Alex Legion arrived at Illinois with great fanfare. A high school All-American, he sat out a year after transferring from Kentucky. Eligible at midyear, he never found a comfort zone and saw decreasing amounts of playing time as the season progressed.
Illini coach Bruce Weber summarized Legion's first season.
"Alex had a tough time last year. I don't think anyone feels worse about it than him. And I feel bad for him. I tried to give him chances, and you were just kind of hoping for success. I think he got to the point he lost confidence.
"He works harder than anybody on our team, he puts a lot of time in the gym. But he's got to take the workouts to game speed and game competition and be successful."
Legion believes he has turned a corner. He gained valuable experience and knows better what to expect. He got himself in top shape and now has the energy to hustle on defense as well as offense. And he has a better understanding how to fit his tremendous individual game into the needs of a team.
"I feel I've had some great workouts lately, and on my own this summer," Legion relates. "Working out in the off season has really boosted my confidence and desire. I'm ready to go out there and show what I can do.
"I feel my game has gotten better. Obviously, it means nothing to do it in practice. You have to do it when it counts."
Illini fans kept waiting for an offensive explosion. The 6'-5", 200 pounder can be a shooting machine in practice, but he never found a comfort level in games. He was waiting for that explosion also, but it never came.
"Yeah. I came in last year with high expectations, and I didn't quite reach those goals. So now this year, I wouldn't say I have something to prove because I have to do it within the context of the offense, but I hope to make shots, play defense and help the team out."
It was obvious Legion was thinking too much on the court. Always the featured shooter on teams, he had to adjust to being a team player with a responsibility to play tough defense and set up his teammates for shots. The more he thought, the tighter and less athletic he became.
He had much to learn, but midseason is not a good time for that.
"Exactly. During the season is the worst time to learn anything. It's kind of like taking a test without studying. So you have to allow what you know and what you see in practice. In practice, you're preparing for the team. You're working a little bit on your weaknesses, but mostly you're focusing on the other team."
Legion has a hunger to score. If he could, he would take every shot and make most of them. But Illinois coach Bruce Weber demands an all-around game. Legion had to learn the basics of the motion offense including setting screens for others, getting angles on opponents, and proper spacing. And he needed to improve his ball handling and passing.
Defensively, he needed to put out considerable effort keeping track of his man while looking out for screens that might take him out of the play. He had to think of his teammates' needs and call out to them if an opponent was ready to block their path.
So when he got into a game, he knew he couldn't shoot the first time he had the ball, but he wasn't sure what else to do. To whom should I pass the ball? Should I shoot when I get it back? Will Coach take me out if I make a mistake? Will I lack energy on the offensive end if I put out on defense?
For someone who thinks shoot first, this is a tremendously hard adjustment.
"It is hard to change a guy's mentality. If you have a guy who wants to pass, and you want him to take more of a shooter's role, he has to change. Last year, I kind of had to find little things to get myself going, like playing defense or grabbing a rebound or start a fast break when I'm used to just trying to score."
Legion believes he learned valuable lessons last year that will help him now.
"It has made me a better player. I can help more because I can do more than one thing."
Weber used a vague reference to Tiny Tim, the short-term microstar who played the ukelele and sang the antiquated "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" on the old Johnny Carson Show to describe Legion's practice tendencies last season.
"I tell him he can't tippy-toe any more on the basketball court. Finally one day he came in and said, 'Coach, I just want to know what the heck that means, tippy-toe.'
"In workouts, you can be careful because there's no one guarding you. But you've got to go play. You've got to make a decision. Make a cut. If a shot's open, shoot it. If not, pass the ball or go do something else.
"He's used to Tiny Tim tip-toeing through the tulips. There's no flowers out on the court. You've gotta go, you've gotta play, knock somebody over. If we can get him to do that and compete, he has a chance to be successful.
"It would not surprise me if he averaged double figures. He's that good a scorer. He can become our leading scorer, that's how good he is. But he's got to go through it in a game situation on a consistent basis."