Success is where preparation and opportunity meet, and Illini junior point guard Jaylon Tate has embraced that mantra heading into this season.
The Illinois basketball program will officially kick off the 2015-16 season on Friday with their first practice. The team has put in countless hours this offseason between summer workouts, practice for the European trip, games on the trip and then a six-week training camp program leading up to the first practice.
The Illini of course had gaps in the schedule for breaks from the grind, but Tate has been all about his work regardless. Even on a sunshine-filled off-day on the Illinois campus, you’d find Tate getting up shots in the gym.
The pass-first point guard has locked in on his shooting stroke, as he hopes to transform from an offensive liability to a serviceable asset with his jumper. Tate has shot 31.6 percent from the field during his first two seasons, and he’s just 2-for-35 from deep during his career. But he’s not going to let past struggles hinder his opportunity for growth.
“I’ve been getting here on off-days and getting up extra shots. It’s really starting to show. My shot is getting better and I’m more confident in it,” Tate said. “I get up between 300 and 500 shots when I’m in here. I get a workout in and then I shoot on the gun after.”
The progress is easily apparent within the walls of Ubben. Last week during some pick-up, Tate caught a pass with space at the top of the key and splashed a three without hesitation. Whether he can do that on the Big Ten stage is another question.
But Tate understands his job description and that his primary task is to maximize the surrounding talent out on the floor.
“I’m still going to do my role. Going to lead the team and be vocal. Get others involved and get to the basket,” he said.
Point guard production is crucial to the success of any team in college basketball, and you could argue that it’s even more key in John Groce’s ball-screen offense. The casting hasn’t necessarily gone to plan for Groce, who came to Champaign after having a record-setting playmaker at Ohio in D.J. Cooper.
Groce’s pursuit of a high-level, mainstay point guard on the recruiting trail has arguably been the most discussed topic for the fan base over the last three years. By no coincidence, Tate committed to the program three years ago.
At the time, it was a nice addition for the Illini based on Tate’s experience directing a winning team, his connection back to Simeon and his ability to distribute. But it was probably by no one’s expectation that Tate would start 13 of the 18 Big Ten games as a sophomore.
That is how the dominos fell, though, as Tracy Abrams went down with a season-ending knee injury. Abrams was expected to claim his starting role again this season, but a torn Achilles has him sidelined from game action for another calendar year.
The circumstances are more than unfortunate for Abrams, and Tate said it was hard seeing it happen to him again. But he has learned a lot from the fellow Windy City playmaker.
“It was tough because I was looking forward to playing with him again,” Tate said. “That’s somebody who I look up to. He’s a tough guy. He’s a warrior. Just for him to stay positive every day going through that is encouraging for me because I look up to him. I talk to him and he talks to me. He’s helped me out a lot.”
Given the way things played out, Tate is in line to once again be the starting point guard. He’s not going to apologize for it either, even if Illini fans jealously gaze at Villanova (Jalen Brunson) and Oklahoma State (Jawun Evans) to think what could have been.
It’s hard to imagine Tate has been blind to the desire for a point guard upgrade, but he hasn’t let that deter him from the cause.
“I have the coaches’ trust in me,” Tate said. “Just go out there with confidence each and every day, and do whatever my team needs me to do that night.”
With the cruciality of this season, there is no time for what-ifs and excuses. The wave of bad breaks have certainly flowed to Champaign this offseason with the injuries of Abrams and Jalen Coleman-Lands, in addition to the dismissal of Darius Paul.
But when it all boils down, the Illini have to find a way to get the job done—and they believe they have enough talent to do just that.
“It’s no more ifs or what-ifs. It’s ‘we’re gonna do this’,” Tate said. “I think the guys who have been here the last couple years like me, Malcolm (Hill), Kendrick (Nunn), Maverick (Morgan), Mike LaTulip, and Tracy on the sideline, we have that experience and we can lead those other guys. Everybody is on the same page and that’s the main thing. I think we can be as good as we make ourselves.”
The Illini have a good mix of youth and experience, including two fifth-year transfers in Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne Jr. Lewis, a 6-foot-3 guard from LaSalle, will challenge Tate for the starting point guard spot. The two haven’t wasted any time going toe-to-toe on the hardwood, while also forming a bond off the court.
“It’s been great so far. He’s a real good person and we’re real close off the court,” Tate said. “But when we’re on the court, it’s no friends with us. We push each other and we go at it. We talk stuff to each other and go to work. That’s what I think is going to make us better as leaders and when we play other guards in the Big Ten. We play good together as well.”
While many have been quick to dismiss Tate as a Big Ten quality point guard, there is still time for him to prove his worth. He wouldn’t be the first high-major playmaker who struggled early but ultimately showcased value as a finished product. Illini fans should remember Chester Frazier doing something of the like, despite a less-than-desirable outside stroke.
Tate was thrown into the fire last season, and the hope is that he will better for it. That is certainly how Tate is looking at it, as he plans to use those learning lessons as building blocks for his final two seasons.
“I look at it as a tool for confidence and to keep getting better,” Tate said. “Two years sounds like a lot of time but it goes by quickly. With the type of coaching staff we have and the type of teammates we have, it makes our job a lot easier to get better and push each other each and every day.”
As for any player or team with a fresh season on the horizon, the opportunity is there for the taking.