The 2015 NBA Draft was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Fans of the New York Knicks invaded the place. They were focused on the player that the Knicks’ basketball boss, Phil Jackson, would take with the No. 4 overall selection.
Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jalil Okafor went 1-2-3. Jackson followed the draft board as anticipated by a high percentage of analysts and took Kristaps Porzingis, a 7-footer from Latvia who would turn 20 in August.
The Knicks fans did everything possible to ruin the young man’s night by booing the selection – and him – unmercifully. Apparently, the Knicks’ disciples in the draft audience were convinced that Jackson should have taken point guard Emmanuel Mudiay or small forward Justise Winslow with the selection.
Five months after boos descended on Porzingis, the Knicks were playing Charlotte in Madison Square Garden. The young man had 29 points, 11 rebounds and a blocked shot. He was 2 for 2 on three-pointers.
And the Knicks’ crowd constantly chanted his name – “Poz-ZING-is’’ – and also broke into “MVP’’ a time or two.
The instructive part of this is simple: Fans are beautiful.
And there’s a case to be made that perhaps followers of the Gophers football team should consider a similar transformation when they greet quarterback Mitch Leidner for Saturday morning’s game vs. Illinois.
The difference is that Knicks’ fans were booing the unknown with Porzingis. When Gophers fans booed Leidner in the 10-7 victory over Kent State in September, they were watching the redshirt junior in his 19th collegiate start and had reached the conclusion that awkward attempts at passing were the main reason for the offensive futility.
Oh, that and coordinator Matt Limegrover’s play-calling … we didn’t approve of the work he was doing, either.
“What puzzled me was that’s why Mitch got a scholarship; he was a great passer,’’ said Larry Thompson, Leidner’s coach at Lakeville South. “I talked to him a couple of times and said what everyone else was telling him, ‘Relax, have fun.’
“That’s not easy for Mitch to do. He pushes himself so hard. The thing people should know about Mitch is this: You couldn’t ask a player to do anything more. No one does more things in the weight room, in studying tape, in all areas, to be prepared to play.’’
Thompson saw in Leidner a competitive nature that prevented him from cutting himself much slack.
“Once he received his scholarship offer and committed to the Gophers, everything had to perfect with Mitch,’’ Thompson said. “Every throw had to be great; every read he made had to be 100 per cent. That was the first time, early in his senior season, where I started telling him, ‘Relax and have fun.’ ‘’
It was an interesting mix: Leidner was a hard-on-himself perfectionist, and at the same time, he had a full belief in his skills as a quarterback.
“He was so excited when the Gophers offered him out of their camp after his junior season,’’ Thompson said. “I said, ‘Are you sure about this? They already have a commitment from Philip Nelson, and are talking like he’s going to be their quarterback.’
“Mitch had been in 7-on-7 camp with Nelson and said, ‘I’m a better passer than him, coach.’ ‘’
Nelson was the quarterback for the second half of his freshman season in 2012 as Leidner redshirted. Nelson started nine games and Leidner four in 2013. Nelson left the program, first for Rutgers, which bailed on him after Philip’s assault charge in Mankato. He walked on at East Carolina this August but has not played.
Leidner started in 12 of 13 games for the 2014 Gophers, missing one game with injury. This season, it took until Game 4 vs. Ohio for Leidner to show much, and then immediately joined in the offensive clunker vs. Northwestern in the Big Ten opener.
The mystery was Leidner’s inability to put touch on short-range passes. That was the observation offered to Thompson in a conversation this week, anyway.
“It seemed like he was aiming it,’’ Thompson said. “In high school, he just threw. Mitch is a good passer when he's just throwing. And he’s gotten back to that with the Gophers over the last month.’’
It is heresy in Minnesota to question the astuteness of Jerry Kill, the now-retired Gophers coach, but Kill’s words in defense of Leidner’s play were always stronger than the confidence shown with his actions.
There were a few occasions when Kill chose to have the Gophers sit on the ball rather than take a chance on Leidner’s passing -- none more notoriously than Kill’s decision to run out of the clock before halftime vs. Missouri in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.
“Something like that shows not a lot of faith in the quarterback,’’ Thompson said. “And that had to be obvious to Mitch.
“It does seem like the Gophers are a little more relaxed in the play-calling with Tracy Claeys as the head coach. But a bigger part than the play-calling, from what I see, is the confidence that Mitch has in these receivers:
“K.J. Maye. … what a great connection he has with Mitch. Drew Wolitarsky is healthy again. Brandon Lingen … he’s not Maxx Williams, but he’s giving Mitch a good receiving option as a tight end. And that freshman, Rashad Still, he’s coming on, too.’’
Thompson has been a football coach in Lakeville for 40 years, and the last 38 as a head coach.
“I’ll tell you, we’re so proud of him,’’ Thompson said. “We couldn’t have anyone represent our school better as a person and as a competitor than Mitch Leidner.’’