CHAMPAIGN — Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk made quite the first impression.
What the Illinois freshman forward was able to do in his just more than 8 minutes of playing time in the Illini’s exhibition win against Lewis this past Friday night might have Illinois coach Brad Underwood re-evaluating how he’ll use the Belgium native early in the season. There’s still some caution on Underwood’s part, though, given that game was just Bosmans-Verdonk’s fifth day with unrestricted minutes.
Bosmans-Verdonk was medically cleared but still held out when practices started in early October. He didn’t get back on the practice court at Ubben Basketball Complex until Oct. 22. Even then, he was limited in what he was allowed to do.
But after 11 points, three rebounds and an assist in 8 minutes against Lewis, Underwood said Monday afternoon that expectations are a bit higher and Bosmans-Verdonk’s playing time might increase along with them in Illinois’ season opener.
The Illini officially start the 2019-20 season at 7 p.m. Tuesday at State Farm Center against Nicholls State.
“There’s a fragile line between playing and playing well and wanting him to play well,” Underwood said. “Not giving him a chance to really fail. I was really pleased because he came out and played and stayed in his lane so to speak. He didn’t try to do too much. ... It’s a comfort thing until he gets really dialed in, and his conditioning is still maturing as we move along.”
Bosmans-Verdonk’s production against Lewis didn’t surprise his teammates. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward didn’t miss. He attempted three three-pointers, made them all and also knocked down both of his free throw attempts.
“He’s always in the gym working,” senior guard Andres Feliz said. “You saw out there. Those shots that he made, those are the shots that he practices. That was normal for him making those shots and getting his confidence going.”
Sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili shared a similar sentiment. He’s seen that type of play from Bosmans-Verdonk at Ubben.
“He’s a really hard-working guy,” Bezhanishvili said. “He gets in the gym a lot and works on himself. Whenever he makes a mistake, he always asks for help. I’m just really proud of him. He got out there, and he really made us have a lot of fun. He knocked down his shots, which he works on every single day.”
Bosmans-Verdonk’s playing time against Lewis came when the game was well in hand. Underwood wanted to get him in the game in the first half. An early 14-2 lead for the Flyers and the fact Illinois led for approximately 90 seconds during the first 20 minutes made the Illini coach go a different direction.
“I wanted to play him in the first half, but we got off to such a bad start,” Underwood said. “I probably should have put him in, but I needed those guys in the first half. I needed those guys in the first half to play through some difficulty and play through some challenges and learn to figure it out on their own.”
Bosmans-Verdonk still took advantage of the time he got — and not just on the offensive end. Underwood was just as pleased with what the freshman forward did defensively. And that he didn’t try and do too much finally getting a chance to be on the court.
“I think it speaks to his intelligence, and I think it speaks to his commitment,” Underwood said. “His basketball IQ is through the roof. He’s a very highly intelligent kid in terms of what he understands and processes. We were able to get him out in situations and just walk through things with him (before his full return). He had an understanding of what we’re trying to do.
“But until you get out there full speed and bodies are hitting you, it’s a different animal. His mental approach, had it not been what it was, would have strapped him, and it does players. His ability to pick things up has enabled him to find the court.”