MYRTLE BEACH | Many of the nation’s best boys basketball prospects descend on the Grand Strand each December for the Beach Ball Classic. Some are legitimately great players, while others come highly rated based solely on their potential.
I covered the event for eight years as a reporter with our sister paper, The Sun News, watching and writing about a litany of future stars and big-time busts. It was the 2008 tournament when I first laid eyes on South Carolina signee Damien Leonard.
Then just a sophomore, you could see his potential, but I never saw the killer instinct or the ability to take over a game, two factors that separate truly the good prospects from the great ones.
Sure, he had the silky jumper and would typically put up big numbers, but he was always taking bad shots and finishing with a shooting percentage well below 50 percent. Was that significant? Not really, considering the lack of talent around him, but it didn’t exactly cement him in my mind as the difference maker that analysts believe – and USC fans hope – he will become next season as a true freshman.
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This trend didn’t change when I saw him play his Beach Ball opener in December. He put up 21 points in a loss to Gonzaga (D.C.), but shot just 7-for-24 from the field and 5-of-16 on 3s, an underwhelming performance from a player hailed as the savior.
I had started to wonder if he was overrated. Could such a talented prospect truly disappoint every time that I saw him play? It defied the law of averages if he was as good as everybody claimed.
My opinion changed Saturday, however. On his way to earning MVP honors, Leonard put on a show unlike any I’ve ever seen in an all-star setting, playing the lead role and rescuing his team just when it needed it most in a win over North Carolina in the Carolinas All-Star Basketball Classic.
For whatever reason, Leonard had never gotten into a groove when I saw him in the past. He’d nail a deep 3-pointer every now and then just to remind you that he could, but then he would miss four or five straight, reminding you that he was anything but automatic.
After he shot 4-for-11 – none of his teammates had taken more than six shots – in the first half, hitting on just 2-of-8 3s, I saw a similar storyline developing Saturday. Yet, something changed in the second half. It was a familiar sight for J.L. Mann coach Jeff Craft, who was coaching the Sandlappers.
“When he gets it going that’s what makes him special,” Craft said. “When he hits that first one and comes back down [the court], usually I can tell by the way he’s moving. I see it. I saw that and told our assistant, ‘It’s getting ready to start happening right here.’”
A little over two minutes into the second half, Leonard nailed his first 3-pointer after the break. Ten minutes later, his fifth, sixth and seventh 3s of the game came in just over three minutes.
Of course, he saved the best for last, draining the winning 3 with five seconds left on the clock, punctuating a 35-point effort in which he shot 11-for-25 overall and 8-for-17 from behind the arc. All the adjectives I had heard recruiting analysts say about him suddenly made perfect sense.
“Once I hit one and kept getting open and got into a rhythm, I just kept hitting them,” Leonard said. “It felt great. It felt like the goal was really big and everything I shot was going to go in. I had that confidence.”
He’ll need to bottle it, because the Gamecocks could use some perimeter help – immediately. They shot 31 percent from behind the arc this season, which ranks 258th nationally.
If he can somehow match his heroics from Saturday’s game – and have fewer games like the ones I saw him play earlier in his career – he does have the potential to make a big impact early in 2011. Only now is that evident to me.
“I play better against people on my level,” Leonard said. “In college I think I can be even better.”