Jackson: Abrams growing in stature, leadership

CHAMPAIGN — That’s not a typo on your Illinois basketball roster or an instance where they’re fudging a player’s height to make him seem more formidable. Tracy Abrams really has grown an inch.

“Yeah, I guess I really did,” the junior point guard said. “It’s nice to have an extra inch.”

Listed at 6-foot-1 during his first two years at Illinois, the point guard checks in at 6-2 these days. Heading into the offseason, Illinois coach John Groce said the main focus for Abrams this summer was to improve his body composition. He didn’t anticipate the 21-year-old to add an inch to his frame.

What Groce really wanted was for Abrams to harden his body, add some strength and shed some fat. Abrams has done that, too. He’s down about 5 pounds to 184, his body fat percentage has dropped a few points, and he says he’s as strong as he’s ever been.

“That was one of my goals that I set for myself was to get stronger, and I’ve definitely done that,” he said. “There’s still work to be done, and I still need to get better.”

With the changes in his body, Abrams has noticed a difference on the court.

“I’m actually a little bit faster now,” he said, “and I’ve just got to continue listening to (strength and conditioning coach Mike Basgier) and getting better.”

As far as his game is concerned, Abrams has dedicated himself to improving his jump shot. A 27 percent three-point shooter, the Chicagoan has spent the bulk of his time in the gym hoisting jumpers and perfecting the proper mechanics so he can be more of a threat from all over the court this upcoming season.

“I just need to be more consistent with it,” he said.

Abrams will be counted on for more production on the stat sheet this season. He’ll also be asked to take an even larger leadership role than he has in the past. Even as one of four team captains last season, Abrams and classmate Nnanna Egwu could rely on the veteran presence provided by the likes of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin when times got tough. Now it’s on their shoulders to be the voice of the team.

“It’s been a really good transition for us,” Abrams said. “We watched those guys lead and picked up some things just from being around them.”

Said Egwu: “We’ve embraced that role. We understand we’re the leaders now and be more of an example. We like the opportunity we have and to be the main focus of the team.”

It’s helped that the nine newcomers, including five freshmen, have been receptive to their veteran teammates. The freshmen — Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Maverick Morgan, Austin Colbert and Jaylon Tate — haven’t demonstrated any sort of ego. The four transfers — Darius Paul, Aaron Cosby, Jon Ekey and Ahmad Starks — have transitioned well, too.

“The one thing those guys have is a positive attitude,” Abrams said. “As a freshman, you come from high school and you’re the man, but I commend those guys. They came in here and they’ve still got that positive attitude, and if you tell them something they listen. If they’ve got a problem with something, they ask questions. That’s something that’s very good early.”

Having a receptive group has helped Abrams and Egwu develop into the leaders the Illini will need them to be this season.

“They keep me on my feet, too, and they help me out,” Abrams said. “I’m not the best, I’m not perfect, and we’re all helping each other out all the time.”

What’s helped jump-start the positive vibes in the team chemistry department through the summer workouts is the Navy SEAL training the team took part in last month. In exercises where they were forced to rely on one another to make it through, the Illini realized they had some work to do to get where they needed to be.

It was a difficult but rewarding experience for Abrams, and the point guard thinks it’s something that has helped this new team come together.

“Communication wasn’t where it needed to be, and at that point we hadn’t been around each other that long,” he said. “I think if we did it right now it would be better. That’s a work in progress for us right now.”

When workouts wrap up next week for the summer, Abrams and the Illini will have a few weeks off before returning to campus for the fall semester. Don’t expect to see any vacation photos or stories of how Abrams relaxed during his brief hiatus.

“To be honest, I’m just going to keep working. The summer is when players are made,” he said.

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When he was watching the NBA playoffs earlier this summer, Egwu enjoyed the games from a casual fan’s perspective. He also took it as an opportunity to better his own game.

The 6-11 center focused on guys playing his position to see if there was anything he could take from their games to implement into his own.

Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez are some of the big men Egwu watched.

“I like watching guys who stay close to the basket and watch their footwork and how they get easy baskets,” Egwu said. “The guy I really watched during the playoffs was Zach Randolph because he never really made post moves; he just posted close to the basket and got easy layups. That’s the kind of thing I want more of this year. I want to be so close to the basket, so low that it doesn’t take a post move, just turn around and put it in the basket for a layup.”

Working on his offensive post game has been one of the points of emphasis for Egwu this summer. He’s been working with position coach Dustin Ford to make himself more of a threat on the block.

It’s not a complicated process. Ford’s goal has been to make sure Egwu has one go-to move on the block and another solid one.

“One thing he talks about is not making it complex with too many moves,” Egwu said. “You just have a set of moves and something you can hang your hat on.”

The work Egwu has done in the weightroom is sure to benefit him when attempting to implement his post moves on the court. After playing at 235 pounds last season, the junior tips the scales at 250. The extra 15 pounds of muscle has made a difference.

“It’s helped me get position around the basket, and it’s helping me with rebounding,” he said.

It’s been all about the diet.

“No matter how much work you put in the weightroom, you’ve still got to eat to maintain,” Egwu said. “Whatever gets you to where you need to be. Waking up and going to breakfast at 8 and eating as a team has been helpful for me and for the rest of our team.”

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If you’re around Ubben Basketball Complex the next few weeks, chances are you might see a familiar face. Former Illinois guard Trent Meacham is enjoying a short summer stay back in his hometown after leading his French club team Nanterre to a championship in the French Pro-A League.

“It’s good and bad because with us winning a championship, the season went longer,” Meacham said. “I wish I had more time to relax here. I was in Vegas, went on vacation in California. I wish we had a little more time in Champaign. I love spending time here, but that’s how it goes. I can’t complain.”

Meacham and his wife, the former Theresa Lisch, will return to Paris in August as Meacham continues his professional career. They will be joined by some familiar faces.

Theresa’s brother, Kevin, who like his sister starred on the basketball court at St. Louis, has signed to play for Nanterre this upcoming season.

“I’m really excited about that. He’s a really good player and a good pickup for our team. I know my wife is excited about that, too,” Meacham said. “Theresa and her brother are really close and haven’t seen each other a whole lot the last couple years. I met my wife through Kevin; I’ve known him for a while even before Theresa, so I’m looking forward to it.”

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Former Illinois assistant coach Jay Price is staying in the coaching game.

“I’m going to be coaching my daughter’s sixth-grade team (at St. Matthew School in Champaign),” Price said.

Price was a member of Bruce Weber’s staff that was let go following the 2011-12 season, and despite some opportunities to remain in college coaching, Price and his family decided to remain in Champaign.

“We love it here; it’s a great community, and we’re happy to be a part of it,” Price said. “We chose not to leave. We had some other options and chose to stay.”

Price spent his first year away from the bench working at the I Hotel and Houlihan’s as a consultant.

Last week Price started his new job as an associate director of development at the UI College of Business. Price will meet with alumni and professors from the college in an effort to enhance the school’s position.

“I get to travel a lot and stay entrenched in that world. It’ll be a different world for me to explore,” he said.

Coaching, at least at the collegiate level, is on the backburner.

“I’m committed to this right now,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for me and my family. It’s real exciting, it’s right up my alley and I really enjoy the people I’m working with. The business school is one of the best in the country. To be able to be a part of that is quite an opportunity.”

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