On Wednesday afternoon C.J. Leslie put any doubt to rest, announcing his decision to return to NC State for his junior season.
"I wanted to take my time as much as possible, but it's one of those things you couldn't help but think about,” Leslie said. “I tried to take as much time as needed and make the best decision for me. It was just one of those decisions where I kind of knew, I had an idea. It would have been a good situation if I left, but I felt like this was the best decision right here, for me to come back."
Rumors had been swirling for weeks that Leslie would return, but the longer it went without an official announcement the more doubt crept into the minds of fans. The post-season banquet passed without any word, then another week, until finally Leslie sat down with Gottfried and informed him of his official decision.
"I talked to coach Gottfried a lot over the last couple of weeks, but yesterday I had a face-to-face conversation with him and I told him." Leslie said. "I don't know if he was excited at first, I kind of played a little joke on him... at the end he was obviously very excited and the coaching staff all came in and joined."
Leslie’s decision speaks to just how much the staff has been able to do with him in just a short year. Not only did the staff help Leslie shed some of the negative labels attached to him after his freshman season (a season where he struggled and was suspended by the coaching staff during ACC play), they created an environment where Leslie would want to return despite being projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick in the NBA draft.
If Leslie had the same projection this time last year, he would have probably bolted without a second thought.
But this season he embraced the challenge that Mark Gottfried put in front him – flourishing in the final month of the season. He earned a second team All-ACC nod, an All-ACC tournament selection (the only player not to play in the championship game to make the team) and capped it all off by helping the Pack reach the Sweet 16.
In the process, he went from a player who couldn’t wait to get to the pros to a guy who feels at home with his college program and wants to take care of some unfinished business as well.
"It was a tough decision; it is a big decision to make for anybody,” Leslie said. “I just figured we started a good thing last year, and I might as well finish it."
Gottfried helped Leslie reach some of his enormous potential last year, and Leslie rewarded him by returning for a junior season where the Pack could reasonably be considered one of the favorites in the league.
They return four starters, including two All-ACC performers, from a team that went 9-7 last year while every school that finished in front of them in the league suffered severe losses. Duke lost its top scorer, both UNC and Florida State lost four starters and Virginia lost its top scorer and rebounder.
Meanwhile the Pack only lost one starter and will be bringing in what is widely considered to be the best recruiting class in the ACC. Rodney Purvis or T.J. Warren will likely slot into the starting rotation in place of C.J. Williams and Tyler Lewis should see significant playing time backing up Lorenzo Brown at point guard. Gottfried will have a more talented, more versatile and deeper lineup at his disposal than he had last season.
“We're going to work and go for [the ACC title]... we're not planning to lose or anything... we're going to definitely do everything we possibly can to win it all," Leslie said.
Nothing is promised to this team however, and all this talent means nothing if they can’t come together as a team and play well from November through March. No one on the team has had to worry about expectations until now and Gottfried will have to manage a very different atmosphere in his second season.
But thanks in large part to Leslie’s decision on Wednesday; the pieces are in place for the Pack. If Gottfried can put them all together then it could be a very exciting season for NC State basketball.
"We have some high expectations," said Leslie. "I'm excited about being a leader and helping the team the best that I can. I can't wait."