CHAMPAIGN — Most of the Illinois men’s basketball team used the gap between the end of the spring semester in mid-May and their return to campus in early June for summer workouts to take a break. Get away from Champaign.
Not Alan Griffin.
The sophomore guard — along with classmate Ayo Dosunmu — took an extra class in May instead. Stayed in Champaign. And, when it comes to the growth of his game, spent that time in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher or working out on the court.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to sacrifice to reach the next level,” Griffin said. “You’ve got to put some sacrifices into that.”
Griffin did get a little time away, though, even if it was still basketball related. He attended both Game 3 and Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., to see his dad — Toronto Raptors’ assistant coach Adrian Griffin. The Raptors won both games en route to the first NBA title in franchise history.
“I got to see a lot of things — like what they do and how they prepare for games and what they do off the court a little bit,” Griffin said. “It was fun to see them. They were all enjoying the moment, staying focused and locked in and just balling.”
Griffin used to spend plenty of time in NBA arenas when he was younger and his dad was still in the midst of his nine-year playing career before switching gears in 2008-09 to coaching. His own basketball career — particularly his freshman season at Illinois — precluded the same.
“As a kid growing up I got to go to almost every home game,” Griffin said. “It was nice to finally see a couple games and have that feeling back. It just gives me even more input on what it takes to get to the next level.”
The next step in Griffin potentially reaching the next level? An improved sophomore season. The 6-foot-5, 180-pound guard played in 30 games with one start as a true freshman last season and averaged 2.8 points and 1.6 rebounds. His playing time fluctuated along with his production, but he feels confident heading into his second year.
“Things have been going really well — especially staying in May to get a little head start and get even more prepared for next season,” Griffin said. “The team is basically almost the same team back from last year, and we’re all experienced and we have more of a connection as a team. I feel like we’re playing more together now than we were last year.
“We’re looking to reach an even higher level. It was baby steps (last season). Now we’re taking real, big steps to what we want to do this upcoming season.”
It doesn’t take long for Griffin to point out the part of the game he’s focused on the most this offseason. Not turning the ball over at the rate he did at times in 2018-19 is at the top of his list.
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“I’m watching film on when to go and when not to go and when to make a play or when not to make a play,” Griffin said. “I know I don’t have to be a playmaker — especially with Ayo, Trent (Frazier) and (Andres Feliz). They’ll take care of that on their own.
“From my freshman year, I learned a lot. You’ve got to play hard every possession or you’re going to look bad out there. You can’t take a play off. You’ve really got to lock in and listen to coach — execute and do all the little things to stay in the game. If you’re shot’s not going, you’ve got to impact the game by rebounding and playing defense.”
Griffin did that last season. A 48 percent three-point shooter in his senior season at Archbishop Stepinac (N.Y.), he shot just 30.4 percent from beyond the arc last season. Ball security might be a primary focus, but his shot isn’t far behind.
“Just getting more shots up and going over shots I’ll take in a game,” Griffin said. “I’m not shooting just to shoot. I’m seeing what shots I get in the system, finding those shots and knocking them down.”
Griffin is regularly tied to fellow sophomore guard Tevian Jones. They fit different roles for the Illini, but they are both seen as potential breakout candidates on the wing for the upcoming season. More production there is a real need.
“We’re seeing added strength in both of them and better athleticism and just the ability to translate that to the court and their game,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Then we’re working on weaknesses as well. The cliché I use — the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores — is they gain confidence because it’s not new anymore. There’s a familiarity that breeds confidence, and we’re seeing that.”
Illinois needs more shooters — Alan Griffin perhaps? — in 2019-20 to successfully spread the floor in Brad Underwood’s offense. These five Illini with the best single season three-point shooting performance in program history would have fit what Underwood wants:
Tom Michael, 1991-92
Now the athletic director at Eastern Illinois, Michael got plenty of opportunities to spot up on the perimeter playing off Deon Thomas. The sophomore forward went 75 of 152 (49.3 percent) from deep while averaging a career high 12.5 points.
Stephen Bardo, 1988-89
The Flyin’ Illini didn’t shoot all that many three-pointers during their Final Four season — just 320 as a team, in fact. Dunks were an easy two points. But Bardo was hyper efficient when he did pull up from the perimeter, making 29 of 59 (49.2 percent).
Jamar Smith, 2005-06
Smith provided a scoring punch off the bench backing up Dee Brown and did the bulk of it from the perimeter. The then freshman guard shot roughly three times as many three-pointers as two-pointers, knocking down 66 of 137 (48.2 percent) for the season.
Doug Altenberger, 1986-87
A freshman when the three-point line was added as an experiment in 1982-83, Altenberger attempted just three that season. When the three-pointer came back for good his redshirt senior season in 1986-87, Altenberger took advantage, going 76 of 160 (47.5 percent).
Tony Wysinger, 1986-87
Wysinger played alongside Altenberger in what turned out to be a shooter-friendly backcourt. Also getting the three-point line for the only season of his Illinois career, the 5-foot-10 guard made 28 of 60 threes while running the point.