Bertrand shined despite never being a star


Joseph Bertrand is one of the most unique players in Illinois basketball history.

The 6-foot-6 guard doesn’t have statistics that are going to blow anyone away. Bertrand has never averaged double-digit points or even five rebounds per game in any season in his career. He’s also never averaged a block or steal per game, and his career high for 3-pointers made in a season is just 18. 

But if you’re looking at statistics to help describe Bertrand, you’re looking in the wrong place.

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Trying to explain usage percentage to Bertrand was a challenging task. I described to him that usage percentage is the amount of a team’s possessions a player uses while he’s on the floor. 

I told Bertrand he ranked just seventh in usage percentage on last year’s team, behind the likes of Tyler Griffey and Mike LaTulip. I figured this season with the departures of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, Bertrand would have to take on more of a scoring load. Bertrand just laughed it off.

“I don’t even know, I’m just gonna go out there and play,” Bertrand said. “If I have opportunities, I’ll take them. If I have an open shot, I’ll shoot it. I’m not really worried about usage.”

If he doesn’t have a shot to his liking, he won’t take it.

Bertrand has failed to score in two of his last three games, which leads to some thinking he can’t score. In those two games, he took three shots combined.

Bertrand could lead this team in scoring, if he wanted to.

The senior is the model of efficiency. Bertrand shot over 50 percent for three consecutive seasons before this year, a feat that is quite amazing for a perimeter player. He’s shooting 47.9 percent from the floor this season, leading anyone on the team who’s averaging at least 10 minutes per game.

Bertrand’s sky-high percentages are a product of his shot selection. Rarely do you see Bertrand shoot a pull-up jumper or take an ill-advised three. Bertrand prefers letting his teammates set him up in the flow of the offense.

When Bertrand does look to score, he utilizes his favorite weapon: the floater.

Bertrand’s floater is just beautiful. The high-arcing layup is uncommon for a 6-foot-6 player to possess in his arsenal, but the shot has become a habit.

“When I was younger, I used to play against older guys,” Bertrand said. “My uncle used to take me out to play and everyone was taller than me. I had to get the ball up there without getting blocked. I’ve used it ever since. Now that I’m bigger, taller and jump higher, it’s good to use.”

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Bertrand is the jokester on this team. You wouldn’t know it by his shy persona, but his teammates can back up his funny reputation. 

“Mainly with us, his teammates and stuff, he’s pretty talkative,” roommate and junior guard Tracy Abrams said. “But from the outside looking in, he seems really quiet, like he wouldn’t say as much.”

Bertrand’s teammate of four years, Brandon Paul, wanted to share his friends exploits with the rest of the world so he created the Twitter hashtag #JoeTales to recount the stories.

“Joe does so many crazy things, I feel like people should know about this guy,” Paul told The Daily Illini a couple years back. “He’s literally one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met, probably one of the funniest kids in the nation.”

With the way this season has gone at times for Illinois, there hasn’t been much to joke about. Still, Bertrand’s maintained his positive attitude.

“That helps a lot,” Abrams said of Bertrand’s mind set. “Just to have a guy like that in general, just to bring that positive energy. If you’re down, just to have a guy like that around, bring a smile to your face, it’s good.”

Bertrand’s team-first mentality has been put to the test this season. Illinois head coach John Groce opted to start the freshman duo of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, moving Bertrand and fellow senior Jon Ekey to the bench.

“It’s best for the team,” Bertrand said. “Some things weren’t working. Coach (Groce) brought me in and told me he wasn’t gonna start me and Jon. We said OK, we’re two seniors, older guys, so we know what’s good for the team and have to roll with it.”

The change has proved to be beneficial, even if Bertrand’s productivity has dropped off. Bertrand hasn’t scored in double digits since Feb. 4 against Wisconsin when he put up 11. By the way Bertrand acts, you wouldn’t know he’s in the middle of a slump.

“Joe’s been here five years, has been through a lot” Groce said. “His experience level, the willingness he has to sacrifice for the betterment of the team is admirable. He just handles himself so well”.

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When asked about their favorite moments from their careers, most players think about the individual achievements. 

He lists a few obvious choices, the Indiana win, the two tournament appearances, stuff any player cherishes. But absent from his top moments are his breakout 9-for-9 performance against Missouri during his sophomore season, and his 25-point outburst against Nebraska that same season. Bertrand doesn’t mention his many highlight plays throughout his career. 

But boy, Bertrand has memorable hops.

The senior appears to have pogo sticks for legs whenever he lifts off, gracefully hangs in the air, and throws down a ferocious dunk. Whether it’s off the alley-oop or at the end of a drive, Bertrand can finish with the best of them.

There’s a lot to choose from when looking back at Bertrand’s top dunks. Even he had trouble whittling down his choices to just three.

“I don’t really remember all of them,” he said.

My personal favorite play of his is when he nearly jumped over Georgia Tech’s Marcus Georges-Hunt for an and-1 layup during the 2012 ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“That’s up there, that’s definitely up there,” Bertrand said. “It’s kind of a last-minute decision. I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it. Just jumped up and it kind of happened. I’m glad I made it over him.”

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Bertrand may not be one of the greatest Illini players ever. He’s not going to be found on any leaderboard for career points, rebounds, assists or anything like that. Bertrand hasn’t even been on any particularly good Illinois teams. But there’s still something about him that will be hard to forget.

I’m going to remember the highlight plays that he provided on some Illinois teams that seriously lacked entertainment. I’m going to remember Bertrand’s inability to take bad shots, even when his teammates did. Over anything else, I’ll remember him for being the kind of role player every team needs.

“Hopefully they’ll remember I played hard,” Bertrand said. “I’d like them to remember I’m definitely a team player, always pushed my teammates to be better.”

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]