Feeling himself again, Abrams gears up for second pro season

Feeling himself again, Abrams gears up for second pro season

SLOBODA, Serbia — Moments happened during the 2016-17 season where Illinois fans saw glimpses of the old Tracy Abrams. The pre-season-ending injury (twice) Tracy Abrams.

Like his 31-point performance against Central Michigan as he knocked down 7 of 8 three-pointers. Or something as simple as putting up nine points, eight rebounds and five assists in the first round of the NIT as the Illini kept their season alive a little longer.

Basketball fans in Cyprus got to see a lot more of that Abrams last season. Playing his first professional season for APOP Paphos B.C. on the Mediterranean island, Abrams put up 16.3 points, 5.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game.

“That was my second year back from my injuries,” Abrams said. “It was actually comfortable again.”

Abrams’ play in Cyprus’ second division led directly to his next professional opportunity. The former Illinois point guard will play his second year of professional basketball for KK Sloboda Užice, which is part of the top league in Serbia.

“They knew my whole, literally, basketball background,” Abrams said. “That was exciting for them to really go deep into me and figure out that’s what they wanted. We got a chance to talk and have a couple meetings, and it went well. I’m in another situation where I can showcase my talent and be a professional at a high level.”

Actually having a professional basketball career after missing the 2014-15 season at Illinois with a torn ACL and the 2015-16 season with a torn Achilles means quite a bit to Abrams. He never doubted the opportunity would eventually come, but that doesn’t change how he feels.

“I’m grateful and blessed that going through those injuries I’m still able to get paid to do my job and that’s play basketball — something that I’ve always done,” Abrams said. “I appreciate every time I can go out there and lace them up because it can definitely be gone.”

Abrams said he started feeling more himself as his final season at Illinois played out, and saw the progress he wanted after a pair of major injuries.

“I was jumping higher, I was a little bit faster and my shot was a little bit better,” Abrams said. “I’ve got tools. I’ve got knowledge sitting out and learning the game. I learned timing and spots. All of that stuff actually helped me become a better player. After a while, I knew I was still a pretty good player.”

The Cypriot basketball community figured that out, too. Abrams said playing in Cyprus for his first year was the best opportunity available to showcase his talent. He had to deal with a more physical style of play and other minor differences — like a shorter shot clock — but he adjusted.

“I was really focused on coming out the gates in my first professional year strong,” Abrams said. “I was attacking all year. I wanted to showcase my brand and who I am as a professional. I wanted to start off well with that. I was just playing my style — what I was used to growing up. I was just getting back to the basics, having fun playing again and just keeping it real simple.”

Off the court, Abrams said he enjoyed his time in Cyprus. Being close to the Mediterranean Sea was a bonus. He also enjoyed getting to know the Cypriot people and culture.

“Respecting the culture is a big thing overseas,” Abrams said. “You can’t just go over there stubborn like, ‘Oh, I’m an American. I don’t have to adapt to the way things are.’ Character is a big thing over here, honestly. You’ve got to be on point with being a good person.

“Those people accepting me and showing me an extreme amount of love — just loving me for who I was and the player I was — it gave me the home feeling I used to get back when I was at Illinois. When you’re out of the country and feel like that, it’s always a blessing. It makes the experience a lot better.”

Abrams arrived in Serbia the last week of August, got settled in to a new country and immediately started training with his new team. Sloboda had a couple of scrimmages this week as preparation continues for its Oct. 6 season opener, and Abrams said he felt he played well.

Keeping his game at a high level in a more successful season is Abrams’ goal for year two as a professional.

“Last year I led the league in assists all year,” he said. “That’s one thing I really wanted to focus on last year that I was, literally, the top guard in assists. I think that’s my strength. I can make guys better. This year I definitely need to win.”

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter @srrichey.