In a few months a lifelong dream will be realized.
But that can wait.
Bloomington South senior guard Anthony Leal is singularly focused right now.
While the 6-foot-5 Leal has never been afraid to acknowledge that he grew up a fan of the Hoosiers, playing at IU is on the back burner for the class of 2020 signee at the moment.
With March approaching, it is another lifelong dream that currently occupies Leal’s mind — winning a state championship.
Off to a perfect 20-0 start, the Panthers certainly look the part of a title contender.
“We’ve had really great team success so far,” Leal told The Daily Hoosier. “It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve taken care of business so far. We’re really confident in what we can do and really looking forward to making the most of the tournament.”
Winning state titles has become something of a standard at South.
Leal plays for the state’s all-time winningest coach J.R. Holmes. With more than 800 wins over 50 seasons as a head coach, Holmes is no stranger to success. He has led South to two state titles in 2009 and 2011.
That 2009 title was an undefeated season led by Mr. Basketball and IU great Jordan Hulls. Now Leal wants to lead his own undefeated South team to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in March, and unlike the last two seasons, there are no other IU bound Mr. Basketball winners standing in his way.
While no path to Indianapolis and the State Finals is easy, South won’t have to contend with Romeo Langford or Trayce Jackson-Davis as they try to win a third title for Holmes this year. Langford and Jackson-Davis knocked the Panthers out of the state tournament during the regional round each of the last two seasons.
There are still major obstacles down the road, including a likely meeting at semi-state with whoever emerges from a stacked Lawrence Central Sectional 10, and then perhaps even a meeting in the State Finals with Leal’s IU bound good friend and fellow Mr. Basketball candidate Trey Galloway.
The key to South’s success has been a balanced team with other Division One college-bound talents beyond Leal. Crafty point guard Noah Jager is the younger brother of former IU walk-on and current graduate assistant Johnny Jager. He’s headed to Army next year. High scoring junior guard Connor Hickman is on the radar of several college programs.
Surrounded by talent, Leal has been able to play without the burden of having to put up big numbers every night.
“I could have gone into this season just trying to get mine and average all these huge numbers, but for our team to be successful it was really important for me to make sure that we’re getting the other guys involved and make sure we were playing well as a team so the ability get other guys going in turn helps me get going and has made us a lot better team,” Leal said.
The stats Leal is generating are still very impressive. While playing anywhere from point guard to center, Leal spends most of his time as South’s shooting guard or wing.
Through 20 games he is averaging 18.1 points per contest along with 5 rebounds. Leal is converting at an incredibly efficient 70 percent from two-point range and 35 percent from distance while making 75 percent of his free throws.
And let’s be clear, while there are several good players on the team, when the game is on the line, South is looking to No. 3 to deliver.
Never was that more apparent than three weeks ago when the Class 4A No. 1 ranked Panthers were tied on the road with Class 3A No. 1 Silver Creek in the game’s final seconds.
Anthony Leal calls game!
Bloomington South 69, Silver Creek 66 pic.twitter.com/nALdyXJTmX
— Trevor Andershock (@INBBallSource) February 2, 2020
To the thrill of his teammates, Leal drained a 23-footer at the horn over the outstretched arm of class of 2021 IU recruiting target Trey Kaufman.
But it was the moment before the shot that sealed the deal. Confidence, preparation, muscle memory — it all came together to continue South’s perfect season.
“I just kept telling myself it’s what I’ve worked for, and it’s moments like this that I’ve been working my tail off this whole season for,” Leal said of the moment when he walked out of the huddle and onto the floor before his game-winning shot. “Staying confident, staying true to all of the work that I’ve put in relaxed me and got me really focused and ready to make the shot.”
Leal has never been a stranger to hard work, on or off the court. With a grade point average north of 4.0, he is a direct admit into the prestigious IU Kelley School of Business.
“Great motor, awesome worker, fantastic student,” IU head coach Archie Miller said of Leal after he signed with the program in November. “He’s a competitor, he really competes.”
That competitive spirit has driven Leal to make improvements to his game during his senior year.
“Overall leadership and diversity on offense has improved this year, Leal said when quizzed on what aspects of his game have developed.
“My ability to do multiple things on offense, not just get to the basket and not just catch-and-shoot threes, but being able to create my own shot and being able to pass is something that I’ve really been able to improve on this year, especially with teams sometimes trying to focus on me and I’ve got a lot of guys that I can pass to when they double me.”
Of course with that competitive spirit, Leal isn’t someone that is ever going to be content with where he’s at. And if he is at least peeking around the corner to the next level, he knows there are aspects of his game that will need to get better.
“Being able to come off screens and hit shots, especially with the system next year,” Leal said of where he intends to focus his efforts this spring and summer. “Being able to shoot is going to be the key thing for me to get some playing time. Being able to defend and make shots is going to be my biggest emphasis throughout the summer.
“It’s really similar to what my role was coming into high school as a freshman. I was a ‘three and D’ kind of guy and I think if that is what can help me make a difference and help the team win then I am really willing to buy into that and be able to give a spark defensively and also come in and make big shots.”
Being a Bloomington native affords Leal a luxury that most recruits don’t have. Sitting behind the Hoosier bench for most home games this season, he is getting an up-close and personal look at what the future holds.
What stands out to Leal about playing high major college basketball?
“It’s a whole different level, especially physically,” Leal said of his impression of Big Ten basketball. “It’s a lot higher pace and more uptempo than the high school game is. There’s no real way for me to simulate that right now but just staying in the weight room and staying on top of my health and my body is going to put me in a great position to get in there and not get tired right away and be able to bump around and stay up to the pace with everybody.”
Soon enough Leal will be able to start training with IU’s Director of Athletic Performance Clif Marshall to get his body ready for the rigors of the Big Ten. Leal said that he would like to start working with the IU staff as soon as permitted after his team’s tournament run.
But for now, it is all about winning a state championship.
Not even following in the footsteps of Hulls, Langford and Jackson-Davis and winning the state’s coveted Mr. Basketball honor is distracting Leal right now.
The competitive spirit that won over Miller is focused on one thing and one thing only.
“I think that (Mr. Basketball) is something that would be a really sweet opportunity if it presents itself, Leal said.
In a year where the honor of being named the state’s best player is too close to call, the award might just go to whoever leads his team to the state title.
And that’s just fine with Leal.
“Team success is the main priority,” Leal said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
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