When Luther stepped onto the University of Illinois campus, he was the first Chicago Public League recruit to do so since Kevin Turner. During Luther's freshman year (and even before with his off the backboard pass to himself in the Wendy's All Star Game after his senior year of high school), he became known to Illini fans as a high-flying dunker and a fan favorite. During his freshman and sophomore seasons Luther was hampered with a sports hernia that never fully healed until after surgery between his sophomore and junior seasons. Luther's junior year was the first season he was completely healthy at Illinois, but it was not a season without struggles. As every Illinois fan already knows Luther struggled with off the court issues and was suspended by Bruce Weber for five games last season for two distinct offenses.
In his three years at Illinois, Luther has improved many aspects of his game, most notably his outside shooting. During his freshman season Luther was not a solid shooter (.291 from three-point), but he became one of Illinois' deadliest weapons from the outside. Not only did Luther improve offensively, last season he was finally able to corral his athleticism on the defensive end of the court for the Illini.
There are two distinct points last season that exemplify the development of Luther Head: his defense at Indiana and the final seconds at Purdue. When Illinois headed into Bloomington, they were looking up at the rest of the Big Ten and needed a win on the road to prove to themselves they belonged in the top tier of the conference. For most of the evening Luther drew the defensive assignment of Indiana's third guard, but when Deron Williams came down with foul trouble it became Luther's job to shut down Indiana's Bracey Wright. Luther took the challenge face on and put an exclamation point on his defensive improvement by shutting down Wright. Without the swarming defense he played on Wright in those minutes, Illinois probably would have lost the game and it most likely would have been a different season for the Illini.
Luther's defense in Bloomington was not the only season changing play he made. As every Illini fan remembers, it was Luther's heroics in the final seconds of the Purdue game that carried Illinois to a victory in West Lafayette. Those final seconds have been the defining moment of the last three years of Luther's career at Illinois. They signified the completion of Luther's maturation from a raw athlete into a basketball player. In those seconds Luther quickly drove the ball up the court, and found a streaking Roger Powell. Roger missed the lay up, and unlike the rest of his teammates Luther did not give up on the play. He ran up the court and put back the missed shot giving Illinois the 81-79 victory over the Boilermakers. That play will be the one Illinois fans remember when they think of the 2003-2004 basketball season, and it would not have happened without the maturation of Luther Head.
If you were told to rate Illinois' basketball players from best to worst in terms of their athleticism, Luther Head would rank as Illinois' best athlete. Luther is an "athlete" in every sense of the word as it pertains to basketball. He is fast, he quickly accelerates to his top speed, and he jumps well (both from a standing position and in motion). There is no other player on Illinois who combines all three of those traditional basketball athletic traits.
Luther's athleticism was both a crutch and a great asset to his eventual development into a basketball player. Before, Luther was the most athletic player on the court, and he could use that instead of basketball skills to score and play defense. Once he got into college, Luther had to learn to corral his athleticism and use it to enhance his abilities as a basketball player. After two years that combined injuries depleting his athletic ability and coaching, Luther became an athletic basketball player instead of just an athlete that played basketball.
- One of Illinois' biggest struggles last year was hitting the outside shot when defenses decided to zone. Luther was Illinois' only outside threat that consistently hit the three point shot. If Luther was open on the perimeter and a teammate found him, Luther would knock down the jump shot. His improved ability to hit the outside shot also made defenders play him more honest, and helped open up other the aspects of his offensive repertoire.
- Luther was the third guard in Illinois' three-guard lineup and he was often matched up with opponents wing forwards defensively. At only 6-3 he was normally shorter than the man he needed to keep off the backboard, but Luther showed that good positioning and a desire to get the ball could overcome his height disadvantage. His defensive rebounding was a blessing for the Illini who all season struggled to keep larger opponents off the offensive glass.
As was stated above, Luther's on the ball defense made a dramatic jump for the better during last season. No longer did Luther go for the steal and get himself out of defensive position. Last season Luther finally understood the concept of seeing his man and the ball at the same time, and could use his athleticism to sneak into passing lanes and swipe at the ball without losing defensive position.
Prior to last season when Luther was lined up on the ball with the offensive player in the triple threat position, he struggled to defend. He often times bit too easily on shot and ball fakes, giving his man a lane to the basket. That all changed last season. Luther was no longer biting on the fakes, he used his speed and / or length depending on the player he was guarding to frustrate the offensive player into turnovers or bad shots.
- If there is one guard that scares me when he is bringing the ball into the front court against a defender, it is Luther. Luther is just too carefree with the basketball, especially in the back court and in the open court for me. He dribbles the ball high on his body even when defended closely, and was known to dribble right into traps. Luckily for Luther, Dee and Deron are on the Illinois roster and he is not often required to be a point guard in these situations, but when he is I always get nervous and pray for no turnovers.
One of the things mentioned as a strength of Luther's was his outside shot, but his ability to now hit the outside shot with consistency is now one of his biggest weaknesses. Luther often times will fall in love with the outside shot, and stray away from taking the ball to the basket.
With his athleticism, Luther should be able to use his outside shot not as his sole offensive weapon, but just a piece of his arsenal. There were many times last year that Luther took a three pointer instead of pump faking, getting his defender off balance, and taking the ball to the basket. With the Fighting Illini being a guard-oriented team, they still need to get the ball on the inside, and dribble drives are a way to do that.
If Illinois is going to truly succeed next season, Luther will have to do two things: (1) play strong defense and (2) score when the opportunity arises. Right now, I am projecting Luther to be no better than the third option on the Illinois offense, but most likely the fifth option among the starters. Luther will be behind Dee and Deron at the guard position, and will probably be less of a focal point in the offense than Illinois' starting big men James Augustine and Roger Powell. With the Illini's offensive system, there will always be times when Luther will have scoring opportunities, but he will not be a focal point. Luther will need to grab those opportunities to score and do so with the dribble drive and his outside shot.
You can never have enough solid defensive players in basketball, especially guards. When you pair Luther up with Deron in the backcourt, Illinois should be able to contain any backcourt in the nation. Luther's role will be a mesh of guarding smaller guards and bigger wing forwards, and he will need to adjust depending on the game situation. His defensive ability will allow Bruce Weber to keep playing the three guard lineup and not worry about who will guard an opponent's taller wing forward.
The 2004-2005 season will be Luther's final season in the Orange & Blue, and hopefully for Luther it will end as the high point of his Illinois career. Luther has already seen two Big Ten Championships and two Sweet Sixteen's, but he has never seen a Final Four.
I am sure we will see some spectacular dunks next season that will go on the highlight reel of Luther Head's career, but the question remains … what will he do next season to top his heroics in West Lafayette on that spring night? Illini fans will be watching next season in hopes of seeing the answer with their own eyes.