“It’s a basketball trip,” Illini rising sophomore Ayo Dosunmu said. “We’re here to play basketball. We’re on scholarship to play basketball, so we’re going out there to try to win as many games as possible. When we win as many games as possible, then we can sit back and relax and enjoy our summer.”
CHAMPAIGN — One look at Ayo Dosunmu is all you need to realize that this is not the same lanky guard that arrived at Illinois in the summer of 2018.
Dosunmu is noticeably bigger. Clearly broader across the shoulders. The time he spent in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher has already started to pay dividends.
Now Dosunmu would like the opportunity to get on the court and show what his bigger, stronger frame can mean for his game.
He knows he’s finishing better at the rim. The opportunities to do so in Illinois’ summer workouts and pre-Italy practices, though, aren’t a given.
For one, his teammates know him. Know his moves. They’re also, let’s say, a little freer to make contact when there’s not an official present to blow a whistle.
The Illini’s upcoming foreign tour of Italy? Dosunmu is all about the opportunity to show off the changes he’s made to his game against an opponent that’s not quite as familiar with what he can do on the basketball court.
“We play hard against each other,” Dosunmu said about Illinois’ practices. “We foul each other. We hack each other. We know all the plays. I’m excited to play against guys that don’t know anything. My teammates know when they can bring two at me. They know me.”
Moving on up
Dosunmu’s gains in the weight room are only a portion of his offseason growth. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound guard arrived at Illinois with a healthy work ethic from his high school days at Morgan Park. If anything, it only grew this spring and summer as Dosunmu skipped the NBA draft process entirely and dedicated his offseason to improving his game with more team success the ultimate goal.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood calls Dosunmu “a different guy when it comes to work.” That was the case during his freshman season, and Underwood said his returning leading scorer has only pushed the threshold in the last four months.
“If it was possible, you’ve seen a guy that’s really gotten to another place, another level,” Underwood said. “From a work capacity. From a focus on improving and getting better. A guy that’s completely changed his body. A guy that’s not the same guy he was a year ago at this time when he got on campus in terms of physical strength.
“Now he’s become a much, much better athlete. His game has improved because of that. His game has improved because of his confidence. His game has improved because of his experience. All those things allow you to take big jumps. He’s learning to perform at the highest level that he can maximize in terms of his work ethic and in terms of the expectations he has for himself.”
Dosunmu approached this offseason with the idea of not getting complacent. Yes, his freshman season was a good one for the Illini. He earned co-Most Outstanding Player honors for the team along with fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili and became the first Illini freshman — ever — to lead the team in scoring by averaging 13.8 points.
That was fine. For last year.
“You can never stop working,” Dosunmu said. “You can’t get complacent. You’ve got to keep going. That’s what I wanted to keep my mind on. I had a pretty good freshman year, but I don’t want to keep getting all the compliments. That’s not the type of person I am. I want to keep striving and make more success and help the team win.”
Dosunmu’s focus is driven by his family and what both he and they have experienced. The ups and downs he said he’s seen provide motivation.
“I saw a lot from being financially very stable to times where we were struggling, but God always had my family and I,” Dosunmu said. “That really pushed me to try to change the lifestyle for my family and for everyone I know. Also, I just love to win. It gives me a different edge — a different motivation.”
Quam Dosunmu said his son’s focus and work ethic comes from the family. Quam coached his son up until his sophomore year at Morgan Park and helped instill that what he learned from his own father, who helped establish the family in the United States.
“If you’re passionate with something, you give it your 100 percent,” Quam Dosunmu said. “That just makes you a better person. We were always in the gym. We’d practice four-hour or five-hour days. All he knows is being in the gym and working hard. Just working hard. Nothing’s given to you.”
No time to waste
Dosunmu applied that idea of giving something his 100 percent focus when it came to the NBA draft. He was considered a potential first-round pick fairly early during his freshman season, but opted not even to test the draft waters.
“I’m the type of person where there’s no need to waste time,” Dosunmu said. “Whenever it’s time to go through that process, I’m going to go all in. I’m not going to be worrying about if I’m coming here or going there. I felt like I still had to be focused on the season.”
The stay-or-go draft decision was a family one. Quam Dosunmu said they treated it like the recruiting process. His job was to gather information, the family discussed it and then the final decision rested solely in his son’s hands.
“He had to make the final decision,” Quam Dosunmu said. “My job and my wife’s job was to gather information. We talked about, ‘What do you want?’ He could have easily went to the league.
“You look at the way everything fell off, he probably would have got drafted in the first round, but that’s not what he was looking for. He was looking for longevity. He’s looking for playing in the league, with the grace of God, for 10 or 15 or 20 years.”
Dosunmu announced his decision to return with a new hashtag — #UnfinishedBusiness. It’s how he felt after the 2018-19 season ended with the Illini. Not enough individual growth and success. Not enough wins as a team.
“There was some stuff we didn’t accomplish,” Quam Dosunmu said. “Him as a player. As a family. For our state. We looked at all that. There was no hesitation. He came back for the second year and will hopefully check those goals off as being accomplished.”
Dosunmu doesn’t sugarcoat what those goals are. Winning more games than last year’s 12 is certainly a focus. So is leading Illinois back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2012-13 season. It’s something the Illini discuss. Maybe not every day, but their focus is certainly honed in on that goal.
“We’re not here to say we’re rebuilding or we’re just trying to not finish last or at the bottom of the conference,” Dosunmu said. “We know what we want to do. We want to win the conference, be at the top of the conference. That’s what we’re working for.”
That’s why Dosunmu opted to stay on campus in May instead of taking what would have been a well-deserved break. He took another class instead and basically spent the month with Fletcher. Getting his body right was a priority, and he’s reaping the benefits.
“It’s hard to explain because it’s little details such as dribbling when someone’s trying to hand check you,” Dosunmu said. “Being stronger to take the bump when you’re driving so instead of going out of bounds you’re finishing to the basket. Coming off ball screen instead of hedging out to the left so you’re going downhill.
“I’m lifting weights with my legs and arms I never was doing back (a year ago). I see the growth, I see the improvement, and that’s exciting.”
Still, the weight room work has been just part of his offseason. Time on the court has been just as critical, and Dosunmu’s spending plenty there.
A typical summer day has Dosunmu at Ubben Basketball Complex at 7 a.m. to get ready for that morning’s workout. He eats, downs a couple bottles of water and grabs two yogurts and two more orange juices before getting taped. Then it’s either lift, practice or both.
“Afterward I’d be shooting,” Dosunmu said. “I’d get around 300 made up. If we have two-a-days, we’ll come back. After the practice I shoot again — about 200-300 and then get some recovery and then go lay down.”
Underwood compares Dosunmu’s work ethic to other players he’s coached, like Michael Beasley (Kansas State), Thomas Walkup (Stephen F. Austin) and Phil Forte III (Oklahoma State). They were all at another level when it came to the extra preparation they put in toward improving their game. Dosunmu has that same commitment.
“It’s a bad cliché, but it’s a laser focus to become great and not a lot of guys have that,” Underwood said. “He’s got that piece. He’s got a different way of thinking than your average 18- or 19-year-old when it comes to being successful.
“His leadership manifests itself in a lot of ways. He’s about winning. He’s about us. That’s permeating through our locker room and our practices as much as I’ve ever seen.”