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Throwback Thursday: Illinois’ NBA Draft Drought Ends

Leonard was selected as the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft by the Portland Trailblazers.

2012 NBA Draft Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Illini fans everywhere are likely still buzzing from the Chicago Bulls’ recent selection of Ayo Dosunmu, making him the 38th pick overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. I, along with many other Illini fans, surely felt that Ayo’s Illini career accomplishments, including accolades like the Cousy Award and First-Team All-American honors, should have made him a surefire first round talent.

However, fate had other plans.

While we all had to wait a little longer than any of us would’ve liked, Ayo received his storybook ending with his selection by his hometown team, including a guest appearance from famed Chicagoan Chance the Rapper at his draft party. He is staying home once again, but this time is tasked with helping rejuvenate a storied NBA franchise starving for success since the 1990s Jordan led golden era. Given how quickly he helped put Illinois back on the map after close to a decade without an NCAA Tournament berth, we all are excited to see the impact he will have at the NBA level.

To celebrate the Illini having a player selected for the first time in about a decade, let’s harken back to the last Illini player to be drafted, former Illini center Meyers Leonard in the 2012 NBA Draft.

A native of small-town Robinson, Illinois, Leonard came from a difficult upbringing with his father dying from a bicycle accident when he was only 6 years old and his mother suffering other health issues, consequently leading to financial struggles for the family. He went on to star at Robinson High School, where he led the school to an Illinois Class 2A state championship before moving on to Illinois.

While far less proven as a draft prospect than Dosunmu, Leonard capitalized on the buzz he received in the pre-draft process, leaving just before the John Groce era began after Bruce Weber was let go. He was selected 11th by the Portland Trail Blazers, as he tantalized NBA teams with his combination of athleticism, shot blocking ability, and rebounding despite being raw offensively when he came out of Illinois.

After having minimal impact as a freshman (2.1 PPG, 1.2 RPG, and 0.4 BPG), Leonard improved significantly in his sophomore season (13.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, and 1.9 BPG), with noteworthy performances against Iowa (22 points, 14 rebounds) and Richmond (22 points, 12 rebounds).

After having represented the Illini in the NBA Final in the Bubble, we’re all hoping Ayo can continue to build on the Illini legacy at the highest levels of the sport.