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2017-18 Player Review: Te’Jon Lucas

Lucas’ sophomore campaign had a few ups and plenty of downs.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

By The Numbers

The 6-foot-1 point guard from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, saw slight statistical improvement in his sophomore season compared to his freshman campaign. Lucas averaged 5.7 points, 3.2 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 21.4 minutes per game. All of those numbers are modest improvements from what his stat line looked like in 2016-17, but likely not the big leap head coach Brad Underwood and a majority of Illini fans would have liked to have seen from the team’s first choice at point guard (after Tracy Abrams) last year.

Lucas took a step backward when it came to his three-point shooting. When true freshman guard Trent Frazier became the Illini’s primary ball handler, it was important for Te’Jon to be a reliable player capable of stretching defenses. That only happens if and when the opponent respects the outside shot.

Te’Jon shot 19 three-pointers this season. He made just five of them.

The entire Illini team struggled to make contested shots in the lane. For how many times Lucas got the ball to the basket, he converted just 51 percent of his two-point field goals.

Lucas and Frazier had similar steals and assists per game stats. Frazier, though, averaged nearly three times as many points in just four minutes more per game than Lucas.

For a point guard who likes to drive to the lane, Lucas was an abysmal 61 percent from the free throw line. That’s up from 59 percent from the line last season. Add that to the list of items he needs to work on come next season — wherever he plans on playing.

Impact On The Illini

After the loss of a once-in-a-generation player in Malcolm Hill a year ago, Lucas looked like a bright light in the transition from the John Groce era to the Brad Underwood era in Champaign. Lucas showed a tremendous feel for the game and a knack for making life hell for other point guards in the league — his on-ball defense was stifling and intimidating — something coach Underwood probably beamed about as he was scouting his future roster.

Things went slightly south this season for Lucas for two main reasons:

  1. It was clear from the beginning that Trent would beat Te’Jon for the starting point guard job. Frazier has better handles, a much better shot and the ability to play defense just as well. Mark Smith was the freshman with more hype heading into the season, but Frazier likely took that to heart and as a motivating factor to become the best guard on the roster in 2017-18. Nothing is given. Everything is earned. Frazier seemingly outworked Lucas and Smith, and that’s part of the explanation for why Te’Jon didn’t improve by the leaps and bounds so many expected of him.
  2. The suspension. Te’Jon Lucas was suspended indefinitely — it ended up being about two weeks — by Underwood for a violation of team rules. In January, when many Illinois players were experiencing flu-like symptoms, Lucas was actually healthy but broke a team rule and was unavailable to play in losses to Iowa and Nebraska. Underwood said Lucas would be available to play in the Jan. 19 contest at Wisconsin, if needed. Illinois was down and buried in that game early, arguably the team’s worst performance of the season. Lucas did not appear in the Wisconsin game and missed those three games early on in the Big Ten season.

Te’Jon’s Best Game:

Save the best for last. Te’Jon Lucas had his best performance in Illinois’ final game this season in the Big Ten Tournament versus Iowa at Madison Square Garden. Lucas finished with 12 points and tied a career-high with eight assists. He had no turnovers in the game, but like the rest of his Illini teammates, he struggled from the free throw line.

He showed some pretty spectacular court vision, dropping dimes like this:

He also felt inspired by the type of three-pointers Trent Frazier was making all season. Those tough-to-make, step-back fadeaway threes:

The Quick and Dirty

Lucas wasn’t exactly bad this season, but he certainly did not exceed expectations in 2017-18. The thought was Lucas would be the guy running the point, much like he was for Groce especially after Tracy Abrams’ career in Champaign last season.

What does the future hold for Te’Jon Lucas? He’s good enough to play at this level, but with the rise and early dominance of Frazier plus an incoming, ball-heavy iso player in Ayo Dosunmu, will Lucas play an important role for the Illini next season, or even play for the Illini? This season, Lucas didn’t really take any steps forward — and with the mid-season suspension, in many ways, Lucas took a step back in his sophomore campaign.