Detroit native Alex Legion's year of exile is about over. After transferring in for second semester in January, the 6'-5", 200 pound Legion has practiced with the Illinois team but hasn't been eligible for game action. Hopefully, that will change December 20 when Detroit visits the Assembly Hall.
"Yeah, I'm very excited. It's my sophomore year, so I'm real anxious to get back on the court. I'm really more anxious to go out and prove to people we're a good team."
The Parade All-American played some games with the Kentucky Wildcats during his first semester freshman year before transferring. Going from constant playing to having to sit out was painful but necessary.
"I would say the toughest part was the first month I was here. You come in during the middle of the season, and you're basically just a spectator. But now I feel like I'm part of the team."
Legion can sit on the Illini bench for home games, but he can't travel with them. Coach Bruce Weber says it has been necessary to keep him involved despite his limbo status.
"Keeping him involved has been a challenge. We've had to help him, keep him excited until we can get him going. In between time, it has given opportunities for other guys to get minutes and create better depth and experience."
Alex remains upbeat despite the slow movement of time for him. He chooses to see the positives of his enforced exile.
"I feel like I'm part of the team. No one plays in the summer, so I just used that time to get better. Obviously, the team's season starts earlier, but I don't look at it as a detriment. I look at it as a longer scouting report, as you say, to know what I've got to come out here and do.
"I've just looked at it as an opportunity to work on my game and get better. Constantly keep working hard to learn the offense and keep working on my game so when I do get out there, I won't be a detriment to the team."
Legion removed some rust last summer on a trip overseas with a basketball team. He scored well despite the lack of recent playing experience.
"He took a touring trip to Poland this summer, and he scored around 30 points in one game and 25 in another," Weber explains. "Talking with the people who went with him on the trip, they were amazed that he just walked into these venues and started making shots.
"I hope he's a little bit of a gamer. Some guys are like that. No fear. Good shooters don't worry about the one they missed but the next one they can get. He's that type of shooter."
Fan anticipation adds extra pressure to a player in Legion's situation, but Alex appears ready to respond positively.
"I don't think it's pressure. I'm glad to have fan support, but I just want to go out there and do my best for the team. I'm just gonna try to fit in. We don't need any heroes around here. Whoever makes a play, that's kind of how we look at it."
Legion is a shooter and scorer. While there is some concern he might force some things and not play a team game, it is also true he seems to find himself open frequently. Weber describes his game.
"Alex likes to shoot the basketball. Now, we have to make sure he takes good shots and makes them. That's the next step. He can get shots off, he can create shots, which is a positive. He's an offensive minded guy, which is ok.
"But I think he understands, and he went through a learning curve last year, it's different from high school. He has to be more of a complete player. If he wants to play at another level down the road, you really have to be a complete player. The defensive end, ballhanding and passing are the things we continue to work on. He can get some points up in a hurry."
Alex is quietly optimistic he will fit in well once he gains eligibility.
"In the motion offense, the coach has the guards come off screens with different reads. I wouldn't necessarily say it's a guard offense, but it's kind of an advantage for a guard to come off the motion that we do here."
While it is hoped Legion will be ready for Detroit, that is not certain at this point according to Weber.
"If everything goes right, we'll get him for Detroit. But that's not definite. It would be great for Alex to get a game in before the Missouri game because that's a big venue for a new player. Detroit's big for him, and it would be a nice chance to get his feet wet before his home crowd. He's got to get all his exams done and get the grades in."
The Illinois team is accustomed to playing without Legion in the lineup. There is concern over how quickly he can be blended with his teammates while maintaining team chemistry. Weber explains.
"It's gonna be tough for him. If we're doing well, he's gonna have to blend in. If we're struggling, people are gonna expect him to save us. So either way, it's gonna be difficult for him."
Alex Legion has talent, and Illinois needs more scoring threats. But fans should be patient with him as he learns more about defense, passing, setting screens, and finding quality shots within the offense. Given time, he can be a big asset to the Illini.