Like most college basketball players, Illinois forward Dominique Keller would love to play pro ball some day. But it is hard to impress pro scouts when you aren't a starter. It has taken him time to adjust to his role.
"We've had some heart-to-hearts with me doing a lot of talking," Illinois coach Bruce Weber relates. "Maybe slowly but surely he's starting to figure things out."
"I'm pretty much adjusted. At first, it was kind of hard with the pattern of Coach's substitutions. But we've talked about it the last few weeks, and I'm pretty adjusted to it. I just come in and try to be a spark."
Weber hopes that is true.
"He just said the right thing. He said he wants to be the best sixth man in the country. I've said that to him. I know he wants to start, but our other two guys are pretty good.
"He can be so important to us. When he makes his threes, obviously that's a big thing. He can drive and get to some nice places. And he's active. He gives us good energy. I think that's got to be his role. If we can get Dominique to understand that, it's gonna make us a better team."
Keller was recruited to be a rebounder and physical presence in the post defensively. When he arrived on campus, it was obvious he preferred to be a scorer. He has an unorthodox approach that works for him offensively, but he sometimes looks for his shot first.
He is just beginning to realize the value of getting open looks after setting screens in a two-man game. He tried it last year, but his screens lacked commitment, making it easier for defenders to guard both him and the man with the ball. He is setting better screens this year, so he is getting more scoring chances.
However, he still hungers to score. Sitting on the bench makes him even hungrier.
"Yeah, I think so. I know it's my last year, and I don't have any more chances after this. I'm excited on the bench, waiting to get in and help the team win. This is my last go-around, and I don't really have anything after this. So I'm trying to make the best of it."
The Illini need Keller to crash the boards and block out big opponents inside, but he also feels a need to take threes.
"I wanted to shoot threes anyway, but when (Joseph) Bertrand got hurt, I definitely had to step it up a little bit. I had to slide into two positions."
Keller is averaging just 2.6 rebounds in 15 minutes of action a game. He believes he is better than that.
"I didn't get as many rebounds as Coach wanted me to last year, but I definitely think I'm one of our better rebounders and can help us."
There is a lot of season left, time for the junior college transfer to rise up and play his best ball now that the Big 10 season is upon us.
"Coach Weber said juco guys have one good year. Nobody really knows which one they'll have. He said I was decent last year, so now I either go forward or go back.
"I think this year I'll be better because I know a lot more than last year. I know about some of these guys in the Big 10. I know what to expect, I know what to do and what not to do. I know how to play now."
It is hard to be a leader coming off the bench. But Keller did some good work in the summer when the freshmen reported according to guard D.J. Richardson.
"He picked all of us up, especially me and Joe (Bertrand). He put us on his shoulders and brought life to us every day. Every day in the summer, we'd spend 6-7 hours together, easy. He helped alot. He was a leader throughout the whole summer. Even in preseason conditioning, he was a leader of the big men. So he did pretty good in helping lead the team."
Despite the up and down nature of the Illini this winter, Keller believes chemistry on the team is good.
"When you've got guys on preseason watch lists, that's where problems come in. When you've got guys on the Wooden lists, guys on draft boards, they know they've got to average this or do this to go into the League. That's when they get out of their bodies and do off-the-wall stuff. That's how the team loses.
"When you have a team like this with 9-10 guys who can play but no one is on any lists, it's all about winning. Everybody is staying together and not trying to do anything crazy. We're just trying to have fun and win.
"I definitely think we have the same type of chemistry as last year. The freshmen are coming along and are just excited to be here. And the guys from last year are basically like they were last year. They've improved, but nobody's on Top 10 lists to go pro. They're still the same way.
"What we all want out of this is to win. The only way to win is to be a team player and not be selfish. The freshmen are learning how we do things, and everything's coming along."
Of course, the losses to Georgia and Missouri belie that notion. Weber said the Illini lacked toughness. Keller takes that personally.
"We've talked about being tough. We thought the last two games we weren't mentally strong. We're challenged by that. We can't do that, especially against Michigan State, Purdue, guys like that in the Big 10. You've got to be strong throughout the game.
"When you say somebody's not tough, you're challenging them. We obviously are, so it hurts your pride when somebody says something like that. He's using that as a motivation tool, and we're gonna respond to it."