Brandon Paul began to demonstrate his all-around talent this past season. The Illinois sophomore led the team in the Matto play-hard chart and played good defense. He improved his penetration and passing skills, as well as his midrange game and three-point shooting. And he served as a backup point guard.
He has tremendous potential if he can continue to improve and learn to play at a peak level for an entire game. He is motivated for that task.
"I'll be working on everything. I've been working a lot on ball handling to improve my game. I'll work on my offensive tools and my conditioning."
At the same time, he must share a leadership role with fellow juniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey. They have relied on graduating seniors Bill Cole, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale their first two years. He admits it will be strange not having them around.
"Definitely. We came in and played with Mike, Mike, Demetri and Bill the last two years. It'll be a big change. But I believe people will step up. We've got to act as leaders even though we're not seniors. People will look up to us, so we've got to set a good example."
Freshman Jereme Richmond will no longer be there either. He has left the team in pursuit of an NBA career. His fight with Paul in the locker room after a game late in the season became public knowledge, and there were other issues. Paul chose the higher ground when discussing the situation.
"There were a lot of things that happened all season long. But at the end of the day, we wish him the best. He'll be successful in the future no matter what he chooses to do."
Paul appears buoyed by the potential of next year's team.
"I'm really excited. We have the guys I came in with, the guys I got to play with when they came in as freshmen, and we have a real talented freshman group coming in. It's gonna be real exciting to play.
"Things will be a lot different; it will be the first year without the seniors. But I think we've got a lot of things to look forward to."
With five players departing and six newcomers arriving this summer, one might assume there would be chemistry issues. But the players all know each other, and Paul says they should blend together well.
"I think it'll be great. I get along with all the people around us. We hang out together all the time. The guys coming in will have a great attitude hopefully and will be ready to get to work. I think it will be fine."
Transfer point guard Sam Maniscalco will be the only senior on the team. Paul sees him fitting in well. Whether he shares a leadership role depends on how quickly he acclimates to his new team.
"He's gonna be the oldest on the team. It's gonna be up to him as to how he wants to play. He's a great player. I had a chance to hang out with him a little bit in the summer."
Perhaps overall team athleticism will counter any lack of experience.
"It's crazy. There was a lot last year. But next year, we're gonna have just as much if not even more. We've got a lot of athletic freshmen coming in. We've got Sammy from Bradley coming in. The door's wide open for us."
With all the athleticism, it is possible Illini coach Bruce Weber will wish to incorporate more pressure defense and extend it out on the court.
"Yeah, that's something we'll have to look into. We have a lot of athletic guys, guys who can be aggressive on-the-ball defenders. That's something we can work on."
For the Illini to be successful next year, a strong work ethic is necessary. Paul sees that happening already in spring workouts.
"We're getting after it and working hard. Everyone has a strong attitude. We're ready to work and get better. I feel like we're gonna be fine next year. We've just got to continue to work hard and get better as a team."