Jereme Richmond was an Illinois commitment since the beginning of his first high school basketball season. The Waukegan product became a McDonald's All-American, and Illini fans let their imaginations run wild with visions of national championships once Richmond entered college.
So far, those estimations were greatly exaggerated. They may someday come true, but Richmond has needed a major transformation of his game. In high school, he could dominate without working hard. The lanky 6'-7" star got most of his points on layups and dunks since he was quicker and more athletic than most opponents.
Waukegan sat back in a zone defensively, allowing Richmond to swat away inside shots without individual defensive responsibilities. And he could take plays off as his team often controlled the action. He could get a rebound, throw an outlet pass and allow his quick guards to score in transition while he stayed on the defensive end.
College was a big adjustment for him. He has learned a great deal, especially with how hard you have to work.
"You've got to bring it every day. You can't take a day or a play off, or a possession off because that might lead to them burning you on it and hurting your team. I'm learning on a daily basis.
"It's always fun to get "W's," but even if you lose, you should go out and play hard. You can't ask for much more than that."
Last fall, Richmond had to learn the basics of man-to-man defense. He had to exert energy following his man all over the court, something he was unaccustomed to doing. It took awhile, but he is starting to understand the importance of defense.
"I think now we're realizing we can score on anybody we want to. The key is stopping somebody. If you can't stop somebody and are just trading baskets, then you're not gonna have a successful season. Everybody knows that, and we're all focusing on that much more."
Richmond says the whole team is playing better defense lately.
"We work on defensive principles every day in practice. Different rotations and things like that. It hasn't been where we wanted it all season. We were pretty good, and then in mid December we hit a point, and now we're back to playing good defense. When we play good defense like that, it helps our offense."
Richmond was also in for a shock when he found the transition from high school center to wing player much more difficult than he imagined. His ball handling, passing and shooting have all needed major improvement. It is still a work in progress.
"Definitely. I've been so used to working down low under the basket in high school, I didn't know how much of a defect that part of my game was. But that's something where time will heal that."
That and a great deal of work. He must learn how to create off the dribble, shoot with higher arm extension and improve his accuracy from the outside. The traumas of his first season encourage him to prepare hard in the spring and summer.
"The off season is gonna be huge for me. Being an athlete and trying to add on endurance-wise. It's definitely something that's important to me."
He's had a few good games, like 8 points and 10 rebounds against Penn State, nine points and 11 rebounds against Indiana, and 18 points and 10 rebounds at Ohio State. But he's had other games where he made minimal contribution to the team. He even missed a game after going AWOL from the team for a couple days.
His selection to the Big 10 All-Freshman Team was unexpected.
"My play has kind of been inconsistent, so I was surprised I made the team. But its good to be beside guys like (Jared) Sullinger, (Melsahn) Basabe, (Aaron) Craft and (Tim Jr.) Hardaway. It's a tribute to how hard I've been working this year."
A couple injuries also delayed his progress. An Achilles strain reduced his minutes midseason, and he has battled a shoulder strain more recently. Illinois coach Bruce Weber explains the injury.
"It started at Michigan State. He didn't really pop it out. Al (Martindale) describes it as loose ligaments, a sprained shoulder. Every time he's gotten hit or lands on it, it bothers him. He's just got to make a commitment to the therapy and put time into it."
Richmond claims it is nearly healed.
"My shoulder's good. I'm getting treatment on it. I'm doing exercises and stuff like that to get it back to 100%."
One troubling aspect of his play has been a propensity to get technical fouls, something he also experienced at times in high school. It can be a good thing to be aggressive and have a mean streak, as long as it doesn't get to the point of requiring punishment.
"Some of the technicals come from just being so fired up. Hopefully, I'll try to cut those down because those hurt the team and give the other team points and an opportunity to get the ball back. If I can keep it under control, I'll be okay."
Fortunately, while Richmond has been forced into situations where he had to grow up or lose out throughout his career, for the most part he has learned from his mistakes and returned a better person. But he agrees he must learn the hard way.
"My mom always says, 'If it aint rough, it ain't right' with me."
Richmond knows a lot about basketball, and he tends to assert himself more than many freshmen. He has sometimes butted heads with Illini seniors. He believes he can be a good leader once they graduate, but he has to know how to be a good follower before he can be a good leader.
"I came from a winning program in high school, and I was a leader for that team. I kind of know what it takes. But definitely following these seniors, following their ways and listening to the coaches, I think I'll be ready to step up and take their place."
Weber leaves no doubt Richmond has made progress this year. The team has needed help from the young players, and Richmond has been providing it recently.
"When you ask why we're playing better, he's playing hard," Weber states. "I think he's finally figured out how hard you've got to play. He's obviously very talented and can do some things our other guys can't do. Tip-ins, run-outs, offensive rebounds, getting rebounds in traffic, scoring around the basket. He's made a difference for us."
The physical skills are there. Richmond can become a consistent scoring and rebounding threat over time. He may eventually be considered a pro prospect. In the meantime, he must continue to grow up and mature, and he must learn more about the game he loves.