There were stretches of Meyers Leonard's sophomore season at Illinois when the 7-foot-1 center looked like an NBA lottery pick.

At other times, former Illini coach Bruce Weber was frustrated enough to threaten that the super athletic big man would be benched if he didn't live up to expectations.

Leonard ultimately rated 2011-12 as nothing better than a "decent season," and Weber couldn't deny that he needed another year of seasoning before turning pro. But the forces tugging at Leonard led him to enter the NBA draft, where he just might realize his dream of being a lottery pick.

The native of Robinson, Ill., considered more than his own personal well being when he decided to leave. His mother has faced health issues that limit her ability to get around to the point that she never saw him play a game for the Illini.

"My mom and I have always been very close," he said when announcing his decision to turn pro. "A lot of people think she's not there, but I talk to her on the phone twice a day. With her health situation and for her future and my future, I felt it was best to leave."

Leonard is solidly entrenched as a first-round prospect, although mock drafts differ considerably on how high he will be selected. The most popular prediction is that Milwaukee will take him with the No. 12 pick Thursday.

After playing limited minutes as a freshman, he showed significant improvement last season, averaging 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds and shooting 58 percent.

However, he was an inconsistent performer who had great games followed by stretches of minimal impact. Leonard sometimes wilted under attention from defenses and scrutiny from officials.

"He really understood how important the spring was and worked at it pretty hard," Weber said. "With all the testing and individual stuff, he'll blow the charts up, and at the combine his numbers were great. The thing is, does he have the maturity and toughness? He's made big strides."

Leonard speaks with Weber several times each week, providing updates on his workouts and receiving advice. Although Leonard was at Illinois only two years, the roots of their relationship can be traced to his early high school days when the recruiting process began.

If there was any chance of Leonard staying at Illinois, it probably ended when Weber was fired. Leonard met with new coach John Groce for an hour, but the decision already had been made.

"When all the stuff started with me, he came in and said, 'Coach, if you're not going to be (at Illinois), I'm going to be gone,'" Weber said. "That was when I told him I would contact the advisory board."

Weber said he has talked to representatives from eight to 10 NBA teams about Leonard. His sense is that he will go somewhere from the seventh to the 18th pick.

Leonard has been on a tour with other big men and worked out for several teams along with North Carolina's Tyler Zeller and Syracuse's Fab Melo.

His name is connected to Milwaukee because the Bucks need a center after trading Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, to Golden State in March. He hopes that his commitment to the game since finishing a disappointing freshman season will pay dividends.

"I was very determined," he told reporters at the NBA combine. "I was doing everything right, trying to, anyway. I was eating right, sleeping. I don't go out and I don't party. I don't drink. I'm in the gym all the time."

Leonard relocated to Long Island after signing with agent Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management.

Wherever he lands, Leonard plans to take his mother along. Then he can focus on taking his game to the next level.

"I understand my role is to be a defensive presence and impact the game with athleticism, block shots, run the floor and finish around the rim," he said. "From there I'll expand my game. I'm just going to learn every day and continue to work hard."