Joseph Bertrand has excellent potential as a basketball player. A Sterling High School product with the athleticism to be a two-time state dunk champ, Bertrand was beginning to assert himself during informal practices prior to the start of the season.
He was especially adept in the open court with the speed to get out on the break, the passing ability to set up teammates for easy buckets, and the ability to finish at the rim. There was talk Bertrand would compete for playing time when he went down with torn knee cartilage.
The recovery from cartilage surgery is usually much shorter than for ligament tears, and Bertrand hoped to get back into the mix after a brief respite. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
"I thought it would be a quick surgery and I would be right back," Bertrand admitted. "People told me how it was going to be, especially if you rush back into it. I rushed a little bit, and that's why it swelled up.
"That was especially hard at the beginning of the year because you're trying to figure out where you're gonna play and trying to make a good impression.
"When I got out there, it felt good. But a week later, it was the worst it could be. It swelled up a lot, and I couldn't straighten it all the way or bend it all the way. They had to drain it every couple weeks, about 5-6 times. I sat for too long, so I had to be out for the season."
Eventually, his knee settled down. Using a more cautious approach, Bertrand finally was able to rejoin his teammates for practice.
"I'm real happy to be back with the team. It feels real good. I'm probably at 85% of each practice. I'm just trying to make sure it stays the same."
He was able to keep his conditioning up while he waited, allowing him to participate fully on his return.
"Actually, my endurance is pretty good since I came back. I had been running and stuff while I was out, doing conditioning, the bike and all that."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber elaborated on Bertrand's situation when he returned to practice.
"He's missed a lot of basketball, a lot of learning. It's sad for him. I just hope we can help him get over some things. We didn't want to push him too hard. But I think it's important this last month of the season to get him in for some individual workouts, give him some attention.
"He did a lot of stuff, his shooting, on his own when he was getting his therapy. We've got to continue that. But I think the important thing for his future is one to get healthy, but two to feel good about himself and feel like he learned something this year. So it wasn't a total waste.
"We've got to be careful because we can't push him too hard. We don't want any more complications from his different injuries."
There is a vast difference between high school ball and college. The slender 6'-5" guard watched and learned daily from the sidelines.
"I've learned a lot watching everybody. There's so much detail, and you have to do everything right. One play can change the game. In high school, you didn't have to pay attention every play. College is more serious."
Of course, once he returned to practice he realized how much more he needs to learn.
"Watching is not the same as playing. Once you get in there and get going, it's a whole different story on what you need to do.
"I'm trying to learn as much as I can. I know I need to work on my shooting, ball handling and all that. If I'm gonna play point guard, or wherever I'm gonna play next year, just learn the system as much as I can."
Bertrand says his strengths as a player are setting up his teammates and getting to the basket. Those are traits of a point guard. While he needs to refine some things and become more consistent, he has the court vision and unselfishness to back up Demetri McCamey next year. He has been watching and learning from McCamey's game.
"Yeah. He doesn't make many turnovers, he's smart with the ball. I need to be a lot smarter with the ball and make better decisions. Like throwing it back out and setting up a play rather than trying to force things."
He hasn't been told his role next year. How well he develops between now and next fall will determine that. The Illini need a backup point guard, so he will work toward that possibility. Weber says his flexibility is an asset.
"I think he can play the point. He can handle, he can really pass. Those are two of his better things. Learning the game is the important part. Like a lot of young kids coming out of high school, he can dribble too much at times.
"That's why I think it's so important he become involved in practice here, to help him get a feel for what we're really looking for. So in the spring and summer he can start executing that and getting better at those skills. Just learning to play the game.
"If we can get some of that stuff done now, it will help him next year. He'll definitely give us some versatility. He can play 1, 2 or 3. He's long enough to play the three. And like I said, one of the best things about him is his handles and his court vision."