“I can’t be held responsible // We were merely freshmen”
It’s the week after the Illinois/WIU football game. Lovie Smith’s program has been defined by the youth movement thus far. Saturday night, we watched a bunch of freshmen, sophomores and walk-ons get their second win of the season. Now I’m sitting down to write the first installment of the Illinois Basketball roster preview. On who? That’s right.
This is the second straight year the football and basketball teams have been defined by an unprecedented amount of freshmen contributors.
True freshman to true freshman and its Groundhog Day. Next year it’s Williams to Beason and we just keep doing the same thing for infinity.— Robert (@ALionEye) September 9, 2018
This year the basketball team will have six true freshmen on the roster. That makes up half of all the program’s scholarship players. Last year, five of the 11 rotation players were true freshmen.
Youth brings hope. It also brings, frustration, inconsistency and questions. As I sat down to write this preview, all i could think of was this classic 90’s song.
So I’m going to put this on repeat as I write this. Feel free to do the same as you read it.
Onto the basketball.
It all starts with Ayo. He was the first player to commit and sign to the 2018 class. He is the highest rated recruit Illinois has signed in close to a decade, and he’s the reason Illini fans have hope for the upcoming season.
Dosunmu was rated as a 5-star prospect for the majority of his career and spent the summer playing with the USA U-18 team in Canada. If you haven’t seen Ayo play yet, you are in for a treat. Dosunmu will start alongside sophomore Trent Frazier all year long; there’s no debate there.
Both players are point guards, but have different skillsets that complement each other very well. Dosunmu stands at 6-foot-4 and possesses incredible length and vision. On the defensive end, Ayo will be the head of the snake. Expect him to be tasked with picking up the ballhandler 94 feet from the hoop. His awareness, length, and effort are exactly what Underwood wants to lead his ball pressure defense. In the half court, Trent Frazier will benefit from Dosunmu’s presence. Dosunmu is a strong defender and will allow the smaller Frazier to pick up the team’s weakest perimeter player, saving energy for the offensive end.
On offense, expect Ayo to have the ball in his hands a lot. His playmaking ability almost forces the offense to have to flow through him. He’s the most gifted, natural point guard Illinois has had in a long time. Frazier will still be initiating plenty of offense, but Ayo is a better passer and overall playmaker.
Dosunmu’s IQ is off the charts. He will have no problem adjusting to the speed of the college game. He is incredibly stoic and under control on the court — it looks like he is playing in slow motion. As a fan, you will notice a different level of comfort when Dosunmu has the ball at the top of the key. You just know he’s going to make the right play.
Expectations: Dosunmu will start and play 25-30 minutes per game. Don’t be surprised if Dosunmu leads the Illini in steals and assists as a freshman, while flirting with a double-digit scoring average. With the minutes and opportunities he will get in Champaign, I would expect him to earn an All-Big Ten Freshman Team nod.
The Illini desperately needed to add shooting. Enter, Alan Griffin.
Griffin is the son of former NBA player and current NBA Assistant Coach, Adrian Griffin. He attended Stepinac High School in New York, where he had a breakout senior season.
Griffin has unlimited range. Even if the rest of his game isn’t as ready as it needs to be, he will likely see minutes just to add floor spacing.
A coach’s son, Griffin has been around the game his entire life. There is a chance he picks up Underwood’s system really quickly, can use his length to play stout defense, and earn some playing time right away. A lack of playing time will be no fault of his own since the backcourt is a little crowded with some older players (no, seriously!).
Expectations: A great freshman season for Griffin would be to play around 10 MPG off the bench and average close to 1.0 3-point-make per game. If someone goes down he will be counted on to step up and play defense. If he lights the world on fire from three early on, it may be tough to keep him off the floor.
This is the player I’m most excited for on the entire roster. Jones is a 6-foot-6 wing from California, and he’s a long, skilled and athletic 6-foot-6. Jones has the makeup of a modern, versatile basketball player. Outside of Ayo Dosunmu, Jones is the best NBA prospect on the Illinois roster.
He can shoot the three, run the point, switch four positions on defense, and take defenders off the dribble. There’s no one else on the roster with the versatility and modern build and skillset of Jones. That’s why he’s extremely exciting and, in my mind, a NBA prospect.
He is still incredibly thin, like Dosunmu and Griffin, and is going to have to put on some strength to be dominant in every phase of the game, like I think he can be. Jones needs to be the fulcrum of this team and this rebuild. He can slide up to the two, down to the four, and be the chameleon that can do whatever this team needs going forward to bring a sense of balance to court. The problem is that’s a lot to ask a freshman to do.
Hopefully we can see the full potential of Jones by year two or three.
Expectations: I think Jones will see a lot of minutes. Maybe second or third most of the freshmen behind Dosunmu and Kane. By the end of the year, I think — and hope — Jones will be starting at the three. His freshman year numbers may not jump off the page or earn him any accolades. Here’s a possible statline: 6-8 points per game, 20+ minutes, 2+ rebounds and very possibly over 30% from three. However, we should be able to see flashes of a truly special player. Jones should do some things that make you turn to your friend and say, “we don’t have anyone else that can do that”.
Higgs was the last of the freshmen to sign on to the Illini’s Class of 2018. Higgs is a 6-foot-7, 200-pound wing/forward. With the depth that Illinois has at guard, and the lack of depth in the frontcourt, Higgs will likely be tasked with playing the four this year behind Kipper and the other freshmen bigs.
Higgs missed the entire summer and arrived on campus for the start of the fall semester. That puts him behind in strength and conditioning and learning the system.
The Baltimore native is a high flyer. He’ll bring some much-needed athleticism to the frontcourt. He’s lean and raw offensively; that combination will bring with it some growing pains during his freshman year.
Expectations: His core responsibilites as a freshman will be to provide a spark off the bench. Run the floor. Dive for loose balls. Play tough and smart defense and fight for rebounds. Give the guys on defense a jolt of energy with his play. He’s not going to be asked to take a lot of shots. A lot of his playing time will come when the already thin and inexperienced frontcourt finds itself in early foul trouble. If Kipper is out of the lineup for any stretch of time, Higgs’ role will increase dramatically. However, if everything goes according to plan, expect 5-10 minutes per game from the potential energizer bunny off the bench.
A.K.A. G-Bez. Giorgi is a prototypical stretch four or stretch five that checks in at 6-foot-10, 230. This year at Illinois, he’ll be playing a lot of five. G-Bez is perfect to stick into the pinch post in Underwood’s offense. He can step out and shoot it from range, put the ball on the floor for a few dribbles, and the staff loves his passing — and that’s the most important trait for the five in this offense: making quick decisions to make plays for others.
Many of us thought Finke would excel in this role last year, and while Finke played well, he didn’t reach those expectations. The staff thinks that G-Bez can be elite at that role.
Giorgi has a big body, but like all freshmen needs to keep getting stronger. He’s a bit more of a plodding big and doesn’t have great athleticism. His soft skills on offense should be able to make up for those kind of deficiencies. The most important thing for Giorgi is to see where his defense stands. He’s not going to be the rim protector that Samba Kane could be, but if he can bang down low and hold his own, he has a real chance to get starter’s minutes on this team.
Expectations: G-Bez has been on campus all summer, and was the only player over 6-foot-6 for the entire summer, so there’s a real chance he’s ahead of the curve mentally and physically and wins the starting five spot. I think Giorgi ultimately becomes the backup big man on this team, still playing 20-25 minutes per game. Expect to see Underwood try to play through Giorgi in the pinch post a lot when he’s in the game. Giorgi and Kipper are the two players who will play that position the most. I think we can expect a modest statline from Giorgi around 5/2/2. Once again, the question will be if Underwood can keep him on the floor for defense against Big Ten teams.
We’ve saved the biggest for last. Samba Kane is 7-feet tall and 220 pounds. Illinois needed a lot of things from this recruiting class. The biggest priority was rim protection, and that’s what they are hoping Samba Kane can bring.
Kane is a pretty mobile seven-footer and has the potential to turn into an elite defender and rim runner. He has also shown touch on a jumper from as far as 10-12 feet out, so while it may not come this year, he may also be able to develop another dimension to his offensive game, much like Nnanna Egwu did later in his Illinois career.
Like Higgs, Samba Kane also missed summer workouts while working to become academically eligible. Fortunately, he has arrived on campus for fall semester, but that means he missed some valuable time with Fletch. Kane needs to become a lot stronger in order to be ready for Big Ten play. Expect to hear a lot of broadcasters talk about how much he’s eating or working out.
Expectations: Even with his late arrival, I think Samba Kane will be the starting center on opening night. The only other competitors will be grad transfer Adonis De La Rosa, who is still recovering from an ACL injury, and fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvilli. And given how much Illinois struggled defensively last year, I think Underwood will need to go with Samba Kane. His defensive upside is Illinois’ best shot at solving some of its defensive woes from last season. Kane should turn into the best shot blocker in the orange and blue since Egwu. However, his defensive instincts won’t be all the way there in year one. Expect a lot of foul trouble. Offensively, all he has to do is set hard, legal screens and finish a lot of alley oops. It’s a lot to ask, but Kane needs to be able to give the Illini at least 20 productive minutes a night.
So Just Remember...
They are merely freshmen. It’s easy for us to fall in love right away, but there’s going to be a learning curve. In order for this team to have success, Dosunmu, Jones and Kane are all going to have to play critical roles, and have special freshmen seasons. Higgs, Griffin and G-Bez are going to have to play important minutes off the bench and not shy away from the moment.
For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and we’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe we’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen