CHAMPAIGN – Tracy Abrams says he doesn’t have a set role on the Illini basketball team, either declining to paint himself into a box or too humble to admit he’s a team leader.
Only a sophomore, Abrams won’t outright say it – but he figures to be a key vocal influence this season and has a good shot at being named a team captain later this week.
“I just go. I just try to help guys out,” he said. “I do what I can to try to help my players and teammates win and get those guys better. If leadership is what it is, let it be, but I’m just here to help those guys out and let those guys help me and just win games.”
His leadership skills are known, and the respect his teammates have for him is already evident. His peers named Abrams the team’s most valuable player last season, when he started 19 games and averaged 4.3 points and nearly two assists a game.
He scored a career-high 22 points against Purdue in February and had eight assists against Northwestern, but Abrams claims to be indifferent about the stat sheet. That attitude, he says, is why he was voted MVP.
“I just try to come in and do what it takes to win,” he said. “I don’t really care about numbers and that stuff. I’m winning if I can help contribute to us winning the game. I’m gonna give my all.”
A new offense and philosophy came to Illinois with first-year head coach John Groce. That means new plays, sets and positions to be filled. The short of it is, Groce needs ball handlers on the perimeter and a lead guard to make it all go.
Given his team-first nature, most figured Abrams would fill the role, regardless of what was asked of him. After all, he’s 6-1 and has the look of a point guard, right?
“That doesn’t make you a point guard,” Groce said. “There’s more to it than that. Do you understand time and score? Can you make guys better? Do you know who has the hot hand? Can you be the front porch of our defense? Are you vocal in your leadership as well as displaying great body language? Are you an extension of the coach on the floor? I mean there’s a lot. Can you change gears? Can you defeat pressure?”
In other words, there’s a great deal of responsibility that comes with being a lead guard in Groce’s system. Understanding that, Abrams set out this offseason to get ready.
“He wants you to give him film and, ‘hey, can I take it with me and watch it?’ “ Groce said. “He asks a lot of questions and you know I think Tracy wants to be a lead guard. I think that’s half the battle.”
Said Abrams: “I think I’m doing pretty good with learning, still have a long way to go. Just the little things make a big difference and an influence on decision making and things like that.”
The new offense, Abrams says, is an exciting opportunity. The pace is expected to be faster than in the past, something he’s looking forward to.
“I think it’s good for me as a player,” he said. “I think it’s good for all of us. You know, we have guys with great ability. Everybody has different abilities. We need everybody to be comfortable and playing at their strength. I think it’s pretty good for the team.”
Assistant Jamall Walker spent one-on-one time with Abrams in the offseason, working on his weaknesses and getting him better. In turn, Abrams took on a “coaching” role with his teammates. No longer a freshman or the youngest guy on the team, Abrams has embraced the fact that his voice carries weight during workouts and practices.
“I think he has more confidence and he’s helping others out more,” senior guard Brandon Paul said. “Whenever somebody’s not working as hard as they need to be, he’s kinda calling them out and telling them this is what we have to do to get better.”
It’s a match necessary for success. Groce needs a leader. Abrams wants a team to lead. If he is indeed the right man for the position and role, Illinois stands a chance to exceed average expectations in the Big Ten this season.
“There’s a lot to being a point guard and a lead guard, and the one thing I like about Tracy is he wants to be one,” Groce said. “He’s willing to learn. He picks up stuff quickly. He cares at a high level and that’s all you can ask.”