Joseph Bertrand waited a year to play his first Illinois game and make his first basket. Knee surgery near the start of fall drills last year forced him to sit out. He missed the early workouts where fundamental skills were taught. Essentially still a freshman, he finally played his first game against UC Irvine and scored his first college basket against Toledo.
"It's going good. I'm really excited to get into the games and play, get experience in the games. I'm just trying to put up good shots. I don't want to force anything. Just kind of play it smart."
While he wanted to play last season, he has definitely improved his strength and overall skill level since then.
"I've improved a lot, strength-wise and in basketball ability. The summer was real productive for me, and the whole team as well.
"I'm working a lot on ball handling, watching Demetri (McCamey), who's a great point guard and leader. I think my skills have really increased since last year, my smarts on the court and my decision-making.
"I've been working on my outside shot a lot also, and it's really improved since last year. I'm pretty confident with it, but you can always keep working on it to develop more confidence. I'm ready to put my abilities on the court and see what we can do."
Bertrand's confidence was evident at Midnight Madness. He was tentative on his return to practices last winter, but he demonstrated a more extroverted side when given the limelight at the official beginning of fall practice. He won the dance contest, dunk contest and knockout game.
"It was a nice way for the season to get started, everybody getting crazy and doing dunk contests and whatnot."
The dance contest was limited to three players as most of his teammates were embarrassed to dance in public. Not Bertrand.
"Yeah me, D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon (Paul) are the only ones that really dance. We kind of knew that's how it was gonna be. We had fun with the fans."
Bertrand has size at 6'-5", outstanding leaping ability and court smarts. He is someone who will continue to improve as he matures. In the meantime, coach Bruce Weber has provided a formula for him to follow for early playing time.
"Coach Weber told me to focus on defense and rebounding. He said if I do that, I can get into the games. That's something I've been really focusing on."
He sometimes appears nervous on the court, but he has responded positively so far to what Weber wants.
"I just try to stay calm and play a strong game. I concentrate on the defense; that's one thing I've got to work on. I try to figure out what I need to do the next play, what I can do to make the team better."
Bertrand demonstrated a skill in the Toledo game that Illinois has needed from several other players the last couple years. Three times he drove aggressively to the bucket for short shots or assists.
"Yeah, that's a big part of my game, getting to the hoop."
Bertrand is not yet the first option off the bench, but his long arms, leaping ability and effectiveness in the open court can be utilized to good effect this season and in the years to come. He is providing competition to his teammates, and he is improving in return. He likes the makeup of the team.
"Everybody is really competing. We're deep this year, so when somebody gets tired we just keep throwing people in there. We can keep going down the bench we're so deep."
Weber has considered using Bertrand as a point guard, his high school position. But having missed much of last year, Weber feels it is best not to overload him.
"Joe has length, he has athleticm. I think we'll just let him play his natural wing position. I would like him to be a very good defender, be a guy that can get out on the break, slash to the basket, off and on a tip-in. We can build from there.
"He's really a freshman and behind in a lot of things trying to catch up after his injury. We're gonna be patient with him."