Klee: Point guard critical in Groce's system
CHAMPAIGN — In John Groce's perfect world, his beloved Bears would win the Super Bowl every year.
His coffee pot would be bottomless. His short game would mirror Phil Mickelson's.
And the basketball courts in his perfect world? Blessed with elite, playmaking point guards, all rocking Illinois gear.
"Any time you talk about our system," he said, "it starts with great point guard play."
As Groce looks forward to the July evaluation period — his first as the head coach at Illinois — he has a better idea of what pieces he would like to add to the Illini's future.
At the top of the list is a dynamic point guard.
But not just any point guard. This isn't a guy who simply initiates the offense with a bounce pass to the wing. Groce allows his point guards great freedom and demands a great deal in return.
So he has specific qualifications he searches for in a point guard. And he's picky, as shown in the detail with which he describes his type of point guard.
"Other teams that see our guy (at the point) might say, 'He plays like a combo (guard) more than he does a pure point,' " Groce said Friday. "He needs to be able to score at a certain level. If he doesn't, then guys don't guard him. He has to be a dangerous scorer.
"Then, because of the speed that we play at — that up-tempo, up-and-down-the-court style — that guy also has to be able to make decisions at different speeds and gears. I think that's the tough one. That's what separates guys that fit us the best.
"He has to be a strong, confident decision-maker. And get in the lane. He has to have that get-by or blow-by ability to get in the lane. Some guys call it go-go ability. Those are the basketball aspects that we look for."
Yes, there's more.
"From a personality standpoint, we look for guys that are in attack mode," he continued. "And we look for guys that are a connector, not a divider. They have to understand their job is to connect the team: 'Yes, I have the ability to score if I need to, but I also understand my job is to connect the team.' He has to be able to bring the team together.
"When you put all those things together, that's why I'm probably really picky about who we have at that particular position."
Two potential Illini point guards — Jalen James and Michael Orris, previously committed to Illinois — have fallen by the wayside as Groce searches for the ideal candidate for the job.
And his coaching history suggests gifted point guards usually flourish in his system.
The first example might be Thomas Jackson, an all-conference pick at Butler. Then there was Dedrick Finn, a true gamer, and Lionel Chalmers, who developed into an NBA draft pick. Those two played together and helped Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2004.
Then at Ohio State there was Jamar Butler, an All-Big Ten first-team selection, and Mike Conley Jr. The latter would be the perfect point guard on Groce's perfect basketball courts.
"There wasn't anything he couldn't do in our system," he said of Conley, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft.
In Groce's first year as a head coach — at Ohio University — point guard Mike Allen led the MAC in assists. Later, Chicago product D.J. Cooper developed into an All-MAC first-team selection and Cousy Award finalist. Playing against Michigan stud Trey Burke in the NCAA tournament, Cooper was the best point guard in that game.
"We've had a great number of guys at that position that have been productive, that have succeeded at a high level," Groce said. "Most, if not all of them, have played professionally at some level after college."
That's where the recruiting pitch comes in. Considering their history of point guards, it appears to be a legit one.
"If you look at the guys we've had since the year 2000 — really, the last 12 years — and how good they've been, it's awesome," he said. "And we've amped up that position because I probably play a little faster, as a head coach, than we did when I was an assistant coach. We play faster now. That makes that decision-making at different speeds and gears so critical to our success."
Meyers Leonard's former Illinois teammates would have appreciated the welcome he received at the NBA draft. His Manhattan hotel suite was filled with free gear. He couldn't walk a block without signing dozens of autographs. He had a lineup of expensive suits to choose from.
About the only issue was getting to the actual draft. Traffic from Manhattan to Newark proved to be a bigger problem than expected, and some in Leonard's party were late to the Prudential Center.
Meanwhile, back in central Illinois, his Illini teammates watched the draft from booths at Buffalo Wild Wings. As Detroit prepared to make the ninth selection, several players openly announced, "This is it." Portland snatched him up two picks later.
"We kind of knew, looking at the mock drafts, where he would go," said sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who served as Leonard's backup for the 2011-12 season. "Once Portland had their pick we kind of knew it might be there. We were all kind of cringing — looking away from the TV — until we heard his name. Then we were so happy. It was a great moment for all of us."
Just as important to the fashion-conscious college students, Leonard got a passing grade with his draft-night wardrobe: gray suit, checkered shirt and red tie.
"He's always been a pretty good dresser," senior Joseph Bertrand acknowledged. "I knew he would pick out something nice."
There was a measure of pride among the Illini when Leonard's name was called, as well.
"He deserves everything that he gets," Bertrand said. "He worked hard. After the season was over he worked just as hard. He was in the gym, lifting. I think he kind of pushed everybody here because of how hard he was working."
"It adds some extra motivation for us — not just for myself — but to see your own teammate, a guy you practiced with, be in the green room like that," Egwu said. "Meyers worked at it to get there. He worked a ton. Watching what he went through, we know what we've got to do to put ourselves in that situation."
In the days leading up to Thursday's draft, Leonard thought Portland was a possibility. He also received promising feedback from New Orleans (at No. 10), Milwaukee (No. 14) and Houston (Nos. 12, 16, 18). He got word before the draft that Detroit (No. 9) would look elsewhere.
"They (the Blazers) certainly showed some interest. Obviously (Portland) lacking at the center position was apparent," Leonard said. "I really liked their staff, and I interviewed well with them. I felt after they took Damian (Lillard) at 6, I had an opportunity to go there. And they took me."
Illinois recruit Maverick Morgan said he would play with Martin Wolverines during the July evaluation period.
The Ohio-based AAU club, sponsored by NBA veteran Kevin Martin, is scheduled to play in the Adidas Invitational (July 11-15, Indianapolis), Double Pump tournament (July 18-22, Anaheim) and Adidas Super 64 (July 25-30, Las Vegas).
Illinois recruit Malcolm Hill has been with the same club program since the third grade.
The Belleville East standout is scheduled to make his final run in July.
The St. Louis-area based AAU club is scheduled to play in the Reebok Showdown Series Finals (July 13-15, Philadelphia), USA Bluegrass Classic (July 18-22) and Gym Rats Basketball Association (July 26-29, Fort Wayne, Ind.).
Hill suffered a setback last week when he was hospitalized with swelling in his left arm. It was uncertain how the injury would affect his schedule in July.
"He seemed OK," Belleville East coach Abel Schrader said. "The thing about it, it's not causing any pain at all. He wants to play."
His hands need to improve. And no one can be certain how he will react in game-speed situations or against the likes of Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne or Mitch McGary in the Big Ten.
But one thing you don't worry about with Egwu: his effort level. Perhaps no one on the Illinois roster has attacked offseason workouts like the 6-foot-10 rising sophomore.
He's developed a consistent hook with his right hand. His left is a work in progress but coming along. Coaches feel comfortable when Egwu launches a 12- to 14-foot shot. Most important to his long-term growth, Egwu absorbs instruction.
"You don't have to tell him twice," said assistant Dustin Ford, who specializes in big-man instruction. "He picks it up just like that."
The bigger question, however, is whether Egwu is simply a workout king or if that will translate into games. Teams are littered with players who show promise in practice but don't produce in games.
"The workouts so far, it's been more fast-paced. It's been a 'be quick but don't hurry' kind of thing," said Egwu, who usually practices against Ibrahima Djimde in workouts. "Get the steps down. Get the fundamentals down. And slowly learn it little by little.
"It's going to take some time. It's a learning process getting everything down. But once I do, I think it's going to be exciting. I really like it (the system) so far."
Illinois last week hosted a robust list of prospects, the biggest of which arrived Friday.
Chicago Curie big man Cliff Alexander — a top-10 prospect in the Class of 2014 — toured the Illinois campus Friday. The UI staff figures to be front and center for Alexander's games with D-Rose All-Stars — assuming he stays with the same AAU club — in July.
Other visitors to the Illinois campus included Semi Ojeleye (2013, Ottawa, Kan.), Jalen Coleman (2015, Indianapolis Cathedral), Prentiss Nixon (2015, Bolingbrook), D.J. Williams (2015, Chicago Simeon) and Jordan Ash (2015, Westchester St. Joseph).
That's how you get the recruiting ball rolling.
Arguably the most successful club program in the country, Illinois Wolves again will be a program of interest for the Illinois staff.
That includes a pair of 2015 prospects who share a Wolves backcourt. Glynn Watson, a point guard, is the younger brother of former Illini Demetri McCamey. Jordan Ash, a combo guard, made a recruiting visit to the Illinois campus Saturday.
The St. Joseph teammates are different types of players. Illinois Wolves director Mike Mullins described Watson as "a true point guard" who plays with "point guard instincts."
"He has Demetri's passing vision, but he has a different body. He's long and lean," said Mullins, who also coached McCamey with Wolves. "He gets out and hawks people (on defense). The MVP of that 15-and-under team was Glynn Watson. He's the first point guard we've had in a while who you're not teaching how to play point guard. He already is a point guard."
Meanwhile, Ash is a super athlete who is refining his skill set. The 6-2 guard has the athletic potential to develop into an elite-level prospect. Ash also has taken recent visits to Indiana, Louisville, Marquette and Purdue.
The left-handed Ash soon will get a seminar in point guard development when he trains with Wolves alums Bryan Mullins (SIU) and Sam Maniscalco (Bradley/Illinois).
"He's going to have a couple long weeks with those guys. I think it will be an eye-opener for him," Mullins said. "I think (Ash) is more of a combo guy. Obviously when you're physically dominant at that age, it's easier to score. And that's what he's done for us."
All levels of Illinois Wolves will participate in the Chicago Summer Challenge (July 12-14), Under Armour Summer Jam (July 18-22, Milwaukee) and Gym Rats Basketball Association Nationals (July 26-29, Fort Wayne).
Ever since new Illinois State coach Dan Muller elected not to retain Paris Parham on his Redbirds staff, Parham was without employment.
But while he wasn't working, Parham was still working.
Parham seldom missed a high school event in the Chicago area during June. He was evaluating prospects, working connections, maintaining contacts, making rounds.
Most important, at least in recruiting terms, the new UI assistant was being seen. There was no wasted time spent hunting other jobs. Without a school, he was still recruiting. That figures to help him make a smoother transition as he begins to recruit for Illinois.
The hire is expected to be made official within the next week.
To pick up the pace, Groce introduced a new rule to pickup games at Ubben Basketball Complex.
"We've got a 24-second shot clock now. That puts it into perspective for you, what our offense is going to look like," Egwu said. "It's fast-paced. Being able to get steals, get on fast breaks, quick outlets. And he's big on conditioning.
"Every player has to be conditioned, from the big men to the guards. We've all got to run and be able to run for 40 minutes a game."
Groce has said he prefers a quicker tempo. That, of course, will depend on whether the Illini can limit turnovers while playing faster. Illinois last season finished with more turnovers (430) than assists (400).
Egwu said practicing under the 24-second clock (instead of the NCAA's 35-second clock) resulted in "some growing pains."
He joked, "There were at least 20 shot-clock violations a day" once the rule was implemented in April. "We're fine with it now," he said.
"It makes guys run the floor. You've got to hurry up and get open," Bertrand added. "You don't have as much time, so you can't play around with the ball. It helps everyone move quicker."