On Twitter: @justinpleslie
Justin Leslie is an established difference maker, demonstrating an unprecedented impact on Azusa Pacific basketball both as a player and now as an established successful head coach. The most significant milestones and achievements in the program's history have been influenced during Leslie's 19 years of direct involvement with Cougar basketball, and the 38-year old has cultivated a unique coaching style which reflects his thoughtful, calculating nature with a youthful enthusiasm for developing the next generation of young leaders.
Leslie is highly competitive and meticulous in his attention to detail, yet fiercely loyal to a coaching philosophy focused on development of the whole person. After navigating Azusa Pacific through a three-year transition to NCAA Division II membership, Azusa Pacific won the Division II West Region championship in 2015 and became just the second program to advance to the Elite Eight in its first year of postseason eligibility since the current Division II Elite Eight format was implemented in 1989. Despite having to replace all five starters from the 2015 Elite Eight squad, the Cougars repeated as Pacific West Conference regular-season champions and returned to the NCAA postseason for the second straight season in 2016.
Paralleling the on-court success is Leslie's leadership of one of Division II's top-performing academic men's basketball programs. Azusa Pacific is Division II's lone West region program to claim three consecutive National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Team Academic Excellence Awards, and the Cougars are the lone recipient in all of Division II which also won its conference championship in the same season.
Leslie was voted the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) West Region Coach of the Year in 2015, guiding Azusa Pacific into the Division II national rankings in early December for the first of 13 consecutive weeks in the top 25 poll. The Cougars were ranked as high as 11th and finished the season ranked 14th with a 27-6 overall record. Leslie presided over a 14-game winning streak, the sixth-longest in program history, over a two-month stretch which included road wins over West Region regular-season conference champions Western Oregon (GNAC) and Chico State (CCAA).
Starting a group of five seniors for all 33 games of the 2014-15 season, Leslie guided the program to a perfect 15-0 record at home, tying two previous seasons (1993-94 and 1996-97) for the best unbeaten home records in program history. Victories over Western Oregon, Cal Poly Pomona, and California Baptist in the first three rounds of the NCAA Division II Tournament wrapped up the Cougars' success at the Felix Event Center, where they won the program's first Division II regional title with a 91-79 win over California Baptist.
A year later, Leslie successfully replaced all five graduating senior starters and repeated as PacWest regular-season champions in 2016, going 23-9 overall and 15-5 in the PacWest. He led his program back to the NCAA postseason for the second straight season, and the Cougars beat perennial West Region power Seattle Pacific before falling to eventual national semifinalist Western Oregon. For his efforts, he was named PacWest Coach of the Year for the second straight season.
In nine seasons as head coach, Leslie has compiled a 209-84 overall record, including a 50-15 record in the program's first two years of active NCAA membership, which have resulted in consecutive Pacific West Conference regular-season championships.
From his earliest memories, Leslie has been a part of Cougar basketball, attending games with his grandfather, participating in "Cliff Hamlow Basketball Camps," and signing to play with the Cougars when he was 17 years old.
The progression was natural that he would someday become the curator of Cougar basketball. Thus on April 12, 2007, Leslie was named the fifth head coach of Azusa Pacific men's basketball, replacing veteran mentor Bill Odell, who retired after 16 years at the Cougar helm. Leslie, who played five seasons for Odell and then served as his assistant for another five years, is smart, articulate, passionate and appropriately confident, and he was well-prepared when he was handed control of the Cougar program well before his 30th birthday.
He was well-versed in the history and tradition of Cougar basketball, and other than Odell himself, no individual had played a more significant role in Azusa Pacific's emergence and continuing presence as a small-college power than Leslie. Of Azusa Pacific's 454 wins during Odell's 16-year tenure, Leslie was on hand as either a player or assistant coach for 302 of them. With 209 wins as head coach to go with his previous playing and coaching experience, Leslie has been involved in 45 percent of the 1,129 victories in the program's 51-year history.
Though he inherited a program with a fabulous tradition, his first Cougar team featured 10 new players, and thus it was up to Leslie to fashion the unit into a cohesive team. He guided the Cougars through some expected early-season rough waters as the team discovered its identity. By midseason, the Cougars hit their stride and they closed the regular season by winning 11 of their final 13 games and carried the momentum into the postseason where for the fourth straight year they advanced to the "Elite Eight" of the NAIA Tournament. The Cougars finished the season at 24-11, and for his work Leslie was named the GSAC Coach of the Year.
In 2009, Leslie's Cougars went 24-10, and although his 2010 team was riddled with injuries, Leslie kept the unit focused in an impressive 28-10 campaign. By mid-February, when all wounds had healed, the Cougars took off, winning 11 of their final 12 games and advancing to the NAIA championship game for only the second time in program history. A year later, Leslie guided the Cougars to a 29-6 campaign with a nearly-perfect regular season. Azusa Pacific won 26 of 30 before postseason play, including a 17-3 conference record, and all four defeats came by a combined margin of just seven points. In 2012, Leslie guided the Cougars to a 24-8 record despite a brand-new starting five, posting Azusa Pacific's 20th consecutive 20-win season.
In 2013, Leslie tackled the challenge of a two-year postseason drought by laying the foundation for success at the NCAA Division II level. Azusa Pacific joined the Pacific West Conference as it completed its transition to active NCAA Division II membership, and Leslie put together a roster and schedule that appropriately challenged his team to become a program that could consistently compete for conference, regional, and national titles at the Division II level. The next two years resulted in a 30-24 overall record, but the seeds were planted for greater success in the years to come.
As a player, the 6-foot-8 Leslie was a center for some of the finest teams in Azusa Pacific history, playing for the Cougars from 1996 to 2001. He is one of just five players in Golden State Athletic Conference history to play on four conference championship teams (the other four were also Cougars). In fact, he actually played on five GSAC title teams, briefly playing for the 2000 championship squad before being granted a medical hardship because of an injury.
During his 132-game Cougar career, Leslie averaged 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds and in the process set the school season (88) and career (168) records for blocked shots. As a 2001 senior, he averaged 12.4 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds while leading Azusa Pacific to a program-best 35-3 record. He was a key reserve on the Cougars' 1998 squad that advanced to the NAIA semifinals and then started all 35 games in 1999 when Azusa Pacific returned to the semis. Statistically, his finest outing as a Cougar came in the aforementioned abbreviated 2000 campaign when he scored a career-high 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes of play against Cal Poly Pomona. However, he offered a more significant contribution during his 1999 junior season when he tallied 23 points, including 13 in the second half, to go along with three blocked shots, to lead Azusa Pacific from nine points down in the second half to a 69-61 victory over Biola and clinch the Cougars' seventh straight GSAC title. All told, Leslie was a key member of a Cougar program that went 127-22 (.852) during his playing career.
Leslie prepped at Perris (Calif.) High where he played three seasons for longtime head coach Elzie Landers. He was a two-time All-Sunbelt League and All-Riverside County selection. As a 1996 senior he also garnered All-Inland Empire recognition while leading the Panthers to a 24-5 record and the Sunbelt League title.
An outstanding student, Leslie graduated from Azusa Pacific magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in marketing in 2000. He then garnered an MBA from Azusa Pacific during his final season of play for the Cougars. He joined Odell's staff as an assistant coach for the 2001-02 season and then spent the next year working for David Taussig & Associates, Inc., a public finance consulting company based in Newport Beach. He returned to coaching and the Cougar staff in the fall of 2003.
Justin and his wife, Joy, also an Azusa Pacific alum, live in Glendora with their two daughters, Jill (14) and Jenna (11) and son, Jaren (7).