Brandon Paul came to Illinois as Mr. Basketball. The Warren native has tremendous athleticism, streaky but good shooting ability and all-around skills that make him a special recruit. But it has taken him awhile to adjust to the college game.
"Huge adjustment," Paul agrees. "In high school, I was one of the top athletes. When you get to the Big 10 and college basketball, people are quicker, bigger and stronger. It's a lot different."
He seems capable of adapting. In fact, he appears to enjoy the extra pressure to win in college.
"It's great. Every game counts. We've got to take every game seriously."
At times, Paul has been the best player on the practice court. Illinois coach Bruce Weber realizes the freshman's importance to the team.
"We need Brandon Paul to play well. He's got to calm down a little bit and let the game come to him. Pull-up jumpers instead of double-pump layups. You don't have to do too much. He can give us some versatility because he can pass the basketball. He gives us some athleticism."
The 6'-3" guard had a tendency in high school to shoot too many threes. He made a number of them, but it negated his overall physical advantage. Plus, there were games when he was cold from beyond the arc. Paul agrees he needs to explore other parts of his game.
"I started falling in love with the three too much, so I took it to the basket more. And then I started thinking too much and making little mental mistakes. I'm trying to keep my mind focused, getting in the gym more and getting more shots up."
Until recently, Paul's two alternatives were threes and hard drives to the hoop. Unfortunately, he forced some of the drives and missed badly or was called for charging.
"Coach says I might be going a little too fast. When I get to the lane, I need to jump-stop more instead of going out of control and doing circus shots. I feel I still have a lot of room to grow. So if I keep mind focused, I'll get better."
It looked at times like he gave his defenders too much respect, contorting his body to avoid getting his shot blocked. He says it was for a different reason.
"I may have been focusing on trying to get the call. I just need to not worry about the call, just get more contact so I can get to the line more."
Weber understands the dilemma. But he wants Paul to understand it well enough to modify his strategy at times.
"Even in practice, he's tried to make the tough plays. He's so athletic. In high school, he was able to go inside. I've tried to explain to him, he can beat his man but now there's help defense, there's bigger people, and you just can't do it.
"You've got to stop and hit a jumper. He's got a great pull-up jumper. I think he's in the habit of getting to the basket. Get to the lane, but then just jump up and shoot it. He gets himself in predicaments. Every time you touch it, you don't have to make a play. Dominique (Keller) does the same thing. It's that fine line of learning the game, knowing when to go and when not to, when you're open."
There is so much to think about on the court, especially for someone as talented as Paul. It can be disconcerting at times, but he is beginning to catch on to his many options.
"Yeah, I don't know what it is. I just feel sometimes I'm thinking too much and trying to do too much in the game. I should do the little things, taking charges, playing defense, things like that."
Are you ready to turn the corner?
"Definitely. If my shot's not falling, I definitely want to focus more on the defensive area. And get my teammates open looks."
Weber has gone so far as to say as Paul goes, so goes the team. The freshman is not the only or even the best option at this point, but his continued development might be key to Illini success the rest of the season. Paul agrees.
"I feel the same way. I'd like to have a little leadership role. If I keep focusing on making myself better and the team, we'll be successful. And it starts on the practice floor."
Weber has a potential prodigy on his hands, and he is doing everything he can to help Paul self-actualize as quickly as possible.
"Brandon gives us so much other stuff that we can use from passing, to defense to a chance to get to the boards, get an offensive rebound. He gives us some versatility, but he's got to slow down, think the game, learn the game so he can make some strides and then we can make some strides."