Sophomore Alex Legion is a talented basketball player. The object of a vigorous recruiting campaign by a number of big time schools, Legion's future appeared bright out of high school. He was considered one of the best shooters in his class, and the sky was the limit.
Unhappiness at Kentucky caused him to transfer to Illinois, where he had to sit out a year. He played only six games prior to the transfer, so Illinois coach Bruce Weber says he really is still a freshman in terms of his college career.
"He really is a freshman. He's almost worse than a freshman to be honest because of all the time off. He's had to sit and watch. You learn by watching film, you learn by experience by being in games. He hasn't had that opportunity.
"We tried to do some of that in the practices, but it's so much different in the game. The game moves at a faster pace."
Alex has now appeared in 10 games off the bench for the Illini and is averaging close to 6 points per contest. He had a high of 15 in a loss at Michigan State, and he was in double figures at Michigan and Purdue. But his playing time has been inconsistent, in part due to the matchups with different teams. He played only 4 minutes against Wisconsin because the nature of that game limited substitutions. Coach Weber knows Alex expected to do better by now.
"Alex is a little frustrated. I think he thought it would come much easier. Part of it is our other guys are playing so well. He's gonna be a very good player for us, I don't have any doubt about that. We've got to do a good job of helping him be patient.
"For 19 months, he shoots in the gym more than anybody. But it's at practice speed, there's no running at him. Now you go on the court, and people are flying at him. He's got to think about a lot of things. I think he's struggled a little bit adjusting to that. He's gonna have a breakout game here one of these days. Maybe that will be the jumpstart. I hope it comes sooner than later."
Legion can be an extraordinary shooter when he gets hot. He has an inner drive to put the ball into the basket. This need is so strong, he has been able to excel in the past without needing to learn the nuances of passing and defense. Weber wants him to develop an all-around game, something he must have if he wants to play at the next level, and it is causing Alex to think too much instead of relaxing and letting the game come to him.
"There's no doubt. You've got to play, you've got to react. He's trying to guard, maybe for the first time in his life. So that's keeping him accountable mentally too. Then you've got to handle the ball, you've got to actually pass, do a variety of things. The game has speeded up on him a little bit, and he's got to catch up with it."
Illinois has had players like him before. Andy Kaufmann comes immediately to mind. He was driven almost to obsession to score. When he got hot, he could score 30 points a game. But he struggled when he had to give up shots to set up teammates.
Shooters are so focused on the rim, so driven to score, that they must actually stop themselves from shooting in order to see the whole court. This can damage their confidence. But it appears Legion is learning to transform his game from looking solely at the basket to looking for open teammates.
Kiwane Garris is Illinois' second all-time leading scorer, and he had multiple double digit assist games as well. But for the first three years of his career, he tended to do one or the other. Either he would score 30 in a game or dish out 12 assists, but not both in the same game. It took him until his senior year to find the balance where he could think shooting and passing simultaneously. That is what Legion is trying to do.
Little by little, the team game is becoming more natural to Alex. In recent practices, he has begun to look more relaxed running the motion offense, looking to set up teammates, and then taking the open shot when available. He is making progress, and he will eventually prove it in game action.
But until then, patience is the word. He could have a major breakthrough at any time. Or, things might not fall into place until late in the year or perhaps next season. When it occurs, and it will occur, Alex Legion will become an all-around player and a big asset to the University of Illinois.