McCollum’s Column: Leon faces one more challenge in basketball career

Former Wampus Cat Justin Leon stopped by the Arkansas Sports Club this week on the way to a tryout with the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA.

 

The best immediate possibility for the two-year regular for the Florida Gators is likely the D-League.

He’s used to taking what he terms is the “hard road.”

“I think God has put me in situations all my life where I have faced adversity,” he said. “I’ve learned to overcome them.”

He’s had a ball in his hand since age 3 and was an outstanding baseball player until he began to grow tall. So, he got into basketball.

However, he had problems on the academic side of school.

“It was not that I wasn’t a hard worker or a bad kid or anything; I just struggled,” he said. “Before my senior year, I discovered I had a learning disability.”

James Bates, the Conway senior high coach at the time, talked with some faculty about an individual who learned in a different way.

“He set things up where I could take some classes at a slower pace and I was able to graduate,” he said.

He blossomed his senior year at Conway High and began one of the most dynamic players in the state, with a good outside shot to match a powerful inside game.

With dreams of much higher, he had only one college offer out of high school — from Shawnee Community College in Illinois.

When he visited campus in the small town of Ulin, his living assignment had a hole in the wall. He told his mother not to worry, he had this.

“I think a lot of people thought this would be the end of my basketball career after high school,” he said. “I thought this was my best option. People told me to keep doing what you do.”

At Shawnee, the 6-8 forward grew into a junior college All-American, averaging 21.5 points and 10 rebounds. He went to a showcase camp and was ranked in the top three among 200 JC players.

“After that I was getting about 20 calls a week from colleges,” he said. “I never thought it would get like that from getting one JC offer out of high school to multiple Division I offers.”

He formed a strong relationship with Mike White, who recruited him for Louisiana Tech. When White took the Florida job, he had a single scholarship left and offered it to Leon.

He became a mainstay for the Gators and helped them to the Elite Eight last season before finally losing in the regional final to surging South Carolina.

Leon led the Gators in 3-point percentage his two years in Gainesville. He sveraged 7.4 points and 3.6 rebounds his senior year. He scored 19 points against Tennessee and 18, including four 3-pointers, against Texas A&M. He scored 18 in the regional final loss to South Carolina.

He thinks those life experiences and challenges helped prepare him for the NBA.

“It’s part of the plan God has had for me, to go the long way through the trenches,” he said.

 

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