Leuer’s Leap

At the age of 18 years old, Jon Leuer made a run for the border.

The Milwaukee Bucks rookie forward has called the Badger State home ever since.

And he looks back with no regrets.

Like a lot of youngsters with a passion for hoops, Leuer grew up following the National Basketball Team based closest to where he lived. In his case, that was the Minnesota Timberwolves, who played within a half hour’s drive of his hometown of Orono, a western Minneapolis suburb of about 7,000 residents.

“I liked Kevin Garnett a lot when I was a kid,” Leuer said. “He was with the Wolves then, obviously, and he was probably my favorite player growing up.”

When Leuer went to those Timberwolves games, he didn’t simply hoot and holler and  feed his face with hot dogs and popcorn. He was already a student of the game who was seriously aspiring to have a basketball career of his own.

“I played baseball and football until high school, but I always played basketball year-round,: he said. “It was always my favorite. When I got to high school, I wanted to focus on it.

“I tried to take some of the stuff Garnett does and put it into my game … just how hard he plays, how hard he competes and what he can do with his versatility.”

Leuer’s quest for versatility in his own game would serve him well after he experienced a quantum leap as a teen-ager.

“My dad (Mike) is 6-3 and my mom (Holly) is 6 feet,” Leuer said. “Both of my sisters (Maren, 26, and Katie, 23) are pretty tall. I knew I was going to hit a growth spurt eventually. It just happened fast and the amount kind of caught us off-guard. I figured I’d be maybe 6-4 or 6-5.”

Leuer grew from 6 feet to 6-8 between his freshman and junior years at Orono High School.

“I grew up playing guard and kind of developed that skill set,” Leuer said. “When I was a junior in high school, I started working on my post game. That helped me out to grow later rather than earlier, just having two sets of skills.”

It was then that a pro basketball career, which was once a dream for Leuer, began to become a possibility.

“Ever since I was a little kid, this was my dream,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody else thought I’d be able to do it. I guess once I hit that growth spurt, I realized what I could do at my size and that I’d have a chance.

“I just continued to work hard in the offseason to just keep developing as a player and adding different parts to my game. I knew this was what I wanted to do, so I just tried to work my hardest to get here.”

Leuer averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior, then 23.2 points and 12 boards per outing as a senior. He was named first-team all-conference, second-team all-state and selected to Minnesota State All-Star game.

The quantum leap of Leuer’s stature and his statistics attracted the attention of college recruiters all over the country. He narrowed his college options to a list that included Kansas, Louisville, Notre Dame and Minnesota before choosing the University of Wisconsin, and he has never regretted that choice.

“I took a visit to Wisconsin and just fell in love with it, really,” Leuer said. “It just seemed like the place for me. I was impressed with the coaching staff and I liked being around the guys. It was a great place. I couldn’t have had a better four years there.”

Leuer was asked to pinpoint the most valuable lessons he learned during those four years with Bo Ryan as his coach.

 “I think work ethic, first of all,” Leuer responded. “You’ve got to come to the gym every day and work hard and get things done. Anything else isn’t acceptable. That’s how I’ve played my whole life. Having Coach Ryan there just reinforced that for me and developed me into a good player”

“You also have to be fundamentally sound and disciplined. Not a lot of guys can play that way. But the guys who do and work at it, their game just grows. When you do things the right way, you’re not going to make those dumb mistakes that other guys make. That definitely helped my game.”

By the time he became a Badger, he had grown to 6-10 and has since reached 228 pounds..

Leuer made no starts as a UW freshman, but played in 32 games and averaged 2.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 8.6 minutes on an experienced team that won both the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and the conference tournament. The Badgers reached the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament and finished 31-5.

Leuer played in all 33 games and started the final 12 games of the sophomore season and averaged 8.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg in 21.3 mpg. He had 13 double digit scoring games including 17 in a victory at Virginia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Badgers tied for fourth in the Big Ten with a 10-8 record and went 20-13 overall. They knocked off fifth- seeded Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Xavier. Leuer was a diligent student, too, making the Academic All-Big Ten Team.

The Badgers entered Leuer’s junior campaign pegged to finish ninth in the Big Ten, but they upset Arizona and Maryland in the Maui Invitational, then toppled fifth-ranked Duke – the eventual national champion -- in a game televised nationally on ESPN. .

Leuer was a key component in the Badgers’ fast start, but he sustained a wrist injury in the team’s 16th game of the season and was sidelined for nine games. He scored in double digits in each of the final five games of the year, including 20 against the University of Illinois, as the Badgers went 4-1 down the stretch and finished 13-5 in the Big Ten to earn fourth place and a No. 13 national ranking. Leuer was named Big Ten Player of the Week for the final week of the regular season.

The Badgers lost to Illinois  in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, then were upset by Cornell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament despite a 23-point performance by Leuer.

Leuer led the Badgers with 15.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 1.3 blocks per game. His .522 field-goal percentage was the highest by a UW player since Alando Tucker shot .533 in 2003. He earned honorable mention all-Big Ten recognition despite missing half of the conference season and made the Academic All-Big Ten team for the second straight year.

Leuer thankfully recovered from his injury and remained healthy in the months that followed, when his basketball career took would take another quantum leap.
(Visit Bucks.com again soon to read Part II of this story.)