Special delivery for Illini basketball

Special delivery for Illini basketball

CHAMPAIGN — Mark Alstork toned down his workout program when he arrived at Illinois in late August for the start of the 2017-18 school year (and basketball season).

It gave the Wright State graduate transfer guard time to ease into his new surroundings. Get the lay of the land. Settle in.

At least for a week and a half. 

Then, Alstork picked up right where he left off in the summer. He puts up at least 1,500 shots each day. Tries to make 1,000. Two or three ball handling sessions are interspersed with the shooting workouts. And don’t forget time in the weight room with Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.

Plus school work, enough rest and the right kind of nutrition to fuel it all.

“It probably sounds like a lot, but hopefully I’m doing what I can to be the best teammate I can for my team,” Alstork said. “I just want my work ethic to speak for itself.”

The latter is Alstork attempting to follow in the steps of his favorite player — Kobe Bryant. The retired 18-time All-Star and five-time NBA Finals champion made a name for himself beyond the accolades during his lengthy playing career for his drive. 

Alstork wants to be defined the same way.

“During November through March when we’re playing games and people see me getting numbers and shooting and really being myself, where I get that from is being in the gym each and every day,” he said. “Hard work pays off.”

Alstork valued the opportunity to be himself at Illinois. That was part of the pitch from the Illini coaching staff and why Illinois ended up his final choice — among South Carolina, LSU and Pittsburgh — when he decided to use his final year of eligibility elsewhere after two seasons at Wright State. 

Alstork is also using his opportunity for a final season at Illinois to grow on the court but as more than just a basketball player. He knows in past seasons he’s been quick to display an attitude on the court. Didn’t always address his teammates in the best way. Or officials.

“Honestly, this place has helped me a lot in ways in my life I can’t really explain,” he said. “I think basketball is going to take care of itself. If you’re a good player — good enough to play (in the NBA) — they’re going to find you.

“For me personally, it’s continuing to grow my relationship with God spiritually, continuing to get better as a person and continuing to be slow to anger and be patient. Build my teammates up mentally. Help them as much as I can while I’m here. That’s one of the biggest goals I have for myself.”

The Illini coaches believe Alstork can help them grow the culture they want with the program in Brad Underwood’s first season in charge. His experience and work ethic drives that notion.

Especially on the court.

Alstork arrived at Illinois after earning first-team All-Horizon honors in 2016-17 following a career year. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 19 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists to lead the Raiders in scoring and finish second on the team in assists and third in rebounding.

“I would fully expect — especially early in the year — for him to be at the top of everybody’s scouting report,” Underwood said. “They’re going to have to figure out how to guard him. I look at it that way.
I like guys who are at the top of the scouting report and they’ve handled that. He’s been somebody’s best player and their league’s best player. We’re going to lean on him, and we’re going to need him to be good. I think he’ll be a guy that’s going to be just as good here as he was at Wright State.”

Alstork could help fill the Malcolm Hill-sized hole on the Illinois roster. Hill did it all for the Illini the past two seasons, and his graduation not only opens up minutes on the wing but creates a sizable vacuum when it comes to scoring in particular, but also rebounding and assists on the wing.

“That’s going to be a big role for us,” Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “He’s not going to be able to do it by himself, but his ability to score the basketball is definitely something we want to take advantage of.

“He’s a scorer. Guys that can score the basketball, find ways to score the ball. He’s going to find ways, and we’re going to put him in position. Taking advantage of his ability to shoot the ball from three and his ability to get to the foul line, which was at a high clip, is what this team’s going to need.”

Alstork has some Hill-like qualities. He’s a bigger guard that can score at all three levels — and did so from three-point range better last season than the Illini’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer. He, like Hill, also gets to the free throw line. A lot.

Even though Alstork might seem like the no-brainer replacement from Hill’s production, he’s entering his final season — practices officially start Sept. 29 — not particularly worried about what role he plays for the Illini. He does have goals, and reaching the NBA is near the top of that list, but he said improving his teammates’ games as much as his own was just as important.

“I’m not trying to come here and be against my teammates,” Alstork said. “I’m not fighting them for minutes. I’m coming here to jump on board with them and to build a chemistry and build a winning attitude. For me, it’s just about winning at the highest level and helping other guys become better and reach their potential.”

In short, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“Since it was my final year and I have a lot of experience, I could have went to a lot of places,” Alstork said. “I chose this place because of the coaching staff, their personalities and the team’s personalities. I love the facilities, and the fan base is crazy. Everything about Illinois is what I stand for, and that’s why I chose it.”