CHAMPAIGN — It didn’t take Giorgi Bezhanishvili long to reach the conclusion his ability to speak four languages might not bail him out on the basketball court.
Especially if the Illinois forward became a little too chatty with the officials after a call he didn’t like during his freshman season with the Illini.
Which happened quickly when Bezhanishvili drew a technical foul during the second half against Evansville in last year’s season opener.
It might not have been in English, but Bezhanishvili’s gift for gab got him in trouble.
“I got a technical foul really quick,” he said. “It was really fast, and I was on the bench right next to the coach.”
Bezhanishvili’s personality, though, quickly won over the Illinois fan base last season. The native of Rustavi, Georgia — who is fluent in Georgian, Russian, German and English — was an instant hit. The first sign of that outgoing personality came during Illinois’ media day last October. That event is back on the calendar Friday morning at the Ubben Basketball Complex, but it will be old hat for the now-sophomore.
Mostly, Bezhanishvili just plans on still being himself.
“To be honest, I wasn’t trying to do anything,” Bezhanishvili said about his turn from under-the-radar recruit to go-to player and fan favorite. “I was just being myself. This next year I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I will go and do this or do that.’ I’ll do the same things. I’ll be out there and be myself and enjoy myself and be competitive and give my all.
“When I’m out there, I’m just myself, and then stuff happens. Some funny stuff that you guys talk about. A lot of funny stuff, probably.”
Bezhanishvili already went through one round of media day interviews last week in Rosemont during the Big Ten’s annual event, representing Illinois alongside teammates Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward was, as expected, a hit. There’s simply no false pretense about him, and it showed throughout his interviews with Illinois, Big Ten and national media.
“He’s joyful,” Dosunmu said about Bezhanishvili. “The more and more I got to know him, the more that I got to realize his background, his story and where he came from. He overcame a lot. It really shows and really gives you an idea of why he’s so joyful. That’s why I always text him, ‘Giorgi, keep working, bro. Keep working. Stay positive.’”
Dosunmu’s texts are mere reminders. Keeping Bezhanishvili out of the gym is a fruitless task. Ubben was basically his home during the offseason, with early arrivals for his own workouts prior to Illinois’ team workouts in the morning a regular part of his day.
“There’s not any entitlement in Giorgi,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “That’s refreshing, yet it also requires certain nurturing because there is a lot of pressure he puts on himself to go be this or be that. You want a guy that works that hard to be rewarded. He will be.
“I don’t think he’s ever — or have I ever — doubted his abilities to be successful at this level. It took me five minutes of watching him to know that I wanted him on my team. He’s put in the work. He’s more comfortable now than he was a year ago. He was so unsure. ... He’s more sure of himself than he was a year ago at this time.”
Bezhanishvili’s extra time at Ubben was spent honing his skill set. Ball handling. Shooting. The same things his teammates worked on this offseason. But the 20-year-old Bezhanishvili said his biggest improvement is maturity on the court. Like no more technical fouls in trying to slip an argument past a referee in Georgian or German.
“Obviously, I’ve worked on my skills as everybody does,” Bezhanishvili said. “All that stuff is great, and you become better on it, but just being more comfortable. I know how to communicate with my teammates, communicate with coaches. Just being more mature on the court overall.”
It’s what Underwood and the Illinois coaching staff wanted. Helping Bezhanishvili manage his emotions on a day-to-day basis was a point of emphasis. It’s how Underwood said the team could help him grow on and off the court. Still, Bezhanishvili isn’t going to change the core of who he is. The plan is to stay the same joyful competitor that put together a breakout freshman season. Even if teams start locking in on him because of it.
“I don’t change anything, to be honest,” Bezhanishvili said. “Why would I? I was successful with it, and I feel like I can be, again, really successful just playing my game. I don’t really care if I’m on top of the scouting report or not or whatever. I just go out there, give my all, do what I can do and then the results will show.”