Size no object for Starks in starting role with Illinois

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Illinois’ Ahmad Starks shoots a three-pointer during the exhibition game against Quincy at State Farm Center on Friday.

By Sam Sherman

When Ahmad Starks was in eighth grade, he played in a Boo Williams Invitational tournament in Virginia. Almost everyone in the tournament was 15-years-old, except for Starks. At 13, Starks was good enough to jump two age levels.

Starks’ team made it all the way to the championship game to take on the Boo Williams AAU team. Before the game, some of the older, taller kids who weren’t familiar with Starks’ abilities began to talk.

“I was playing a bunch of 15-year-olds. Obviously they’re bigger and stronger and in high school, but there was a lot of talk going on, basically saying ‘He’s too small’ and all this other stuff,” Starks said. 

The kid that the bigger kids were calling too small scored 22 points and earned MVP of the tournament.

Throughout much of Starks’ life, he has been proving people wrong. There is no sport where height can be as much of an advantage, or disadvantage, as it is in basketball.

However, Starks’ has never viewed his height as a weakness.

“Some people say it’s a disadvantage, or you’re looked down upon because of it, but there are also things I can do that other people can’t,” Starks said. 

Starks’ might only be 5-foot-9, but lucky for him, there’s no height requirement for a gym.

After having his hardship waiver to play immediately denied by the NCAA a year ago, Starks had to sit out last season. He took full advantage and added even more strength to his frame.

Illinois head coach John Groce witnessed these changes first hand.

“He’s really strong,” Groce said. “He weighs 171 pounds and bench presses 290. You don’t see that very often from a guy who is 171 pounds.”

Senior point guard Tracy Abrams tore his ACL last month. To many, that news threw a wrench in the plans of a big season for the Illini.

Abrams brought senior leadership, aggressive defense and solid offensive contributions. While the injury will hurt the Illini in some ways, Groce knows what Starks brings to the table.

“He’s really gifted offensively,” Groce said. “He’s a high-level shot maker. He’s a great ball handler. He makes good decisions, and his assist-to-turnover ratio throughout the course of his career has always been really good.”

You don’t often hear coaches wanting their players to make more mistakes, but Starks’ case is a little different. Groce wants Starks to make more mistakes so he can be more aggressive and less cautious. 

Starks’ role changed since Abrams’ tore his ACL. He went from being an offensive sparkplug coming off the bench to more than likely the team’s starting point guard.

Senior Rayvonte Rice, who led the Illini in scoring last season, noticed that nothing seems to get in Starks’ way. Starks isn’t afraid to take on any challange, including pulling up a shot on Nnanna Egwu. 

Rice also hasn’t been afraid to joke with Starks when it comes to his height.

“I call him ‘Little Man’ sometimes, and other short jokes,” Rice laughed. “He drives a big Hummer, but he’s such a little guy.” 

Rice said the jokes are not one sided, however. Jokes about Rice’s weight have been thrown around at his expense. 

Egwu has been impressed with what he’s seen from his new point guard. Starks continues to take on any challenge he’s faced with despite his height disadvantage. 

“I don’t even think he knows he’s 5-foot-9,” Egwu said. “He plays big, he plays aggressive and he plays strong. It doesn’t even come to his mind, he probably thinks he’s 6-foot-4 because that’s how he plays, and that’s what I love about him.”

When Starks got the news that he wasn’t going to be able to play last season, it was tough for him. Little did he know that this season, the success of Illini will rest heavily on his play at point guard.

Sam can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Sam_Sherman5.