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Illinois’ Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn deserves minutes

The freshman combo guard has barely played since November.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Even with the Terrence Shannon Jr. suspension, Illinois has hardly skipped a beat.

The team started 9-2 with Shannon, and also had a preseason win over preseason top-ranked Kansas. They looked to easily be the best team in the Big Ten after Purdue.

Then, Shannon was suspended for an indefinite amount of time. But Illinois marched on, blowing out FDU and Northwestern, losing a close game at Purdue without its best player, and beating a desperate Michigan State team.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

But the team seemed to run out of gas, dealing with more minutes sans Shannon and others (Niccolo Moretti, Amani Hansberry) due to injury. They blew an early lead in a 76-67 loss to a bad Maryland team at home on Sunday.

Besides Maryland seeming to just have the Fighting Illini’s number, even in a down season, this loss indicated to me something else: Brad Underwood has to expand his rotation. And he especially has to do so to get Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn minutes.

Illinois did start the season in non-conference play, especially against inferior opponents, using all 11 scholarship players (remember, they left a scholarship open after Jeremiah Williams decommitted and Sencire Harris is redshirting). Unsurprisingly, as they faced tougher non-conference opponents and started Big Ten play, Underwood shortened the rotation, to around 7-8 guys. With injuries and suspension, we’ve even seen it whittle down to six players for a couple of games.

Now, with Moretti back from injury and Hansberry expected back soon, Underwood needs to return to a deeper rotation, and give the Illini strength in their depth and experience compared to other teams in the Big Ten. As I’ve said before, the versatility and depth in this team is why they could go all the way. Underwood pivoted away from putting in Moretti and DGL against Maryland, and it backfired, as you could see guys like Marcus Domask clearly running on fumes with quick turnarounds in between suddenly becoming the top option on offense; but he didn’t make substitutions besides Justin Harmon and Dain Dainja.

That brings us back to Gibbs-Lawhorn. He’s played more than 8 minutes just twice since November, and has logged a few DNP-CDs along the way. That includes the stretch of Shannon’s suspension, and the stretch of Moretti’s injury. And that has to change now, with Illinois putting up its second- and fourth-worst offensive performances by rating in its last two games, per CBB Analytics.

The team needs an offensive punch right now, especially with Shannon out. Domask cannot carry the offense alone, as he’s the only consistent shot creator Brad is playing. While the other guys on the court, including Coleman Hawkins, Quincy Guerrier, and Luke Goode can score, I wouldn’t call them shot creators the way Domask is or the way Gibbs-Lawhorn can be. The explosive scoring ability of Shannon, and to a lesser extent Domask, can only be matched by DGL. Not to mention he can run point and take pressure off of Domask who has so much on his plate right now during TSJ’s absence. Even if he is a liability on defense right now, it’s a risk Underwood has to take.

Per CBB Analytics, three of the five lineups with DGL played the most (albeit < 10 minutes per group) have extremely high offensive ratings, and average to good defensive ratings. Gibbs-Lawhorn also have an average turnover percentage and very good offensive rebound percentage, two facets Illinois is struggling in right now.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Even if Shannon is back soon, the benefits of playing DGL and getting him entrenched in a deep, 10-11 man rotation go beyond him replacing Shannon’s missing scoring and ball-handling production. He could be a huge X-factor off the bench in the Big Ten title race and even deep into March; not many other teams have that kind of talent and aren’t using it consistently, so imagine what the ceiling of this team could be with DGL subbing in for Shannon giving him a breather.

And playing DGL prevents another situation of a young PG or combo guard coming to Champaign, and leaving after one season for whatever reason. We’ve seen it with Adam Miller. We’ve seen it with Brandin Podziemski. We’ve seen it with Skyy Clark. And we’ve seen it with Jayden Epps. I’d love for Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn to break the trend, stay, and become the Illini’s starting point guard in 2024-25, but he may be thinking about leaving if he continues to hardly play, especially as the offense slows down in TSJ’s absence.

Brad Underwood, make sure you start playing DGL to rejuvenate this Illini offense.