Damien Leonard can now focus all his attention on becoming a Gamecock.
The South Carolina signee and former J.L. Mann guard saw his stellar high school career end two weeks ago with a Class AAAA first-round playoff loss to Westside. He capped his career with 30 points in that loss, but he saw a similar scenario materialize.
Widely considered the best senior prospect in the Palmetto State, Leonard was hounded by opposing teams all year. They knew if they took away his deadly perimeter shooting, they could neutralize Mann’s offense. So, he got used to double-teams and playing against the opposition’s best defender.
“I think I had a pretty good season individually,” said Leonard, who was just 10-for-35 shooting in his farewell game. “I’m pretty sure if my team had played together, we could have gone further in the playoffs. But I think we had a pretty good season.
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“I improved my game. I proved I can put the ball on the floor and play defense. I did a lot of the stuff that people didn’t think I could do. I improved a lot this season.”
Leonard knows, however, that his skill set will need to continue its upward progression if he’s going to make a significant impact for the Gamecocks next season. He and Charlotte Christian (N.C.) forward Anthony Gill were the only two players to sign with USC in November’s early signing period.
First and foremost, Leonard and USC coach Darrin Horn have said that he’ll need to add strength and size. The foes he played against in high school won’t compare athletically to the players he’ll see in the SEC.
Leonard understands he won’t be able to capitalize on his strengths – many recruiting analysts consider him one of the nation’s premier shooters – if he’s unable to cope with strong, physical defenders. He also knows he needs to become a better defender in his own right.
“I’m going to be in the weight room a lot, working out and improving on my weaknesses,” said Leonard, who will enroll at USC on June 2. “It’s all about strength and defense. I’ve just got to stay in the weight room and the gym.”
While Leonard is looking ahead, Mann coach Jeff Craft looked back last week and discussed the impact that the 6-foot-5 standout has had on his program. The Patriots became one of the state’s elite teams during Leonard’s career and played in multiple Beach Ball Classics over the last four years, invitations that arrived mostly because of Leonard’s star power.
“I think it’s more about how he’s handled himself around here,” Craft said of Leonard’s lasting prep legacy. “He’s one of those kids that never acted like he was a big-time athlete or anything. He just wanted to be a normal student. I think that’s his biggest legacy.
“On the court, I can’t count how many people have told me they’ve never seen a kid shoot the ball with such ease. That’s probably what he’ll be remembered for.”
Leonard, who is believed to be the leading scorer in Mann history, averaged 25 points, 6.5 rebounds, three steals and two assists per game this season. Craft believes that success will translate easily to the college game, but he said Leonard needs to get stronger and improve on his ball handling.
“I’m excited for him,” said Craft, a USC alum. “He gets to go achieve a lifetime goal of playing college basketball. Any time you can send a kid off to college, it makes you feel good about your program.”
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