie becomes. His jumper is very inconsistent, and defenses at the next level will be able to sag off and prepare for his drives. The Knicks are at their best when the threes are falling, and Leslie’s presence will do very little to help spacing unless his shot improves.

Despite his exceptional physical attributes, Leslie is an average defender. He has the length to bother shots, and his leaping ability aided him as a shot-blocker (1.4 BPG career average at NC State), but his motor on that side of the ball has often come into question. Too many times you notice him not hustling to close out on a shooter, or fighting to get over a screen. While he floated between the 3 and 4 positions at NC State, his immediate future in the NBA lies at the small forward, as his weight will make him too much of a liability on defense in the post.

Ultimately, Leslie is exactly what he sounds like: a classic “low-risk/high-reward” type of player. Had he been taken in the first round, I could understand the reservations that some are displaying toward his addition to the team, but considering the fact that he was initially expected to be drafted in the early second round, to pick him up as a free agent may be a sneakily good acquisition if he can continue to develop under New York’s coaching staff.

Leslie provides everything that the Knicks lacked last season: youth, athleticism, and rebounding. At his worst, he can be cut before the start of next season, no harm no foul. At his ceiling, if Leslie can improve his perimeter shooting, and consistently give max effort on the defensive side of the ball, we could be looking at another one of Grunwald’s signature moves, like a Chris Copeland or Pablo Prigioni; players who were added on the cheap who found ways to positively impact the team. For now, I expect him to be an athletic wing that will contribute on the glass and provide insurance to a shallow forward position for the Knicks.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @ayo_rush