Still Reaching for the Ceiling

Brandon Paul doesn't shy away from means to take his game to higher levels.

CHAMPAIGN – On his way to work one morning last week, alone to his thoughts in his vehicle, an important wave instantly rolled over John Groce's brain.

Brandon Paul, Groce said to himself, was allowing himself to be coached at a high level. That's something Groce appreciates about his senior leading scorer, so much so that it impacts his commute to work in the morning.

"I'm a weird guy. I think about it all the time," Groce said, laughing at himself.

The stats say Brandon Paul is a good basketball player, the best on Illinois' team. His line – 18.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 48 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent from 3 – speak to his high stature, not only in the Big Ten, but also nationally.

He was named MVP of the Maui Invitational after averaging nearly 20 a game.

All that's nice, but it's not what gets Groce beaming during a conversation about native the Gurnee, Ill. It's Paul's attitude, instead, that makes Groce most proud. It's that he understands he's not a finished product; that there's still much to learn and work on his game left to do.

"I'm very thankful for that with Brandon," Groce said. "You could say that's what he should do, and you're right. That's what good players do, but he handles coaching really well. He's been good with that, and that's allowed him to get better, I think, and improve and helps our team improve. So I really appreciate Brandon's mentality when it comes to coaching and how he wants to get better and learn and grow. Because of that I'm really happy for him to see the way he played. He's basically reaping what he sowed."

Paul's work ethic or willingness to open his game up to constructive criticism didn't happen overnight. Groce saw it developing in the offseason, especially after Paul broke his jaw during a workout in June.

"A lot of guys would have used that as an excuse and what did he do? He watched a ton of film," Groce said. "He learned the system faster and picked up things quicker. He really is a student of the game. He's smart."

Since that time Paul has become a film junkie of sorts. He used tape of last season to address inconsistencies, mostly pertaining to his decision-making. He now watches film of recent games to make sure he's progressing the way he needs to be.

"That's one thing, the film never lies," Paul said. "Regardless if it's during the season or after the season, you always have to watch film. You see things that you might not see or might not notice in the games."

A few examples of lesser things that may have gone unnoticed the last two games – it was Paul who passed to Tyler Griffey for the game-winning shot versus Gardner-Webb. And while Joseph Bertrand deservedly landed in headlines and highlights reels with his 10 straight points against Georgia Tech, it was Paul who blocked a shot and had a steal to fuel the run.

Still, Groce thinks Paul can be do more.

"I still think he has a high ceiling and can play even better for us," he said.

That's why during a team film session following the Gardner-Webb game, Groce directed a verbal jab or three in Paul's direction.

"I was on him. What that sends a message to the other guys is like, ‘whoa, man. He's going at him. Boy, everybody is held accountable around here.' " Groce said.

For a senior, the face of an 8-0 team and the leading scorer, Paul could have taken offense to the negative assessment. He could have cited his points, rebounds, assists, his plays to win games and said he was doing his part. That's not what he did though. He took what Groce said and put it in his memory bank as a means to get better.

"You know, I'm sure when Kobe (Bryant) watches film Phil Jackson, I'm sure if he made a mistake, he would let him know," Paul said. "I think no matter who you are, what type of player you are, you always have to be coached. If I go in there and they don't say anything I'd be disappointed in them. I want to get better. No one gets any special treatment."

It's statements like that, a mentality like that, that sometimes pops up in Groce's internally dialogue.

And that makes him happy.

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