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Published: Thursday, 2/10/2005

McLeod is making his mark with Jazz

Utah Jazz guard Keith McLeod is used to getting overlooked.

He has been jilted almost as often as Paris Hilton and his three-year pro career has taken him to such outposts as St. Joseph (Mo.), Minneapolis, Gary (Ind), Rome, and Salt Lake City. McLeod's motto is simple: Have talent, will travel.

As a senior at McKinley High School in Canton, McLeod was named Mr. Basketball in Ohio - his name is right there on the shiny hardware, alongside NBA superstar LeBron James - yet he attracted few Division I scholarship offers.

McLeod eventually enrolled at Bowling Green, but it wasn't until the second semester of the 1998-99 season. Yet he managed to wow everyone with his athletic ability, despite playing in just 20 games, and earned a spot on the Mid-American Conference's all-freshman team.

In 2002, McLeod was named MAC player of the year, after averaging 22.9 points per game, and he helped lead the Falcons to the conference's regular-season championship.

Keith McLeod, a surprising success at BGSU, is getting a shot in the NBA with Utah. Keith McLeod, a surprising success at BGSU, is getting a shot in the NBA with Utah.
STEVE GRIFFIN Enlarge

Despite finishing as the second-leading scorer in school history with 1,895 points, McLeod was passed over in the NBA draft.

Although he played on Portland's summer league team in 2002, the Trail Blazers did not offer him a contract and he was forced to head overseas after playing briefly in the United States Basketball League and the Continental Basketball Association.

It was during his eight-month stint with Mabo Livorno in the Italian A-League that McLeod switched positions, moving from shooting guard to point guard, and that's when he first started attracting the attention of NBA scouts.

A broken finger two years ago limited McLeod's playing time with Golden State's summer league team, but he wound up signing a rookie free-agent contract with Minnesota.

McLeod, 6-2 and 190 pounds, lived in Kevin Garnett's multi-million dollar mansion while playing for the Timberwolves, and he averaged 2.7 points and 1.8 assists while playing 12 minutes per game.

But then he was blindsided, getting waived after 33 games, and a day before his contract would have been guaranteed for the rest of the season.

Talk about a swift kick to the gut, not to mention a ruthless move by Minnesota.

Although disappointed and distraught, McLeod toiled briefly for the Gary Steelheads in the CBA before finishing up the season in Rome.

"I was upset when I got cut by Minnesota, but I just felt like I needed to keep working hard in order to get back to the NBA," the soft-spoken McLeod said the other day from Salt Lake City. "It's been tough bouncing around - I've been a lot of different places in a few years - but I've tried to stay focused and keep the faith."

McLeod opened some eyes with his play on Minnesota's summer league team last year, and he worked out for three NBA teams - San Antonio, Denver and Utah - in the fall. Although he signed with the Jazz, he was considered the longest of long-shots to make the team.

After all, very few undrafted players actually play their way onto NBA rosters, and Utah appeared to be well-stocked at point guard, with Raul Lopez and last year's starter, Carlos Arroyo, who had just put the finishing touches on a new four-year, $16 million contract.

McLeod, 25, was expected to serve mainly as an extra body in practice. And after an unimpressive training camp, he appeared on his way out the door until Arroyo sprained his ankle in the final exhibition game.

McLeod made the Jazz roster because management was desperate. Even after starting the first six games, he wondered how long he would last once Lopez and Arroyo got healthy.

"I was worried about doing everything exactly right, because I knew I could be gone the next day," McLeod said.

In December, McLeod was placed on the injured list for three weeks when Lopez and Arroyo returned. But they didn't perform up to Utah coach Jerry Sloan's standards -Arroyo eventually was dealt to Detroit - so Sloan turned again to McLeod.

He was averaging 7.9 points, 5.0 assists and 2.1 rebounds while starting 21 of 24 games before landing back on the injured list on Jan. 26 with a strained right hamstring.

"Keith has done everything we've asked," Sloan said. "He acts like he wants to play. He draws a lot of attention because of the way he plays. He's a tenacious player."

McLeod expects to return to the Jazz's lineup late this weekend or early next week. But with just 57 games of experience, he is still trying to prove he belongs in the NBA, playing with the big boys he grew up idolizing.

"Last year I was sort of in awe of playing in the NBA as a rookie," he said. "But this year I feel a lot more comfortable. The management here in Utah has a lot of confidence in me, and I have a lot of confidence in myself. I am trying to establish myself as a steady NBA player while trying to become one of the better point guards in the league."

Utah, which has spent $230 million on player salaries since the end of last season, originally signed McLeod to a partially-guaranteed $250,000 deal in October. But the team recently picked up his contract for the rest of the season, making it worth $750,000.

"I just wanted a chance," McLeod said. "I never imagined this at all."

A year ago, the Jazz came within one game of making the NBA playoffs. Last-place Utah currently sits at 16-33, so the playoffs are an afterthought.

For once, though, the well-traveled McLeod is not. He has been one of the team's lone bright spots in an otherwise dismal season.

Contact Ron Musselman at:

mussel@theblade.com

or 419-724-6474.



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