Brandon Paul came to Illinois as a shooting guard. Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois his senior year at Warren High School, much was expected of him. While he is not a natural point guard, he is the closest thing the Illini have to a replacement for senior Demetri McCamey.
Thus, Paul has been playing both guard spots this season. He has a long way to go at the point, but he is beginning to feel comfortable there.
"I'm enjoying it a lot. I realize if I want to be at the next level basketball-wise, I'm gonna have to play a point guard too. I'll definitely keep working on my skills since I played shooting guard my whole life.
"Getting the ball to the seniors is definitely something that's helped. I also try to get D.J.'s shot going because he's such a great shooter for us."
Paul assisted on five buckets against Penn State at home, giving Illini fans hope he was fitting into the role. It was a unique situation for him that game, but it did allow him to feel good about himself.
"We shared the ball a lot against Penn State. That's definitely a thing I need to improve on, getting my teammates open shots and getting them the ball when they need it."
As a two-guard, Paul looks to score. If he's open, he pops threes. If not, he drives to the hoop. But as a point guard, he must put his teammates ahead of himself. It is an opposite perspective that can be difficult to learn. Illini coach Bruce Weber was asked if Paul is adapting.
"I hope so. When you're a point guard, you have to realize you're getting the team into the offense. The shot is the thing you don't look for. It's the second or third option. Making the right pass, getting people into the offense. We've talked with him about it. It's a whole different mindset.
"Now, when you're in with Demetri at the two or three, we want him to be active and cut to get quick shots, get to the basket, also get to the boards. He can get us an offensive put-back more often than not, get a run-out, things like that. It's a different mindset when he goes from one position to the next."
Penn State wasn't defending the ball screen properly, allowing Paul to make open passes to Mike Davis and others for short shots and dunks. Weber was asked if his success in that game was unique or if he really is beginning to visualize the dynamics of the game better.
"I think a little bit of both. We found a few things that worked, and we executed them. Again, it's a mindset that I'm not coming off ball screens for my shot, I'm coming off ball screens to get it to other people.
"We've talked about that and tried to pound it in on film. Now with him, with Demetri, with everybody, when you make a cut it might be to set up someone else. You've got to be very selfless when you're making cuts or driving to the basket. A lot of times it's to set other people up."
Two years ago, Chester Frazier became the team's MVP with his hard-nosed play at the point. He specialized in penetrating and dishing to Mike Tisdale and Davis for short jumpers. Finesse players like these two need help from an aggressive point guard, something Paul is striving to learn.
"You want to look for your own shot, but the first thing is to get the defense to collapse toward you so you can get other people shots."
Playing two positions with different responsibilities can take a toll on a player, making him less efficient at both spots. For instance, a point guard is often the one who must stay back to prevent a fast break by the opponent, while the two-guard often helps with rebounding. Paul wants to improve that part of his game also.
"Yeah, that's something I've kind of shied away from this year. I need to get back to offensive and defensive rebounding. I feel that will help my team out."
Paul is likely thinking too much at times, but he needs to play point when McCamey rests. And next year, he and entering freshmen Tracy Abrams will be expected to share the point guard position. With experience this year, it is hoped Paul will be ready to step into the job full-time next year.