D.J. Richardson in action during his "Big Ten Freshman of the Year" season (Images courtesy of AP)

Illinois Basketball Summer School: Sophomore D.J. Richardson, Part 1

While it may be seem a bit silly to continue the Illinois Basketball Summer School series when considering that the UI is back in school, it’s still the off-season for the basketball team.

With that said, next up is sophomore guard D.J. Richardson, who in my opinion had the most impactful true freshman season at Illinois since Dee Brown in 2002-2003.

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber has never relied on a freshman while coaching in Champaign-Urbana like he did with the impressive Richardson, who started all but one game, averaged 30.9 minutes, scored more than 10 points per game, was the team’s best defender, and was voted the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches.

With the exception of some occasional rookie mistakes and a handful of bad outings, Richardson was no typical freshman and is a major building block of what looks to be a very talented, strong and promising foundation for the basketball program in the next three seasons.

What Went On with Richardson This Summer

Richardson was originally going to travel overseas with fellow sophomores Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey and Illinois assistant coach Jay Price as part of a European Tour with the Global Sports Academy but ultimately did not make the trip.

Richardson mostly spent his summer working out at the UI’s Ubben Basketball Complex or in Chicago with Michael Jordan’s famous trainer Tim Grover. When not playing ball on campus, Richardson apparently had his fair share of Chipotle on Green Street, according to News Gazette writer Paul Klee.

In all seriousness, Richardson has been a bit under the radar this summer with Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis declaring and then withdrawing from the NBA Draft; Mike Tisdale participating on the U.S. Select Team; Griffey, Paul and Joseph Bertrand honing their skills in different parts of Europe; and heralded freshmen Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard arriving in Champaign.

Considering how good Richardson was as a freshman, it’s a bit surprising that he has been a bit lost in the shuffle. With that said, Richardson certainly impressed some former Illini in pickup games this summer.

During a return trip to Champaign, the great Brown named Richardson as the current Illini most who is most reminiscent of him on the court. Former Illini point guard and recently added graduate assistant Chester Frazier commented that Richardson does not yet truly know to play defense but definitely has the potential and work ethic to be the defensive stopper that he was in 2008-2009.

When hearing such praise of Richardson’s game, competitiveness and character, and taking into account his very solid freshman season, it’s easy to see why so many people are excited about his potential for this upcoming year and beyond.

Recapping Richardson’s Freshman Season

What else can you say about Richardson’s very strong freshman season.

He quickly earned Bruce Weber’s trust and maintained it for the majority of the season (not an easy accomplishment for new players in the program).

With Demetri McCamey, he was one of the more consistent Illini players on the court.

He started the most games (35) as a freshman in UI basketball history.

He was fourth on the team in scoring (10.5 points per game) and second among Big Ten freshman (Indiana’s Christian Whatford averaged 12 points per game).

He was second on the team in assists (2.1 per game).

He hit some huge three pointers and totaled 69 on the season, the second most by an Illini freshman.

He was in double figures 22 of 36 games.

As a freshman, he guarded the other team’s best players (Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Penn State’s Talor Battle, Michigan’s Manny Harris, etc.), generally doing a nice job and always competing.

When taking all of this into consideration, I have no problem putting Richardson behind Dee Brown but ahead of Deron Williams, James Augustine, Brian Cook and others as the best Illinois true freshman in the last 10 years.

(Note: I would probably put Cory Bradford ahead of Richardson for his work in the 1998-1999 season, but Bradford did practice with Illinois in 1997-1998. I would also consider Frank Williams ahead of Richardson, but Williams also had a year of practice before he suited up as a redshirt freshman in 1999-2000).

After playing three years of high school ball in Peoria, Illinois, and then winning a national championship at Findlay Prep in Nevada, the highly-touted Richardson did not disappoint during his much-anticipated arrival at Illinois.

With the exception of a couple of poor showings during Las Vegas weekend from hell, both individually and collectively, Richardson was typically a factor for the Illini, scoring in double figures in 7 of his first 10 games.

Richarson briefly seemed to hit a freshman wall around Christmas time, struggling in 3 of 4 games, including a quiet performance during a loss to Georgia, a turnover-filled effort against Missouri in a Braggin’ Rights defeat, and a missing-in-action during an overtime fall to Gonzaga.

It’s no coincidence that Illinois’ first 5 losses came when Richardson struggled, which shows how important he was to the team as a freshman.

Showing great resilience and maturity, Richardson rebounded after Weber benched him directly after the Gonzaga game, leading the Illini with 17 points off the bench during a victory against Iowa (the only game he didn’t start last year).

As Illinois got off to a 4-0 start in the Big Ten, Richardson was a big reason why, having a big second half during an overtime win against Northwestern, hitting a clutch jumper late at Indiana and holding Penn State’s Battle to 4-for-19 shooting during an Illini victory at the Assembly Hall.

During Illinois’ first conference loss, Richardson rightfully looked like a freshman at Michigan State’s tough Breslin Center, going 0-for-8 from the field, scoring just 2 points, and struggling to guard the Spartans’ slew of quick guards.

He quickly rebounded with not always pretty but usually effective performances, scoring double digits in consecutive losses to Purdue and Northwestern and then helping the Illini right the ship with a season-high 20 points during a spectacular win at Penn State.

A streaky scorer during his freshman season, Richardson was certainly up-and-down during close wins against Indiana and at Iowa before playing a great hustle game on both ends during a huge home victory against Michigan State.

After a quiet first half on the road at Wisconsin, Richardson was a different player in the second 20 minutes, hitting some tough shots to help Illinois pull off a shocker.

Just when Illinois looked to be coming into its own as a team, a tough Big Ten schedule hit the Illini hard.

Illinois would lose 5 of its last 6 Big Ten games, with Richardson scoring in single digits in 5 of those contests. In his defense, Richardson was stuck with the difficult task of guarding Evan Turner, Manny Harris, E’Twaun Moore and Travon Hughes/Jason Bohannon in 5 of those games.

Following a very quiet 2-point performance during a regular-season ending loss to Wisconsin, Richardson rebounded days later at the Big Ten Tournament, hitting some opportune threes and scoring 15 points to offset 6 turnovers and some early foul trouble as Illinois kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive with a revenge victory against the Badgers.

While the Illini would lose the following day during a double-overtime classic against Ohio State, Richardson would not be the reason why, providing a gutsy 17 points and helping force Turner into 10 turnovers.

Unfortunately but probably deservedly, the Illini were left out of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.

During the NIT, Richardson would score in double figures in 2 of 3 games but had relatively quiet performances against Kent State and Dayton, which ended the Illini’s inconsistent season.

While Richardson’s scoring could be hit or miss in stretches as a freshman, his overall contributions on both ends of the court can’t be diminished.

Like McCamey, Illinois pretty much needed Richardson on the court at all times, especially for defensive purposes.

While the 2009-2010 Illini were Bruce Weber’s worst defensive team at Illinois (based on my opinion and not an analysis of the stats), Richardson was the team’s most competitive player on this end of the floor.

All in all, it’s hard to expect more from a freshman than what Richardson gave Illinois in 2009-2010.

While there are certainly areas to improve on, Richardson is the real deal, a potential conference defensive player of the year candidate in time and a budding leader who seems to have the game and personality to help lead Illinois on a couple of deep NCAA Tournament runs as an upperclassmen.

Alright.

Coming early next week, Part II of the Illinois Basketball Summer School series on D.J. Richardson will include a game-by-game breakdown and list of Richardson’s top five/bottom five games as a freshman.

Until then.

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Tags: Assembly Hall Bill Cole Brandon Paul Brian Cook Bruce Weber Chester Frazier Cory Bradford Crandall Head D.J. Richardson Dee Brown Demetri McCamey Deron Williams E'Twaun Moore Evan Turner Football Frank Williams Illini Basketball Illinois Basketball James Augustine Jason Bohannon Jay Price Jereme Richmond Jerrance Howard Joseph Bertrand Manny Harris Meyers Leonard Mike Davis Mike Tisdale Travon Hughes Tyler Griffey U-of-I Basketball University Of Illinois

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