Illinois coach Bruce Weber said it might be hard for Alex Legion to join the team in late December if the Illini were winning, and he was right. Team chemistry had already been established. Substitution patterns had been formed, and player roles were taking shape.
Suddenly, here was a young man who had been in exile more than a year without organized basketball trying to fit into a team that was winning. He knew he needed to play good defense. He realized the team needed him to share the ball despite the fact he was accustomed to being the primary scorer on a team.
Alex put tremendous pressure on himself, and this led to a shooting slump and prolonged benchings. It had to be a shock to him. Coach Bruce Weber elaborates on Legion's dilemma.
"Obviously, it was a tough situation for him. It didn't go as everyone had planned, for him, myself or any of our staff. I do have to give him credit. He hit a time where I think he felt sorry for himself, and it was tough on him. But I thought he responded at the end in practice and tried to make some progress."
Legion had practiced his shooting religiously, and he is usually a deadeye. But the uncertainties of fitting in with a new team and the speed of major college basketball took their toll on him.
"His strength is shooting. What happened in those 18 months, he did so much shooting on his own. And all of a sudden the game came. Game speed, game shots were totally different for him. And then he lost confidence and didn't use people to get open.
"He's got to learn how to get open using screens, cutting, running the court, and things like that. Instead of just catching and shooting anytime he wants. And that's why he struggled with his shooting percentage. He's got to get good shots and work to get good shots."
Alex wants to play pro ball, and those around him have always assumed that dream would come true. But there is more to the game than shooting, and facing that reality had to be difficult for him.
"He needs to work on ball handling, putting the ball on the floor," Weber explains. "And then all of a sudden in practice he would surprise us and do a shot fake, drive and dunk on someone. You've got to do that in a game too. If you can't make shots, get to the basket and make layups.
"He did drive in the Western Kentucky game and got the shot blocked. But at least he made an effort to go to the hoop. That was maybe a little carryover from practice."
Another aspect of the game Legion needs to improve is defense. Weber demands strong defense, and Alex is learning. It takes motivation, and it appeared he was more motivated to push himself defensively as the season progressed.
Weber realizes how hard it can be to face a major college game with so many personal uncertainties.
"And then obviously, he's got a ways to go with defense. But I think he tries. He cares. And that's part of it too. All of a sudden, he realized he needed to improve all those things.
"He is a conscientious kid. It affected him confidence-wise. Some guys are oblivious to it, but I don't think he was oblivious to it. It's a good step. Now, we've got to take that next step and make some strides."
Illinois coaches have been working with the returning Illini basketball players in small groups this spring, and this plus the summer is the time Alex must work on his deficiencies according to Weber.
"This spring is gonna be huge for him. Now he's part of it. He's got to make some steps. He's one of the best workout guys I've ever been around. But that's by yourself, and you don't play basketball by yourself.
"It's got to be two on two and three on three. It's a test for him. It may be the first time in his life where he's really had failure. And now how does he respond to it? It will be interesting."
Legion has declined repeated interview requests, so one can only speculate as to his mindset. But it seems clear he wants to perform better. It will be up to him to use this past year to motivate himself to transform deficiencies into assets. Weber has no doubt he can do it.
"I still have faith in him. I think he can be a pretty effective player for us, and we're looking forward to getting him back on the court and working with him."