Demetri McCamey has always had potential to be a floor general as well as top scorer for Illinois. He lacked the conditioning the first two years to do all the things required of a point guard. And all three years, he has sometimes butted heads with coach Bruce Weber, preferring to do things his own way.
Until recently, McCamey would show tantalizing glimpses of his potential and then fall back into old habits. Weber says one big problem was his tendency to force things rather than take what the defense gives.
"He sometimes makes decisions before the play happens. That's where I think he struggles. He decides he's gonna shoot the ball this time down the court. And then he just goes and shoots whether he's open or not. And sometimes he's gonna pass whether he sees somebody.
"He does have good vision, but he sometimes makes a decision to get it to someone, and now somebody else came and got the deflection. He's just got to let the game come and get a good feel. If he gets going too much, he can come and sit with me for a minute. Just relax a little bit."
Weber has sat McCamey numerous times in his career. He didn't even start him twice this year to remind him to be more responsible. But each time McCamey came back for more. And now, he is finally figuring out what to do when. What was the turning point? When did the light finally go off?
"Just feeling more mature," McCamey believes. "And the teammates selecting the captains took the pressure off and you can just go out and play your game because you know your teammates will have your back. You just feel more comfortable and mature about the whole situation."
Weber had named McCamey a captain earlier in the season, but it didn't take. The private team meeting may have served two purposes. One, it made McCamey aware he needed to share the wealth with his teammates. And two, when he includes his fellow players in his game, they in turn allow him to lead and be content in their roles.
Fellow captain Bill Cole thinks the team meeting helped but was not the only explanation.
"At the meeting after the Northwestern game, we not only talked about captains, we talked about a balanced scoring attack. At that point, Tis (Mike Tisdale) and Demetri were doing almost everything. So when Demetri looks to distribute and get his teammates involved, we've got a darned good offense.
"Definitely, it's a lot more fun to play that way. And it makes it a lot tougher to guard us. Other teams can't adjust so easily if the whole team is scoring.
"I don't want to say it (team meeting) was the only influence. I think it came at a good time. We'd just had some losses, and it helped us come together as a team."
Cole isn't sure there was one exact moment where the light went on for McCamey. He just thinks McCamey's game continues to evolve.
"I can't point to one specific time. Just out on the floor during the games, I could notice it the way our offense would click when he's distributing. He's doing a lot better coming off pick-and-roll reads, looking behind him, going through his progressions almost like a quarterback would. He's doing a great job of that. The one thing Coach has been harping on him since freshman year, and he's really mastered that aspect of the game."
With maturation comes more awareness of your teammates' needs. With the extra responsibility of the captainship, more unselfish play results.
"I think Demetri has really emerged as a leader on this team," Cole says. "That's great when your best player is your leader. That's what makes for a successful team."
Weber and McCamey have had issues, but Weber has always wanted McCamey to recognize and fulfill his potential. It is finally starting to happen.
"Demetri has definitely made a difference. Last year, he was watching Chester (Frazier). Now he's the guy everybody's watching. He's made big strides. He still has his tendencies to go back to his own ways. We try to nip it in the bud right away and not let it get out of hand. He's made huge strides, and I hope he continues to do that because he's a key to our success."
Is McCamey better as a distributor or scorer?
"I think every game is different, depending on how teams guard him," Weber explains. "Purdue really hedged hard. The big guy comes all the way out and attacks the ball screen. So we were able to spread them and pick-and-pop to get the easy jumpers. Or drive and send it back. So in that case Demetri was effective for us distributing.
"On other occasions, people guard things differently. He gets in transition where I think he is making better decisions. We still need him to look to score.
"I just told him every game is different. He's just got to feel the game and not make a decision on each brief possession. He's got to let the defense dictate it. That's some of the biggest gains he's made in improvement, letting the game come to him. Reading the game and reading the defense."
He has gained the respect of his teammates. They know he needs to play his best for the team to be successful.
"He could average 10 assists every game easily with the shooters we have," Mike Davis acknowledges. "But on the flip side, he can take off and score whenever he wants to. He's a talented player."
Freshman Tyler Griffey has noticed major improvement since he arrived on campus.
"He's improved tremendously. His maturation since I've been here over the summer is unbelieveable. He's playing really well, making the right decisions, making the right passes and shooting the right shots. Hopefully, he continues to do that and we surprise some people."
Freshman guard D.J. Richardson has much less pressure on him when McCamey handles the ball and sets up the offense.
"I think now we have leadership. I think Bill Cole and Demetri have done a good job of leading the team. He's really focused, but Demetri's gonna be Demetri. In the last few games he's taken his game to the magic level."
One of the prime beneficiaries of McCamey's passes is Tisdale. When he comes out top to provide a ball screen, opponents must decide whether to double McCamey, leaving Tisdale free for open jumpers, or try to play McCamey with just one defender. McCamey has learned to take what the defense gives.
"Yeah, he's definitely improved, I've improved," Tisdale relates. "When you're seeing stuff off the ball screens like he has been, he's tough to guard. Hopefully that continues. We've worked on it quite a bit lately. It definitely helps when you've got two guys who can shoot, the dribbler and the screen-and-roll guy."
As part of his maturation process, McCamey isn't bragging about his success but describing it with humility.
"It's just the defense focuses on me, doubling me and trying to trap ball screens to get it out of my hand. I just try to make the right play to get Tisdale open for jump shots. He can hit that shot 8 out of 10 times. If you want to win, you've got to do the right things, make the right plays."
Weber once said he cannot compliment McCamey because it adversely affects his play. Maybe that will still be true at times. But the better McCamey plays, the more he appears to have evolved into someone who respects the game and respects his natural gifts without needing to brag about them or prove them to anyone.
"I know I'm gonna get the defense. They might send another person or two at me to try to get the ball out of my hand. I just try to make the right reads. I'll be happy if I score 0 points or 30. I'll still feel the same way as long as we win."