Perhaps because his mother's name is Evelyn Wood, Leon Wood speed-reads defenses as well as anyone in college basketball. That's one of several reasons why the Cal State-Fullerton junior may be the best point guard in the nation.
He's certainly the most underrated and underpublicized at his position, mostly because the Titans belong to a conference, the PCAA, dominated this season by University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and also because Fullerton's geographic area, Southern California, is dominated by UCLA, USC, Disneyland and other media-hogging attractions.
But around Fullerton, where he's known as Woodman or The Wood (the name on his warmup jersey), he's a major draw, and deservedly so. At week's end Wood led the nation in assists with 10.9 per game, while averaging an astonishing 18.2 points a game. (The second leader in assists, with 9.9, is UNLV's Danny Tarkanian, but Tarkanian is only scoring 7.6 points a game.) Thanks to Wood, the Titans were 17-4 overall and second only to UNLV in the conference.
"He's one of the top guards in college today, if not the top guard," says Pete Newell, consultant to the Golden State Warriors and one of the game's most successful talent scouts. "Leon handles the ball on the break as well as any guard I've seen in quite a while. There's no one even close to him in the last few years."
After watching the 6'3", 190-pound Wood dismantle his team with 25 points and 14 assists in a 79-65 Fullerton victory, Cal State-Long Beach Coach Tex Winter was asked for a comparison. "Well, he's got those quick hands like Jerry West, you know," said Winter. "Offensively, he's got everything like a...oh, like a West. Hey, why not West?"
Whoa there, Tex! It may be a little early to compare Wood to a basketball immortal, because Wood's defense is sometimes wanting, though he has used his quick hands to make 49 steals. But no one in college basketball understands the offensive game so well. A few examples from his first half against Long Beach: Wood is dribbling near the top of the circle when Ozell (Hoppy) Jones, Fullerton's 6'11" center, flashes up on the high post calling for the ball. Wood shakes his head—Jones would be shooting out of his range—dribbles to the other side of the key and slips a bounce pass deep in the paint to sophomore Forward Tony Neal for an easy turnaround jumper. Next time down, Wood penetrates, draws a foul and makes both shots. A minute later he dishes to Ricky Mixon on a three-on-one break for a basket. Then he feeds Neal near the basket for two more. Starting another break, he back-flips to Jones for a spectacular slam. It's only after Long Beach starts easing off him to stop the havoc he's causing with his passing that Wood begins going to the basket himself.
Wood's involvement in a game is total; his face registers every ebb and flow. Even as he waits on the court for the starting lineup introductions, he glances compulsively at the scoreboard. He looks pained whenever he or a teammate botches play. After benefiting from a bad goaltending call, he trots back to his defensive position wearing a smile and shaking his head, too much of a purist to pretend he deserved the basket.
Wood is no Leon-come-lately to offensive production. As a high school senior in Santa Monica, he averaged 42.1 points per game, and he still holds the California high school scoring record, 2,693 points. Fullerton Coach George McQuarn was criticized for installing Wood at the point two years ago: Now, of course, those who insisted that Wood was strictly a shooter have disappeared.
The campus apartment he shares with Jones is orderly except for shelves that are stacked with newspapers and basketball magazines. Wood buys the publications to keep tabs on other players around the country, particularly other guards, and for the same reason he avidly watches cable television. "Hop and I have two TVs but no cable money, so I have to make other plans," says Wood, meaning he drops in on any of several cable-equipped friends to watch basketball games day or night. "They just leave the door open for me," he says.
In hundreds of hours of TV viewing, Wood has heard spiels about all the best point guards in the land. "It would be nice to hear my name mentioned just once," he says, "but it hasn't happened yet." His own TV appearances have been limited to ESPN broadcasts of two PCAA games last season.
Wood's room is covered with basketball pictures and posters, including a collage of pro and college players that hangs above his bed. The only woman player to rate a full poster? Ann Meyers of UCLA. "I know the family real well," says Wood. "Her brothers, her parents, all of them." For that matter, Wood, who has never lived farther than 10 miles from the UCLA campus, knows most everyone connected with Bruin basketball. His mother attended classes at UCLA for four years before finishing her B.A. in sociology at Long Beach. One of Wood's fondest boyhood memories is of a chance on-campus meeting with John Wooden; the Wizard commented on the similarity of their names. Wood played in off-season and summer pickup games with the Bruin varsity players. "I'm going to wear your jersey [No. 14] here," he told Bruin Guard Brad Holland early in his senior year at St. Monica's High. Indeed, for Larry Farmer, then an assistant coach at UCLA, recruiting 17-year-old Leon Wood for UCLA was the easiest job he ever had. But it was not to be.
In March 1979, the Bruins' head coaching job went to Larry Brown and not to Farmer. For some reason Leon and his mother decided that Brown was too intense, and so Wood signed with Arizona, his distant second choice. Today both mother and son admit it was a mistake.
Homesick, feeling out of place in the desert and unsure of his role on the team, Wood decided to leave Arizona after his freshman year. To switch to UCLA was out of the question: Even if he had been accepted, a Pac-10 rule on transfers within the conference would have required him to sit out for two years. Leon thought UNLV and its wide-open game would be ideal for him, but Evelyn nixed that because of doubts about that school's academic program. "Short of throwing myself in front of a moving car, he was not going to that university," she says. Though many of his friends scoffed, Wood decided Fullerton was the next best thing to UCLA. Fittingly, he spent most of his non-playing year (only one is required for out-of-conference transfers) watching Bruin and Trojan basketball games.
At first Wood resisted McQuarn's decision to make him a point guard. "Coach, I'm used to taking 20 shots a game," he said. But McQuarn convinced him that his future as a pro is as a play-maker. Still, when needed, Wood clearly can take the scoring initiative, as he did at UNLV on Jan. 22, with Fullerton trailing 59-44 late in the second half. In the final seven minutes, Wood fed Mixon on a jumper, scored a three-point play, hit a three-point jumper (he's 16 of 35 for the season from the three-point range), made two free throws, hit a medium-range jumper, then another, converted two more free throws, canned a three-point shot and finally assisted on Fullerton's final two baskets. The Titans fell short by just 76-71.
You probably didn't hear or read about that sparkling performance—that's the fate of the unknown Woodman—but there's no doubt that the NBA scouts got the message loud and clear.