Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said Friday he feels the Illini still have room to improve with the Big Ten and NCAA tournament around the corner. ‘We kind of know that our potential is limitless,’ the junior said.

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CHAMPAIGN — The caption on Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s Thursday afternoon Instagram post was simple. A bit of a departure for the typically gregarious Georgian.

Still, short and to the point: “Giorgi B out” followed by a heart emoji.

The post itself explained the caption. Bezhanishvili announced he was declaring for the NBA draft with the intent to take the next step toward a professional basketball career. In not so many words, his time at Illinois was done.

“From basketball to classes to dancing … it has been nothing but love since my first day here in Champaign!” the Illinois junior forward wrote in his note posted to Instagram. “I would like to thank all of Illini nation from deep in my heart for everything! My journey here at Illinois has been amazing.

“With that being said, I will be entering the 2021 NBA Draft and pursuing the next step of becoming a professional basketball player. Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me along the way. I’m excited to see what the future holds. I-L-L!”

Bezhanishvili established himself as the energy guy at Illinois from the moment he stepped on campus in the summer of 2018. Whatever his role on the court — he went from starting center and third-leading scorer as a freshman to backup big man the last two years — he kept up an overwhelmingly positive presence.

High energy. Big personality. Ever present smile on his face. A combination that made the 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward an easy fan favorite.

The final weeks of the 2020-21 Illinois basketball season did see the 22-year-old Bezhanishvili turn a bit more introspective.

Long after the final horn sounded in Illinois’ regular-season home finale against Nebraska on Feb. 25, Bezhanishvili emerged on the middle concourse level for a quiet last look at an empty State Farm Center. He also took a moment to himself after the Illini beat Ohio State for the Big Ten tournament championship on March 14 to soak in the atmosphere and watch his teammates celebrate.

The 2020-21 Illinois basketball season left plenty of lasting memories.

“I might be in my room and just looking at it I’m like, ‘Damn. Really, damn,’” Bezhanishvili said late in the season reflecting on what the Illini had accomplished. “Where I had been my freshman year here where we had nothing. We were not ranked. We didn’t win many games.

“I’ve just really enjoyed it. I’m looking back four or five years ago when I played in Austria for a national title there in my age group. That was such a fun time. I still talk to my teammates from there about those times. I know this is a special team, and five years, 10 years, from now we’ll be remembering it like, ‘Remember this? Remember that? It was so fun.’ We gathered some great, great memories for sure.”

Bezhanishvili created some of them. Scoring 10 straight points in the second half against Ohio State helped Illinois secure the Big Ten tournament title. He also had his best game of the 2020-21 season against eventual national champions Baylor when the Illini and Bears met in early December.

Bezhanishvili’s on-court role did shrink, though, this past season. He played a career-low 14.5 minutes per game, mostly backing up Second Team All-American center Kofi Cockburn and averaged just 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds. Both of those are also career lows.

Bezhanishvili is the second Illinois player to declare for the 2021 NBA draft following a similar decision from junior guard Ayo Dosunmu on Tuesday. The Illini also lost freshman guard Adam Miller to the transfer portal and added Florida sophomore forward Omar Payne from the portal last week.

Payne’s addition will help shore up Illinois’ frontcourt in the 2021-22 season. Coleman Hawkins will likely play a more significant role as a sophomore for the Illini next season, but Brad Underwood and his coaching staff are still looking for more frontcourt help in the transfer portal — particularly if Cockburn follows Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili to the pro ranks.

Illinois has targeted both Creighton’s Christian Bishop and Fordham’s Joel Soriano in the portal.

Bishop, a 6-7, 220-pound forward, averaged 11 points and 6.4 rebounds for the Bluejays this past season and is an elite finisher at — and above — the rim having shot 68.1 percent on the year. Soriano checks in at 6-11 and 250 pounds, and the Yonkers, N.Y., native with ties to the Dominican Republic put up 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game for the Rams during the 2020-21 season.

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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