Plenty of takes have been written about Brandin Podziemski’s short time with the Illini during the 2021-22 basketball season, as well as his current success in the NBA. These discussions almost always lean into a certain series of questions: What prompted him to leave? Why didn’t he play more while he was here? What would last season have looked like had he stuck around? This isn’t unique to Podz, and we’ll probably be asking the same questions again this spring when Zacharie Perrin is likely taken in the 2024 NBA Draft. (Remember him?)
The truth is that we’ll probably never know the answers to many of those questions. Maybe Illinois goes to the Final Four last season if he stays, or maybe he would’ve continued to sit since it was his experience at Santa Clara that gave him what he needed to develop his game and thrive. We’ll likely never know for sure.
That hasn’t stopped people on Twitter/X from speaking with what I would consider to be an unwarranted amount of certainty about the Podz situation, in one way or the other. These tweets tend to fall into one of two categories. Ones like this:
(Bardo is an Illini legend and brings up a valid question here.)
Apparently Podz can start ahead of Chris Paul but not ahead of anyone Illinois had two years ago https://t.co/q3Pnlphm6L— ᗩᑎT ᗯᖇIGᕼT (@itsAntWright) December 26, 2023
Or ones like this:
Kid still thinks he should’ve been starting over a 5th year Trent Frazier lol https://t.co/jtvwow3jAv— Illini Enthusiast (@illinihead21) December 25, 2023
It pays to remember that Twitter/X was specifically designed many years ago to facilitate back-and-forth arguments between people about seemingly black-and-white topics. Quote tweets allow people to easily “dunk on” one another’s statements, while character limits prevent any sort of nuance from being discussed.
The Brandin Podziemski discourse is a perfect example of how this plays out in real time. Some users are quick to say that Brad Underwood drove off a future first-round pick by being overly deferential to guys like Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Alfonso Plummer. While others are convinced that sitting Podz during his freshman year was unquestionably the right move, regardless of what he may have been showing in limited minutes or practice, and that he’s welcome to leave if he’s not willing to be an understudy for at least a short while. After all, they might say, guys like Frazier struggled through the bad years, Podz should have to earn his minutes with experience too.
As with almost all things, the real answer likely lies somewhere between these two black-and-white positions. Should Brad be held blameless for letting a clearly very talented guard leave his program for a mid-major after one season? No, I think it’s fair to expect that he should’ve recognized the talent that Podz possessed and found a way to keep him around. Maybe Podz needed to be given concrete expectations of what his role on the 2022-23 team would be, or perhaps Underwood could’ve designed specific packages with Podz’s skills in mind to give him some additional minutes in the 2021-22 season.
As we saw last season with Skyy Clark, Brad isn’t afraid to bruise young players’ egos when they aren’t performing well. If Brad acted the same way toward Podz, then maybe that wasn’t the right approach with him. I don’t know what the solution might’ve been, but Underwood is paid one of the highest salaries in college basketball to know the answers to those kinds of questions.
On the other hand, was this some kind of no-brainer situation where Podziemski should’ve unquestionably started on the 2021-22 Illinois roster? I don’t think it’s fair to say that either. We don’t know what Podz was showing in practice, but I have to assume Brad would’ve played him if he felt that he could’ve helped the Illini to win more games. Assuming Podz wasn’t lighting the world on fire behind closed doors, it’s not unreasonable to set a high bar for taking minutes away from multi-year upperclassmen starters and giving them to a relatively unproven true freshman. Coaches who do that could face accusations of “disloyalty” to players who had previously bought in on the coach’s vision, which can dampen the enthusiasm of older players who are passed up, or hurt future recruiting efforts if the coach gains a negative reputation.
After all, it’s not unusual for players to make massive jumps in ability between their freshman and sophomore years. Illinois didn’t have the luxury in 2021-22 of letting a freshman play through his mistakes. Fresh off a No. 1 seed, Illinois had its sights set on winning the Big Ten, and that’s exactly what it did. Santa Clara, on the other hand, might’ve had little to lose by offering a potential superstar as much time and attention as he needed to work through his mistakes and realize his potential.
For those of us on the outside of the program looking in, there’s simply not enough data here to speak with a high degree of certainty. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think it’s fair to say that Brad could’ve been justified in sitting Podz for most of 2021-22, and at the same time, it’s also fair to criticize Brad for not doing enough to retain Podz after the season.
Anything more than that veers too far into speculation for my liking.