Klee's Corner: D.J., Jabari, Meyers & more
CHAMPAIGN — D.J. Richardson had just finished a workout at Ubben Basketball Complex.
He was talking about the upcoming season — the senior's final season at Illinois — and the most important games on the schedule. Coincidentally, one of the Braggin' Rights trophies was standing in the corner of the room.
"That trophy," he said, "that's something we haven't won before. I'm going to circle that (Missouri) game first."
If there were a To-Do List in Richardson's locker — there isn't, but it's a good idea — the list might read something like this:
1. Beat the teams that beat Illinois
2. Beat them again
3. Eat hot wings with John Groce
Richardson gets fired up about the topic, actually, when you ask what games are circled in orange on his make-believe schedule. That, too, is a list.
"Missouri will be the first one I circle when the schedule comes out. And the next one will be Purdue. I've never beat Purdue since I've been here," Richardson said. "We deserve revenge for it. We lost to Penn State. We owe them. Michigan swept us. We owe Michigan. But this game (Missouri), this is the biggest one.
"And I finally got a chance to beat Ohio State last year. That was a great win. But I want to sweep them. Indiana beat us last year. I want to beat them. And other teams as well. It's just an important year for us. All of us. Last year was hard. We want to make up for it."
There might not be a bigger Illini fan on the roster than Richardson. And he recognized his Illini legacy will be defined by his senior season.
He always has taken losses harder than most. That was true when he shed tears after his first loss in college, a defeat to Utah in 2010, or a loss to Iowa that ended his junior season in March. It's refreshing, actually, to see a player who doesn't define success by stats but by wins and losses.
The Peorian was unaware he's approaching at least one record at Illinois. If he maintains his seasonal average for three-pointers, Richardson would move into third all time on the career list, trailing Cory Bradford and Dee Brown. Furthermore, he's on pace to become the rare four-year starter.
Richardson said an April speech from Groce underscored the importance of finishing his career on a high note.
"Coach Groce, he talked to us and said, 'People always remember the (2004-05) team and they remember the '89 team, the Flyin' Illini. Why do people remember them? Because they won,' " Richardson said. "And I love the Illini. You know I love the Illini. I do so much for the program and for the fans. I love this program.
"But, to tell you the truth, I can't remember more than seven players on the Flyin' Illini. But I remember them because they won here. That was a winning team. Any player that played on a winning team, they were a successful player."
The relationship between Richardson and Groce was easy to build. Richardson said their initial conversation concerned a shared love for Buffalo Wild Wings. It went from there.
"Coach Groce, he's a real social guy. I've been talking to him a lot. When he told me he likes (hot) wings, as well, I knew we'll definitely get along," Richardson said with a laugh. "I think that was the first thing we talked about, actually. That was the first question Brandon (Paul) asked — do you like wings?
"So far, I can honestly say it (the coaching transition) has been great. This summer, it's my last conditioning, last workouts, year, last season. So I've been giving it my all. We're trying to do everything we haven't done since I've been in college."
That includes beating Missouri. The Class of 2009 has never carried the Braggin' Rights trophy off the court in St. Louis.
"I look at that (trophy) all the time," he said. "I want to be able to do that before I leave here."
In summer workouts, Richardson mainly works with and against Tracy Abrams. He said the focus has been on improving his ball handling.
"To tell you the truth, these are some of the best workouts I've ever had. Not only here at this university but anywhere," Richardson said. "They've been doing some of the same things that we do up at ATTACK with Tim Grover when I go up there for workouts. There's a lot of ball handling, a lot of ball-screen stuff. That's what I'm getting better at it.
"A lot of ball-handling drills are where you have to make moves in a small space, just a little bit of room. We're using the cones a lot. We take up as little space as we can. If you touch a cone, you've got to start over. That's helping me and Tracy get to where we need to be. Those are drills that we can use even when the coaches aren't here."
Richardson needs to get stronger with his left hand, and coaches are trying to improve his handle when he's closely defended.
"He's getting better. I think he's feeling a little more comfortable with what we're trying to do," said assistant Jamall Walker, who works with Abrams and Richardson. "He does drills well. We've got to get better when you throw another body in there."
Within the new system, Richardson figures to be the designated spot-up shooter. Recent history suggests Richardson is in an enviable position.
To get a better idea what the role entails, he can watch film of former Ohio guard Tommy Freeman and current guard Nick Kellogg. Freeman once ranked second in the nation in three-point field goal percentage. Kellogg was second in the MAC in made three-pointers.
"He (Kellogg) ran the floor hard and sat in the corner and put the ball in the basket," Walker said. "If you play smart, run hard, we're going to get you open shots."
Playing under Groce, Richardson will start the season with a shiny green light. During a recent workout, Richardson got an earful because he passed up an open shot — not because he launched a bad one.
"He should never turn down an open shot. He's got to shoot the ball," Walker said.
The adjustment to a new system figures to take time. But it's a system that Richardson expects to enjoy.
"D.J. Cooper (the Ohio point guard), he told me that, 'D.J. Richardson should be the happiest guy in the world in this system,' " Richardson said. "I think I'm going to like it. The whole defense is different. It's more packed. You're not really denying the next pass. He talked to us about last year, how we were in the bottom of allowing three-pointers."
Jabari Parker's (@jabariparker22) Twitter announcement last week seemed to be another slap of reality for Illinois basketball.
The most high-profile recruit in state basketball history didn't include the state school on a long list of possible destinations.
Ten teams. No Illinois. And that's where Illini basketball is.
While Duke and Michigan State have made an early impression on Parker, keep an eye on Kentucky in Parker's recruitment. UK has always been a player there.
Illinois has landed the state's top-rated prospect only twice in the past decade (Jereme Richmond, 2010; Brandon Paul, 2009). That trend figures to continue at least past 2014, where Whitney Young prodigy Jahlil Okafor is as much of a long shot as Parker was.
The continuing disconnect between Illini basketball and Chicago's elite prospects is another reason the program desperately needs the downstate pipeline to improve. Peoria is the best example. Relative to its rich history of producing players, Peoria's hoops scene is in the dumps.
When Richardson leaves after the 2012-13 season, the UI roster will be without a Peorian for the first time since 1992-93. And Peoria's upcoming pipeline is drier than a Streator cornfield.
Parker's announcement was more a blow to the perception of Illinois than to the future of the roster. Groce never had a chance with Parker. The question was whether Groce should spend time and resources on the long shot or simply move forward. The new Illinois staff knew quickly after his hiring that landing Parker was a pipe dream.
When it's said Illinois is a rebuilding project, it's as much about rebuilding the perception of the program as rebuilding the roster. There are capable pieces in place on the roster.
However, the perception of the Illini basketball brand is as poor as it has been in decades.
If that wasn't clear already, the Parkers made it so — all in 140 characters or less.
Another take on the Parker snub comes from Chicago recruiting expert Joe Henricksen, who said the superstar excluding Illinois isn't big news.
"First, I guess I'm a bit blown away by the excitement or angst and agony of being included or excluded from a top-10 list," said Henricksen, the veteran evaluator with the City/Suburban Hoops Report. "It certainly isn't the fault of the Illinois staff. This has been a unique recruitment of the nation's top player, which began years ago. This was a recruitment that took a great deal of time to build a relationship with the prospect.
"With a new staff in place just months ago, combined with the recent struggles of the program, I just don't think it's earth-shattering news. It was a tough spot to be in and an unfortunate time for Illinois basketball to have an in-state player as the No. 1 ranked player in the country."
Midway through his first official workout with the Blazers, Meyers Leonard took a break.
"I had to wait to sign my contract," Leonard told reporters in Portland, Ore. "About halfway through practice I knocked that out."
Now the former Illini will debut with the Blazers in the NBA summer league tonight (9:30, NBA TV). Portland fans are eager to see the outside-inside tandem of point guard Damian Lillard and the 7-foot-1 Leonard, the No. 6 and No. 11 overall draft picks.
"It's the first time I've played 5-on-5 since the end of the (college) season," Leonard said of his first workout as a Blazer. "I think the main thing was we all came in here and learned and competed. I felt pretty comfortable out there. I didn't feel like I was behind at all. It's certainly something I excel in, I believe. I've just got to continue to condition myself and be the best player I can be."
Illinois coaches spent the first window of the July evaluation period at several gyms across the country.
Coaches were scheduled to attend events in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and in the Chicago area. NCAA rules permit three coaches on the road at one time, and all four coaches hit the trail at some point.
The new staff is playing catch-up with the 2013 class and is hoping assistant Paris Parham can help in that area.
"You guys know nowadays the recruiting process is so accelerated, there is a lot of groundwork to be made up," Parham said. "But I think these guys have done a great job of coming in, rolling up their sleeves and hitting the ground running. Now with me here, I think it's going to add some help, only because of my relationship with a lot of the coaches.
"(With the Chicago coaches), we have 20-, 25-plus years of friendships outside of basketball. They know my character, they know who I am, they know how I feel about the kids. I know the things they will do and won't do with their kids. It kind of helps in that way, so we can navigate through some of the stuff that happens in big cities with basketball."
Two former Illini guards are attempting to make a positive impression in the NBA summer league.
Jamar Smith was in training camp with the Celtics in 2010. The Southern Indiana grad is on Boston's summer league team this year.
On Wednesday, Smith was part of a Big Ten display for the Celtics. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger (16 points), Purdue's E'Twaun Moore (15) and Smith (12) were the top three scorers against the Nets. Smith made 2 of 3 three-pointers and had three steals.
Former Illini Demetri McCamey is scheduled to make his summer league debut with the Bulls against Smith and the Celtics on Tuesday (9 p.m., NBA TV).
Something new ...
You know which players are returning to the Big Ten. Here are the newcomers who should make the biggest impact for their respective teams in 2012-13:
On offensive-minded roster, versatile and veteran defender Sam McLaurin has caught John Groce’s eye
McDonald’s All-American Yogi Ferrell won’t beat out undervalued Jordan Hulls — but could start alongside him
Remember the name Mike Gesell, a freshman who figures prominently into coach Fran McCaffery’s rebuild
Freshman big man Mitch McGary one of three Wolverines in ESPN’s Top 100 prospects for 2013 NBA draft
Similar to stud forward Branden Dawson, Spartans snatched rookie Gary Harris from under Purdue’s nose
Redshirt candidate Wally Ellenson high-jumped 7-foot-1 as prep athlete — the top mark in nation
Kansas City product Benny Parker spending summer on campus, could start for coach Tim Miles at point guard
Redshirt Tre Demps has work ethic and bloodlines (Dad: Hornets GM Dell Demps) to strengthen backcourt
Italian combo guard Amedeo Della Valle — Thad Matta’s lone freshman — would earn minutes through his outside shot
Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill figures to earn starter’s minutes alongside Tim Frazier as sophomore
Indianapolis product Ronnie Johnson, who listed Illinois as a finalist, has early line on replacing Lewis Jackson at point
Of all the rookies on this list, freshman scorer Sam Dekker has most star potential at college level