The big diesel Georgian (country) has blasted into college with a fairy tale flair. Whether he’s been teaching the press how to salsa, divulging the incredible story of his mother’s sacrifice to save a family back home in Georgia or burying opponents with an array of post moves far beyond his years, Giorgi Bezhanishvili has been a revelation.
Once a game Giorgi does something you’ve never seen before. Whether he’s doing an Irish jig while guarding the inbounds pass, massaging the shoulders of an opponent because he needs to “relax” or shaking hands with his imaginary friends after hitting a free throw following a flagrant, Giorgi is an electrifying watch. Oh, and he’s also the most important player on this team. His ridiculous 39-point +/- against Minnesota is just the latest example of what he does for the offense and the defense.
Adept at commanding the offense from the pinch-post, shaking a defender on the block or setting screens along the 3-point arch, it’s tough to fully credential how high his IQ is for a freshman. We haven’t seen freshman bigs do this before. This is some breakout junior year type of stuff we’re seeing, and he just met his teammates six months ago.
To fully grasp how sensational Giorgi has been for Illinois, you have to understand where he was at this time last year — and how fully improbable it was for him to step into Champaign as a freshman and perform this way.
Giorgi was — depending on who you trust — a 2-star or 3-star center with offers from small Mid-Atlantic colleges. If he didn’t land in Champaign, he’d be starring for Hofstra somewhere on Long Island. When Brad Underwood and Orlando Antigua were scouting Kahlil Whitney and scouring the country for sorely needed big men, they noticed the import starting for The Patrick School in Newark, New Jersey, playing against Roselle Catholic. While Patrick has been loaded over the years, Roselle Catholic came in with Whitney — and two other 5-star McDonalds All-Americans, who, most important to the Giorgi story, is monster center Naz Reid.
Now, you have to understand, at this point Giorgi was averaging a paltry eight points and two rebounds a game. Six-foot-9 high school players who are bound for D-1 stardom don’t have single-digit scoring averages in high school, no matter how loaded the talent around them. But, legend has it, Giorgi’s play against Naz Reid (who is a complete monster) made Underwood turn to Orlando and profess his love.
What happened next was a succinct sales process and the recruiting steal of the decade for Illinois. After watching Bo and Beilein take these 3-star kids and end up with studs, it was finally Fighting Illini time. Bezhanishvili is averaging 11 and 5 so far in his freshman season, but has put up games of 17 against Gonzaga, 22 against Notre Dame, 18 against Indiana, 15 against Michigan, and 20 against Minnesota. His trajectory is one that’s easy to project, and his personality and passion make it one that’s so easy to enjoy.
Giorgi is going to own this campus.
Away from the court, Giorgi is exactly what this team needed as well. While they just beat the tar out of a good Minnesota team, Illinois is still 5-12 with an uphill road in the stacked Big Ten; i.e. they’re not out of the woods yet. Giorgi’s infectious energy and communication shows a leadership beyond his years, the kind that comes along with loving life, the opportunity to play basketball on the big stage, and have the worldliness to understand the gift he’s been bestowed.
After the season is over, this team will really decide what they’re going to be in 2019-20, and I anticipate Giorgi Bezhanishvili to be a driving force through the weight room and into early mornings and late nights in Ubben.
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