Illini fans are eager to see Jereme Richmond in action this coming season. After back-to-back appearances in the state Final Four, Richmond is poised to make an immediate impact on a University of Illinois program that faces multiple questions going into the 2010-2011 campaign. But not all of his stardom and notoriety came instantly, as his coach would be the first to say.
Jereme's career didn't start at Waukegan but at North Shore Country Day High School. Transferring to Waukegan after his freshman year, Richmond got a chance to meet new head coach Ron Ashlaw, who laid out a challenge to Richmond right away.
"One of the things we said to him early on was this: How good do you want to be and how quickly do you want to get there?"
Ashlaw admits that, at the beginning, they faced their fair share of obstacles.
"The transition wasn't smooth in a lot of ways. But we always had hope and knew that we wanted to be successful."
But as they began to settle in, big things started to happen and Jereme began asserting himself among the elite high school basketball players in the country. His game developed into a complete set of skills that very few other players possess.
"He's one of the most unique and special players in the recent generation of high school players in Illinois because he can play inside and equally well outside and just dominate on offense and defense. Just a tremendous interior defender as well as perimeter defender. He can pretty much score at will at our level. Not too many players have been able to put together that combination of skills."
As Jereme became better himself, he made those around him better. Ashlaw places a great value on the improvement of the rest of his team due to Jereme's presence.
"He's just a fierce competitor. Our practices became scary competitive getting close to the state tournament mostly because of how Jereme challenged his teammates."
His challenge did not go unanswered, and results were visible among the entire squad. But Ashlaw points out two specific players who were especially affected by Jereme.
"I'm really glad that Akeem (Springs) had a chance to be the teammate of Jereme Richmond. Akeem will have the chance to take over the program with (Aaron) Johnson and be a leader. Everybody got a chance to learn from him and listen from him and even compete against him.
"He's the smartest player I've ever been around. He sees things develop before they happen and is already making decisions about how to make the play. He even makes adjustments at halftime and brings things to time outs. Even when he was in foul trouble in the Whitney Young game nobody talked more from the bench than him. He just tried to will things to happen."
He was even seen doing that on the big stage as he was selected for and participated in the McDonald's All-American Game, which Ashlaw sees as the capstone on an accomplished high school career.
"We were very excited and very proud of him. It was well deserved and something he earned. Illinois is a basketball-rich state, and that puts him among the greatest that have played Illinois High School Basketball."
As for Richmond's future, Ashlaw believes that he will not disappoint.
"I think he has a chance to play right away. I do believe they'll help him develop more physical strength, especially for the Big Ten. It'll be an adjustment going up against guys who are 22 and have been in a college weight room for 4 years. I think of Illinois teams in the past and some of their best teams had players like Jereme. His versatility as a combo player makes him great."
It's hard to point out mistakes in Richmond's game.
"That's tough because he's so decorated and so accomplished. I really think that other than getting that state championship there isnt much. It's not a regret though. The sky is the limit with Jereme, and I think he's got potential to be one of the greatest. He won't look at it as failing but as a challenge."
It is this competitive spirit that will drive the Illinois signee to push himself to be one of the best, something of which Ashlaw believes Richmond is fully capable.