Illini freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands 'getting better, fast'

Jalen Coleman-Lands already has proven himself as an elite perimeter shooter. But he wants to be known for more than that.

Jalen Coleman-Lands' practice jersey on Wednesday had an extra number on it.

After leading Illinois in assists at Tuesday's practice, the Illini freshman guard (No. 5 in your program) donned a No. 25 orange mesh jersey on Wednesday, an ode to Illini career assist leader Bruce Douglas.

It's a badge of honor Coleman-Lands admits he hasn't worn often this season.

"That's why a lot of my teammates are making fun of me," Coleman-Lands said. "But it just shows I'm improving in practice and getting more comfortable."

Coleman-Lands, a top-50 national recruit, arrived at Illinois as one of the most celebrated shooters in the Class of 2016.  He quickly proved that skill translated, hitting 29 of 69 threes (42.0 percent) during nonconference play. 

During conference play, only two players have more made three-point field goals than Coleman-Lands (46): Michigan State stars Bryn Forbes (54) and Denzel Valentine (50). And Coleman-Lands is making them efficiently, shooting 43 percent from three during conference play (10th in conference), including 28-for-58 (48.3 percent) during the last seven games. Also in every game during that seven-game stretch, his offensive efficiency rating has topped 100, according to KenPom.

But Coleman-Lands is out to prove his game is more than just an impressive display of pop-a-shot.

"I feel like I've been more inconspicuous," Coleman-Lands said. "I'm more versatile by using everything I have: shot-faking, penetrating, getting paint touches, making passes, just playing my game and finding ways to implement it into the system."

Said Illini coach John Groce: "He's getting better, fast, in a lot of areas. Defensively, blocking out ... playmaking a little bit, getting into the paint, taking care of the ball better. He's more connected with our team and with the system right now. He's just, he's really improved right now."

Growing game

According to Hoop-Math.com, 75.2 percent of Coleman-Lands' attempted shots are from three, compared to 53.7 percent for high-volume three-point shooting teammate Kendrick Nunn and 28.3 percent for team leading scorer Malcolm Hill. But the skinny 6-foot-3 guard is starting to attack more off the dribble.

His midrange game (18.8 percent of his shots are two-point jumpers) isn't yet honed and he doesn't yet finish well around the rim (6.0 percent of his shots are at the rim with a relatively low conversion rate of 57.1 percent). But he's shown the capable skill set to get to the those spots.

"It's more of a feel," Coleman-Lands said. "As you play more games, you gain confidence, of course. But it's a feel, knowing where you fit in the system, knowing the shots you'll be getting, knowing where you can make plays."

Coleman-Lands, who played lead guard at prestigious La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Ind., also is taking care of the ball. He had 22 turnovers in his first 13 collegiate games but has just seven turnovers in his past 15 games (all conference games when the defensive pressure is greater).

"It just shows progression, something that I'm trying to make an effort (at improving)," Coleman-Lands said. "I'm trying to correct mistakes that I've made. I'm going to continue to try to limit those."

Coleman-Lands also is much-improved on the defensive end. Early in the season, Coleman-Lands gave up as many points as he allowed, if not more. A good defender in high school, Coleman-Lands seemed lost in the Illini defensive rotations early in the season. But he looks much more comfortable and more reliable now. His defensive gradeouts have improved and gained more consistency, and his active hands make him a constant pick-pocket threat.

"That's one thing I've really tried to analyze and dissect is my positioning and some other things I can try to get better on," Coleman-Lands said. "That's probably the hardest thing to learn at the college level. Everybody wants to score and put the ball in the hoop. But in order for you to do that and to stay on the court, you have to be able to play both ends. Defense is pivotal to playing and winning games."

Record setter?

Coleman-Lands currently is averaging 10.3 points per game, the most for an Illini freshman since D.J. Richardson averaged 10.5 ppg during the 2009-10 season. If Coleman-Lands -- who is averaging 11.7 ppg during conference play -- surpasses Richardson, he'd be the highest scoring Illini freshman since Dee Brown averaged 12.0 ppg during the 2002-03 season -- more than Brandon Paul (7.8 ppg in 2009-10) and Demetri McCamey (8.2 ppg).

With a minimum of three games remaining for the Illini (13-16, 5-11 Big Ten), Coleman-Lands -- who is averaging 2.9 made threes per game during Big Ten play -- also could surpass Cory Bradford's Illini record for made threes by a freshman. Bradford made 85 during his redshirt freshman season (1998-99). Coleman-Lands (75 made threes) already surpassed Richardson's true freshman record (69). He is on pace to crack the Illini top-five single season three-point field goals, along with Richardson (83 in 2013), Bradford (85 in 1999 and 96 in 2000), Brown (99 in 2005) and Luther Head (116 in 2005).

For future reference, Bradford is the Illini career leader in made threes (327), Brown is second (299), Richardson is third (278), Richard Keene is fourth (237) and Demetri McCamey is fifth (236).

With that kind of freshman production and visible improvement in other facets of his game, it's tempting to think of what Coleman-Lands could evolve into -- especially with an actual offseason. Coleman-Lands missed all but a few summer and preseason workouts due to a stress fracture in his lower left leg.

"A lot of guys usually take a major jump between freshman and sophomore," Groce said. "Obviously, we want to get him physically stronger. He missed the entire summer and the preseason and really didn't start practice until November 1-ish. No question, I get excited about him and what he's going to look like."


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