Even while playing in what may be the nation’s strongest women’s basketball conference, N.C. State senior guard Kiara Leslie never meets a challenge as big as the one she faced in her driveway growing up.
Despite a formidable schedule and a series of crippling injuries to teammates, Leslie has played brilliantly in leading N.C. State (22-2, 9-2 ACC) to a school-record with 21 consecutive wins to start the season and rankings solidly in the nation’s top 15 for most of the season. N.C. State plays Notre Dame (23-3, 10-2) at 7 p.m. at Reynolds Coliseum on Monday night.
The perseverance that made it possible was honed in front of Leslie’s home in Holly Springs, where the most intimidating foe she ever faced awaited her each day. She tested herself constantly against her older brother C.J., who grew to be a 6-foot-9 forward who led N.C. State to a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2012 and was a second-team All-ACC selection.
C.J., now 27, is four years older and nine inches taller than Kiara, and he didn’t take it easy on her.
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“It definitely made me tough,” she said. “It definitely made me go after it a lot more, knowing that nothing is going to be handed to you. Going against someone that aggressive, I felt I could come out and play against anyone. He used to knock me over. I used to have scrapes and scars on my legs. But he built my confidence.”
En route to McDonald’s All-American honors in high school, C.J. Leslie didn’t initially recognize the effect his driveway tough love had on his sister. She was wily enough to score on him, mostly by using a pump fake to get him off his feet because she knew he loved to block shots.
But physically she couldn’t match up with him. It wasn’t until C.J. saw her play against her peers, away from the driveway, that he understood just how much she had developed.
“I never really saw how good she is or just how tough she is just because she was always matched up to me,” C.J. said. “But once she started to get around other girls in her age group, it was like. ‘Whoa, wait a minute. They’re nowhere near her.’ She’s way more physical and way tougher and way quicker.”
A different path
Their mutual admiration didn’t draw Kiara to N.C. State, however. By the time coach Wes Moore had arrived at N.C. State to engineer the Wolfpack’s turnaround, Leslie had committed to Maryland, one of the elite teams in women’s basketball.
She played a reserve role in 2015 on a team that went to the Final Four and in 2016 on a Big Ten championship team before suffering an ankle injury that caused her to miss the entire 2016-17 season.
Even then, her tremendous perseverance carried the day. Instead of sulking while her teammates enjoyed a 32-3 season, she used her extra time to devote more attention to academics. She completed her requirements for a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice in the summer of 2017, giving herself an opportunity to transfer from Maryland with two years of eligibility remaining.
But she knew that people doubted her. Even though she was ranked the No. 52 player in the nation in her class by ESPNW as a high school senior, she had averaged 3.6 and 4.4 points per game as a freshman and sophomore, respectively. And she was coming off a major injury.
She is grateful to Moore for giving her an opportunity. Moore, meanwhile, said Leslie has been “a godsend” who is even better than advertised. He said she came out of high school with a reputation as a great athlete, but not a great scorer, and has matured in all facets of the game.
“She’s worked so hard to be an all-around player, a versatile player,” Moore said. “She’s shooting the three well. She gets to the rim. Defensively, she guards the other team’s best scorer every time. So she does it all. If we need a rebound she’ll go get that.”
Shouldering a heavy load
With a healthy ankle and a change of scenery, Leslie blossomed. She averaged 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and scored 21 points with 11 rebounds in a second-round NCAA tournament win over Maryland to help the Wolfpack reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
As a senior, she has taken on increasing responsibility as three season-ending knee injuries decimated N.C. State’s lineup and depth. Starting point guard Kaila Ealey went down during the preseason. Grace Hunter was averaging 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game when she was hurt in early January. Armani Hawkins, a key reserve, was injured about a week later.
Leslie hasn’t blinked at the increased responsibility. In 10 games since Hunter’s injury, Leslie has scored 19.1 points per game, 6.1 points more than her average up to that point. In a key road game against No. 16 Syracuse on Feb. 13, she scored 30 points with 10 rebounds to help the Wolfpack break a two-game losing streak.
“We started off successful, and I don’t want that to drop off”, Leslie said. “So I feel like us collectively, we had to step up and do more, but some games they needed more scoring and more rebounding from me. So I ended up doing that, and my teammates also set me up for great shots and put me in position to score.”
C.J. Leslie is proud of his sister’s success, but he hasn’t really paused long enough to enjoy it. Since he left N.C. State following his junior season, his own basketball career has brought him plenty of his own challenges.
After he went undrafted in 2013, he was signed as a free agent by the New York Knicks, only to be waived that October. He has had numerous stops in the NBA Development League (now the G League) and overseas, and most recently was signed by the Texas Legends of the G League.
He has played professionally in Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon and Turkey, and said he is eyeing another overseas opportunity.
His travels have shown him that success at the highest levels of basketball requires relentless work and passion. That’s why he continues to push her, just as he did in the driveway.
“I just haven’t grasped all her achievements yet because it’s kind of like I’m in the fight with her,” he said. “I just want her to keep going like, ‘What’s next, what have we got next, what are we going to do next,’ instead of just looking back and being like, ‘Man, my baby sister, she’s killing it.’ ”
Kiara plans to follow in her brother’s footsteps as a professional basketball player, hopefully in the WNBA as numerous teams have scouted her this season. She also expects to earn her master’s degree in liberal arts this spring, and she has thought about pursuing a career with the FBI after her pro basketball days are finished.
But she also might want to coach, and she believes she would prefer coaching men, rather than women. Leslie’s face lights up when she talks about playing in the driveway with C.J., about traveling throughout the country to watch his AAU games, about visits to the Golden Gate Bridge on a trip to Stanford and the beaches of Puerto Rico for tournament games while following N.C. State.
Regardless of what she does, C.J. is likely to be in the background, always pushing her to be better.
“I would say we made our accomplishments with each other and with our family,” she said. “We know there’s another level we can go to because we compete against each other. We each know what the other is capable of. It’s how do we get it out of each other.”