Tracy Abrams has been working hard to become a point guard at Illinois. It was expected he would play behind senior Sam Maniscalco and then take over next year. But Maniscalco hasn't recovered fully from two ankle surgeries, thrusting Abrams into a starting role. His first start came at Northwestern, and he handled the ball flawlessly.
"To go to Northwestern, on the road as a freshman, the zero turnovers was great," Illini coach Bruce Weber bragged. "And that's the job of a point guard, especially as a young guy, do the things you need to do to help the team be successful."
Abrams was encouraged by his efforts, especially since he helped the Illini to an important road victory.
"You can say it was a big confidence game. It helps build the team. I feel like I can do it, I've just got to play hard and have confidence and patience. This is a great opportunity. It's a chance to play the game and get better."
Abrams has kept his composure throughout his rookie year, no small feat. He admits to some nervousness the first few games, but he is more relaxed now.
"I would say I was a tad nervous for some reason. Not nervous about the game, but excited nervous. A lot of times, you just have to stay focused and keep a positive attitude. It's a long season, and a positive attitude can get you through everything."
Is it getting easier?
"Yeah. It's a smooth transition. I'm getting more comfortable, just trying to put everything to perfection right now."
Illini Joe Bertrand, who is also getting his first extensive action, is pleased the way Abrams has filled in for Maniscalco.
"He's stepped up a lot. Sammie's been coaching him, showing him some point guard tips, and Tracy's been using them to his advantage. He's made some big shots for us, gotten some big rebounds. He's one of our better rebounding guards.
"Tracy is still learning, just like I'm still learning. We have a lot of young players. Tracy's done a real good job of leading the team and taking care of the ball. Sam has really helped him out with that as well. He's really filled that spot since Sam's been gone."
The Chicago Mt. Carmel product approaches the game the same whether he is starting or relieving.
"I have the same motivation all the time. I've just got to step up and find ways to help the team win. Sam contributed a lot, and I have to find ways to contribute like assists, rebounds, bringing defense. I'm not really focusing on scoring right now, but I feel that will come."
Up to now, Abrams has shot the ball sparingly. It has taken him awhile to gain confidence in his shot according to Weber.
"If you go back to his early years of high school, he was kind of a bad shooter, to be honest. We talked to him after he got the commitment. He put in a lot of time, and if you watched him as a senior, he drove to the basket a lot, but he made some shots. He has that work ethic, that mindset that he wants to get better. I know he will.
"He's starting to stay in and get some extra reps. He put a lot of time in in the fall. I think he was solid. And then we had that stretch where there was just no time. Now he got back in the gym, got back to form shooting, weighted ball shooting, things like that. Get your rhythm, your confidence back."
Weber sees enough improvement to encourage shots under proper circumstances. And it becomes a necessity when teams back off him, daring him to take a shot.
"Yeah. Not on the first pass, but if we move the basketball and he's open, he's got to step up and shoot."
Abrams is aware he must force teams to defend him honestly; it will make his playmaking skills more effective. He scored 8 points against Nebraska and will become more of a scoring threat as he matures. He may eventually take over a game with his bulldog hunger to win, but right now he has other priorities.
"Teams probably go under when I come off the screens, but that's why you have to have great ball movement. Scoring will open up for me here, but that's not really a big deal to me. I'm trying to do what I need to do to help the team win."
Weber knows Abrams will score eventually. At least, he will continue to battle whether his shot is falling or not.
"He can score, he's just got to get some confidence. He makes mistakes, but at the same time he always comes back and battles. He's not afraid to make a play."
Abrams was asked his point guard role models.
"Professionally, I look at Deron Williams, Derrick Rose. I have Sam here as a leader, so he helps me with the little things people probably wouldn't pay attention to like patience and choosing spots to make a pass, make a post entry."
Abrams still has much to learn, but he's making daily progress.
"I'm feeling real comfortable right now. My confidence is high about the position. I've only been playing point guard for a few years. It's not an easy transition, but I have a positive attitude."