Freshmen show off skills at debut for media

Joseph Bertrand likes to dunk, and he showed the media a glimpse why Wednesday afternoon at the Ubben Basketball Complex.

Displaying his freakish athleticism and 6-foot-5 frame, the freshman guard easily soared through the air and threw down a reverse jam after the conclusion of the first official interviews with the Illinois basketball freshmen.

“I like to finish (when I get to the hoop),” Bertrand said.

But before Bertrand, fellow freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul and freshman forward Tyler Griffey can excite Illini basketball fans this winter and in years to come, they first have to get acclimated with college ball. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing with their new teammates in pickup games at Ubben lately, learning a few things along the way.

“Everything is up to speed, and everybody’s stronger … Everybody’s (saying) ‘D up.'” Richardson said. “The defense, it’s getting everybody ready. The intensity, everyone wants to win. We count our wins at open gym.”

Richardson is a 6-foot-3 guard from Peoria, Ill., who played his final year of high school basketball at Findlay Prep in Nevada. That experience, Richardson said, will help him this season, when he will likely see major minutes in head coach Bruce Weber’s rotation.

“I was showing people I can do more than just score,” Richardson said of his time at Findlay Prep. “I was being a leader. I was also one of the best defenders on the team, and that’s what I’d like to do here – show people I can do more than score.”

One common mantra all the freshmen spoke of was the importance of defense. Richardson realizes that to accomplish his goal of starting, he must focus on defense.

“I know Coach Weber loves a player who can play defense,” Richardson said.

Paul had similar thoughts.

“Defense is the first thing we got to do when we get down here,” Paul said. “If you don’t get it done on defense, you’re not going to play. It’s definitely one of the things we work on the most.”

Part of that focus can surely be attributed to Chester Frazier, the former Illini player known for his determination, hustle and defense who has been working with the team this summer in preparation for his role as student assistant this upcoming season.

Griffey said Frazier has pushed him hard, “dragging” him to Ubben and “getting workouts in at 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”

Bertrand feels one of his biggest strengths will be his ability to get to the hoop and finish. Perfectly complementing that part of his game is the ability of post men Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis to step out and knock down open jumpers, thus creating space in the lane.

“They’ve shown they can finish around the basket,” Tisdale said of the freshmen guards. “They’re big, strong and athletic. If they can drive to the basket and score, that just helps us out more. They’re attacking as much as possible. They’re dunking everything they can, and that’s good.

“Anytime you have a versatile big man like Mike Davis— I won’t say I’m versatile, but I can shoot it hopefully— I think it helps them out and gives them a little more space to create, even if it’s not for their own shot,” Tisdale added.

Between summer classes that are wrapping up and basketball workouts, the freshmen have still found some leisure time, getting in a game of cards when they can.

“We play spades. We do a lot off the court. We walk on Green Street, do a lot of things together for us to bond,” Richardson said.