Life changed abruptly for Jeff Lebo when he resigned as East Carolina basketball coach early in the 2017-18 season. He has recently filled a void in his life by becoming an assistant coach for the Greensboro Swarm, the G League affiliate of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
“My good friend and teammate, Joe Wolf, is the head coach of the team,” Lebo said. “He had approached me about the possibility of doing that.
“I really didn’t know what was going to happen until probably October. I’ve been doing that and going to watch my son play as much as I can.”
Lebo’s son, Creighton, is a high school senior at the Greenfield School in Wilson.
“It’s a lot different from college,” Lebo said of his new responsibilities. “It’s all basketball. Obviously, the players are very good. We’ve got a few of the Hornets, assignment guys who come down. We’ve got two two-way players who play for us. It’s a 50-game schedule. It goes through the end of March.
“It’s been fun. We had nine of our first 12 on the road, which was difficult. … It’s all basketball. I don’t have to worry about recruiting or guys going to class, being eligible and all that kind of stuff.
“It’s pretty cool because the players are very good. They’re very driven. Obviously, they’re professionals now and they take what they do very seriously.”
Lebo’s son played earlier in his career at Rose High in Greenville. Jeff’s dad, Dave, who coached Jeff’s team to a state title, in Carlisle, PA, is still an assistant at Conley, Rose’s rival.
“Last year they won the state championship at Greenfield, which was a goal that they had,” Lebo said. “They didn’t win it the year before with Coby White, so they were pretty driven.”
White played one season at North Carolina and is now with the Chicago Bulls.
Lebo was asked the evaluate his son as a player.
“I got a chance to watch for two years like every one of his games,” Lebo said. “Creighton is very efficient. Creighton is shooting almost 60 percent from three this year. He’s probably in the mid-80s from the foul line. He’s just a really good, solid basketball player. He does a little bit of everything. He handles it.
“He’s gotten better. He’s gotten stronger. He’s a guy who at the end of his career is going to be close to 2,000 points probably … at Rose and then at Greenfield. He’s hoping that he gets that second state championship. We’ll see what happens with the basketball. Right now, he’s still got to finish up this year.”
Joining the program at North Carolina, his dad’s alma mater, as a walk-on is regarded as a good possibility for the younger Lebo.
Fieldhouse at Greensboro Coliseum
The Swarm plays in a smaller arena within the Greensboro Coliseum Complex.
“We do have a homecourt advantage,” Lebo said. “We have a lot of people who come out to the games. Having it in Greensboro, obviously, you’re in a basketball state. You’re in a basketball city. They have the ACC Tournament there all the time.
“G-League basketball is really a high level brand of basketball. A basketball junkie can see the quality of play, the speed of the game, how talented the players are. It’s really pretty good entertainment to watch a game.
“Typically, those games, too, you can get down close to the floor and see those guys play. You can really develop an appreciation for how talented and how good those guys are.
“Greensboro has been great supporting the G League team. They’ve come out.”
Just before Christmas, the Swarm played two games in Las Vegas.
“Every G-League team goes out to Las Vegas and plays out there, two games,” Lebo said.
After the first 12 regular-season games, the top four teams played for $100,000. The Swarm weren’t among the top four but still got two games in Vegas.
“It’s a pretty cool, neat concept,” Lebo said. “It’s different because we do a lot of the experimental rules before the NBA looks at it. … We shoot one foul shot until the last two minutes. If you get fouled on a three, you only shoot one. If you get fouled on a two, you shoot one.
“The timeouts are a little bit different. The game rules are different. It’s an adjustment to learn all that. Really the sped of the game is a lot different than college.”
Thoughts on college coaching
Lebo feels he made a good decision to leave college coaching when he did.
“I do,” Lebo said. “As I’ve said before, I wanted to pivot away and do something different. I wanted to watch my son play, which I had missed so many games. I got a chance to watch him play, probably 60-some games.
“I get a chance with some flexibility now with this job to see him play about as much as I did before. But I get a chance to see him play.
“I was out of basketball for two years. I missed three things. I missed the interaction with the players. I missed the interaction with the coaches and I missed being part of a team.
“I had been part of a team my whole life. When I talked to Joe about this opportunity, I thought, ‘Wow, I can get all three of these things.’ I did it with him and the Greensborio team because I could do it in North Carolina. On a day off, I could still get home. That kind of stuff. It worked and I’m very fortunate that it did work out. My wife (Melissa) has been good about it. It’s been a change, not being at home.
“I’ve been able to get back into basketball and have something to do — be around those players, be around the coaches and be a part of a team.
“That’s the three things. There are a lot of things I don’t miss. I don’t miss having to check them going to class. I don’t miss checking them at curfew. (In the G League) They’re supposed to be in. You don’t have to go out on the road recruiting.
“It’s also nice being an assistant because you don’t have to talk to the media much. (Lebo laughs). … You learn a lot about it as you go through it. You deal with it on a daily basis. I understand. Sometimes they like to create drama because then people listen. They like to create drama because then people will buy a paper or buy a subscription of whatever it is.
“A lot of times, they’re completely wrong. … Like this stuff with Ky Bowman.”
Lebo’s side of the Bowman story
The San Francisco Chronicle and Duke Basketball Report have indicated that Lebo did not respond to a message from Bowman regarding a scholarship to ECU.
Lebo said he has been unfairly depicted in the Bowman saga. Lebo said the Pirates actively recruited Bowman out of Havelock and ECU assistant Ken Potosnak even advised in regard to his academic coarse load so he could meet NCAA standards.
Lebo offered Bowman a scholarship, aware that Bowman might opt to play football on the collegiate level. Lebo told Bowman he needed to know his intentions before Shawn Williams made a campus visit. Williams ultimately got the grant that had been offered to Bowman when Bowman did not respond in a timely manner.
Bowman chose to play at Boston College and made second team All-ACC. He is in his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors of the NBA.
“It was us and North Carolina Central going into his senior year and we still offered him a scholarship,” Lebo said. “I told him, ‘We need to know something here because I need to get a point guard.’ … He was waiting for something more. Give the kid credit. Everybody went through there late. Boston College was the only one that would bite on him because they needed a point guard so bad.
“We offered the kid. We were on the kid. We gave the kid the first shot at it. I went over there. We put together the academic plan. We went over to help him with the academic plan after we had Shawn to make sure he had everything he needed to get eligible. That stuff about me not calling back, that’s bull. … It was a done deal if he said he wanted that scholarship.
“Give the kid credit. He did what he had to do. We put the plan together. He got the grades to get eligible.”
Obstacles for ECU hoops
Lebo won 116 games in seven-plus seasons at ECU, including the College Insider Tournament to cap the 2012-13 season so he knows the challenges the program faces to achieve success..
“It’s going to take the commitment in all areas financially, from recruiting budgets to facilities, the things that we fought there all the time,” Lebo said. “The history and tradition. People would say, ‘Hey, why do you want to go to East Carolina? You’re going to lose in basketball. Look at the history. Look at the tradition.’ People would map it out. They would show them exactly what it was. ‘Now why is it going to be different?’ Stuff like that.
“We had to fight our gym, our facility. In the new league (American Athletic Conference), it’s one of the worst. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s just old and antiquated. Now when people were in it, it was a fun place to play. It was pretty cool. People were on top of you. It was loud and obnoxious, but you could count those games on one hand.
“We had to fight that. You fought the history and tradition. You fought the kids in the state of North Carolina that didn’t want to go to East Carolina to play basketball. People think that’s easy. ‘You can go there and make a difference.’ Well, that’s easy to say, but it wasn’t fashionable to tell your buddies you were going to East Carolina to play basketball. That was a real thing. Maybe people don’t understand it, but that was a real deal. Those were things that you had to fight constantly.
“The new league. Yeah, it was great. They talk about all the TV exposure, but we really didn’t get that. Every once in a while on ESPN. Now it’s like ESPN3 or ESPN-plus. We weren’t really on like I thought we were going to be on. So does that really help you? I’m not really sure about that. You’ve got better teams coming in, which I thought was good, but the level of jump (competition) went tremendously higher.
“The other thing that hurt us was we worked hard to get guys that were good enough for the most part, but keeping them was another thing. … Elijah Hughes (who transferred to Syracuse from ECU) — keeping a guy like that. The kid as he grows up is a Syracuse fanatic. He loves Syracuse. They didn’t kind of go on him because they didn’t want to put the time in because he was a guy who might get eligible at the very last chance.
“We did it and we were worried after that because we heard that people were talking to him and trying to get him to go to prep school. Another year, prep. We had him for the year. We had to work our tail off to get him to come for that year. And he has a dream to play at Syracuse. If you’re a kid, what are you going to do when you’ve got that opportunity?
“He was a great kid. He worked his butt off for me. I didn’t really blame him for that. … He might be their leading scorer this year. He had 33 against Georgia Tech. He’s a difference maker for you. It’s hard to get those kinds of guys.”
The transfer route is appealing for guys who play well at ECU and also for guys who are not playing.
“You can’t control it all,” Lebo said. ‘It’s the way the world works now. It’s not that there is anything wrong with East Carolina. Kids just sometimes … make a change. That’s the way everything works now.
” … We got Kentrell Barkley. He was a difference maker. You’ve got to take risks on guys. When you take risks on guys, like other things, sometimes they don’t work out or they may work out temporarily.”
Jayden Gardner, a Lebo recruit, has been a mainstay in his first two seasons at ECU. He played on the high school level at Heritage in Wake Forest.
“I thought he was a very good player,” Lebo said. “I thought he was a winner. He played for a very good high school coach (Tilden Brill). He had a great motor. I watched every one of his AAU games. He played at a high level. Every game I would go in there and I would just say, ‘Please, ACC, please don’t look. Don’t see him. Every game he would get 14, 12. Every game, 16, 13 in AAU. All the time. I couldn’t believe it. I’m going Wake Forest, please don’t. N.C. State, please don’t.
“But I never thought he would do what he did his freshman year. I thought he was really good, but I never would have estimated that.”
Gardner averaged 16.3 points and 8.5 rebounds last season as a freshman for the Pirates.
Lebo works with exceptionally-talented players every day. How does Gardner project for the NBA?
“For him to go to the next level, he’s got to play on the perimeter,” Lebo said. “He’s got to be able to make a shot. He’s got to be able to handle the ball on the perimeter. He’s undersized. There are guys in the pros who are 6-10, 6-11 that will shoot it from three and that’s an NBA three. He’s going to have to play more out and prove that he can defend out there against a smaller guy or a more athletic guy.
“Can he shoot the ball from out there, because the NBA game is very little post up. Very little. It’s amazing. More spread the floor, drive, kick. Perimeter stuff. Even from big guys.”