In a matter of a year, Phillip Leonard went from playing junior college basketball to beating Duke in the NCAA Tournament. He played alongside future Miami Heat summer league team member Langston Hall. He was a part of a team who won an ESPY for “Best Upset.”
And he witnessed people asking his teammate to dance for them in grocery stores.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma native began his collegiate career at Northern Tonkawa Oklahoma College after playing sparingly in high school because of injuries. Midway through his high school junior season, his appendix busted. He then broke his hip seven games into his senior season.
“It was something I had to battle through,” Leonard said.
While he had the grades to play on the NCAA level — he was a member of the National Honor Society — he was not highly recruited. He chose to start at the JUCO level as a stepping stone toward a greater platform.
“Trying to get out of there made you want to work on your game more and more because you wanted to get looks,” Leonard said. “I think that kind of forced you into getting better and making your game better.”
In his first year, Leonard started all 31 games and averaged 7.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists. And then Mercer came calling.
He joined the Bears as a shooting guard for a memorable 2013-14 season, averaging nine minutes per game behind Hall and senior Anthony White Jr.
Leonard said learning behind Hall was a useful experience.
“Being behind him and watching him was really big,” he said. “Every day in practice just to go up against him, and in games, to play with him . . . I got to see a lot of the leadership things.”
A win against Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Championship granted Mercer a bid into the NCAA Tournament with a 26-8 record.
And then the Bears slayed the Blue Devils.
“A lot of people didn’t think we were going to win at all,” Leonard said. “Coach just kept motivating us. We all believed we could play with them, especially when we got on the court with them. We just felt they were a normal team. We just played our normal game, and then afterwards, it was real crazy with the media.”
Crazy to the point where Kevin Canevari became a country-wide sensation for his Nae-Nae celebration after the upset. He appeared on SportsCenter. He went to the ESPYs, and he danced some more.
“Everywhere we went, people just wanted to take pictures with him — wanting him to start dancing for them in a grocery store or something,” Leonard said.
Leonard called the Duke victory one of his best moments at Mercer.
After Mercer lost seven seniors, — including Hall, White and Canevari — Leonard was thrust into the starting point guard position at the start of the 2013-2014 year.
“It was a little different at first,” Leonard said of the transition from shooting guard to point guard. “The first few games were a little different just trying to get used to things.”
It didn’t take long for him to become the facilitator of the team. Leonard started all 35 games and went on to lead the SoCon with 4.5 assists per game on top of his 8.1 points and 3.5 rebounds.
Leonard said he was a little surprised by his assist numbers.
“I never thought of myself as a great passer, but I just feel like sometimes I knew when to pass it,” he said. “I just tried to run the offense and things like that. My teammates did a good job of knocking down shots.”
The next year Mercer couldn’t repeat its 2013-14 performance and posted a 19-16 record after losing to Louisiana-Monroe in the quarterfinals of the CBI Tournament.
The Bears lost seniors T.J. Hallice and Darious Moten, and along with Jibri Bryan, Leonard became one of the senior leaders on the team. Before the 2015-16 season, he said he wanted to be more of a vocal leader.
He never knew the task he would be dealt.
After its best start in program history and an 18-6 record with only eight regular season games remaining, Mercer was thrown a major-league curveball with the death of Bryan and suspensions of Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer.
The Bears won their first game without the trio but went on to lose the final seven games of the regular season.
“I think we did handle it well, honestly,” Leonard said. “I know on the court in games, everyone was watching us and might have seen us losing games, but we kept talking about, ‘These are close games we’re losing.’ It wasn’t like we were getting blown out in games. We were just, two or three possessions we do something different or somebody on their team missing a shot, we [would] probably win a lot of those games.”
All seven losses were by 11 or less points. Three were by six points or less. After entering the Southern Conference Tournament with the seventh seed, Mercer snapped its seven-game skid in the first round with a victory over The Citadel but lost to ETSU in the quarterfinals to end its NCAA Tournament hopes.
Leonard saved some of his best performances of the season for the tournament, as he nearly recorded a triple double (11 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists) and scored one less point than his season high (23) in the loss to ETSU.
“I met a lot of good people here, and have had a really fun time playing basketball here,” Leonard said. “It’s more than what I ever thought it would be.”