Harrison’s Leiras emerging as basketball sharpshooter

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison sophomore guard Johnathan Leiras.
Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison sophomore guard Johnathan Leiras.

The high school basketball season was only a handful of weeks away from beginning and Harrison head boys’ coach Noel Colon was mapping out his lineup. Colon knew that he had a sure-fire scorer at the swing position in junior Quincy Rutherford, someone who averaged close to 18 points per game last season as a sophomore. That wasn’t a problem.

Colon also knew that he had a rising star in sophomore guard Johnathan Leiras, who started last year as a freshman and had moments of brilliance, playing both guard positions.

Leiras played well at times at point guard, but was more comfortable playing the two-guard (or shooting guard) position.

“The goal was for Johnathan to play the two,” Colon said. “We had someone else to be the point guard.”

But then that expected starter at the point guard suddenly packed up his belongings and moved to Newark to attend Shabazz High School. It forced Colon to make some last-minute moves.

“I had to press John into being the point guard,” Colon said. “I didn’t want Quincy to bring up the ball. I told John he was going to have to step it up.”

Leiras did not flinch with the news.

“I really didn’t think about it much at all,” Leiras said. “I was willing to do whatever the team needed me to do. I had a feeling that I was going to be the two (guard). Losing our point guard was a big loss to the team and to me, because he was a close friend. I was upset about it. But we had to move forward. I didn’t look at it as a setback. I had confidence in myself that I could do it. I wasn’t worried and my teammates weren’t worried either.”

Colon applauded Leiras’ attitude.

“I knew deep down that he was more comfortable at being the two, but he was our best option at point guard,” Colon said. “He accepted the role.”

Colon always knew that Leiras was destined for greatness.

“I think we all knew what he was capable of, ever since he was in eighth grade,” Colon said. “We knew he was a talented kid in eighth grade and would help us out right away with the varsity.”

But now, the 5-foot-10 Leiras was being asked to be the team’s floor leader and general. It was asking a lot.

Leiras was ready for the challenge, because life gave him no other choice.

Leiras, who is half Brazilian and half Portuguese, is the product of a single mom, Natalie Leiras, who has raised Johnathan and his two sisters Emily (age 11) and Jacqueline (age 10). There is no father figure present.

“It’s tough,” Leiras said. “I guess it teaches you to grow up and be a man earlier. It forces you to be more mature. It’s all right. Being in a house with all girls sometimes gets annoying, but it’s just part of life. It really motivates me a lot to move on.”

It’s also helped Leiras to be a dedicated student. Leiras attends High Tech High School in North Bergen, where he maintains a 3.9 grade point average. Leiras has to get up early every day to catch the bus to get to High Tech, then has to hurry home to get to practices and games on time with the rest of the Harrison team.

Because High Tech no longer has interscholastic athletics, students can play for the teams in their home district, thus Leiras’ eligibility with the Blue Tide.

“It’s tough, but I manage,” Leiras said. “I always get back on time for practices and games. It’s important for my education. I take my schoolwork seriously.”

Leiras also takes his basketball seriously. He plays no other sport.

“I played soccer a little bit when I was younger, but I got the passion for basketball in sixth grade and started to play a lot,” Leiras said.

When Leiras was attending Washington Middle School in Harrison, he helped his team win a championship while he was in seventh grade.

“I was successful there,” Leiras said. “It gave me the idea that I could do it in high school.”

When the time came to play for the Blue Tide, Leiras had a talented teammate in Rutherford, who was The Observer Athlete of the Week last week.

“I think the way I play helps both of us,” Leiras said. “We play really well together.”

And Leiras was happy that Rutherford was the Athlete of the Week last week.

“I was really proud of him,” Leiras said. “He’s been working very hard lately.”

Leiras has certainly been no slouch this season. In one game three weeks ago, Leiras went off for 38 points against New Milford, connecting on six 3-pointers in the game.

Little did Leiras know that he would soon do that game one better.

Last Tuesday, as the Blue Tide faced NJIC rival Secaucus, Leiras scored an astounding 40 points, including eight 3-pointers.

The explosion enabled Leiras to earn The Observer Athlete of the Week honors this week. It marks the first time in the 15 years of the weekly feature that teammates received the recognition in consecutive weeks.

Leiras, who also scored 14 points in a game against University Charter of Jersey City on Saturday, said that he wasn’t consciously thinking of how his shot was falling against the rival Patriots.

“Warming up, my shot felt good,” Leiras said. “I feel like I’ve been doing a good job creating for others, but if my shot is there, I have to take it.”

“I just think that the game came to him,” Colon said. “When his shot is going, you can see it in his demeanor. He’s feeling it. Once he gets going, he’s hard to stop. He makes my job easier. We just have to make sure to get him the ball. It’s fun to watch when he’s rolling.”

Neither Colon nor Leiras had any idea that he reached the prestigious 40-point plateau until the game was over.

“I definitely knew he was the hot man and we had to get him the ball in the flow of the game,” Colon said. “He remains hungry and humble by allowing the game to come to him. He really has high expectations of himself. He wants to prove to himself and everyone that he can be one of the top dogs on the court.”

Although Leiras has enjoyed some success with a 40- and a 38-point game already this season, Colon believes he’s just scratching the surface.

“He still has a ways to go,” Colon said. “He needs to develop more. He’s a pretty strong kid, but he can get stronger. He’s getting more confident now. He sometimes tends to get a little reckless, so we’re working on that. But he’s more under control. He’s also leading by example. He’s just a sophomore, so he has a big chance to get better.”

Colon said that he needs more games like the ones he’s received recently, first from Rutherford and now from Leiras, in order to be more successful. The Blue Tide currently owns a 5-3 overall record and a 4-1 record in the NJIC Liberty Division.

“I’m happy for the kids, especially those two,” Colon said. “They both care about the game and work so hard. We can go as far as they take us. As a coach, it gives you something to shoot for. We can have some realistic goals we can accomplish with those two.”

Rutherford is only a junior and Leiras is a sophomore. There’s a lot of promise there.

Leiras hopes to one day play college basketball, but that’s down the road a bit. After all, he still has two and a half years of high school remaining.

“I’m happy with what I’ve done, but I can never be satisfied,” Leiras said. “It’s a good feeling. I just have to keep working hard. Who knows what can happen? As long as we keep winning, nothing bothers me. That’s all that matters.”

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”