This is a pretty big year for the Illinois basketball program. It seems like the recruiting and the general talent level has been trending in the right direction in the three and a half years since John Groce and his staff took over, but it hasn’t necessarily led to consistent results on the court. The team has only made one NCAA Tournament over the course of that period — the first season — and is still yet to post a winning record in Big Ten play.
So when Tracy Abrams went down for a second consecutive offseason with a season-ending injury, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time for a coaching staff that is still trying to prove itself on the high-major level. Abrams was the one true point guard the team had to offer, and without him they would be forced to rely on a mix of scoring guards Jaylon Tate and Jalen Coleman at the position.
Until Saturday evening, that is. The Illini recovered in the best way possible from the Abrams loss by receiving a commitment from graduate transfer Khalid Lewis from La Salle.
Lewis will be eligible to play for the Illini immediately. He averaged six points, two assists and two rebounds per game last season for LaSalle, starting 18 games as the Explorers went 17-16 under coach John Giannini. So yeah, it’s not like Illinois is getting a potential All-Big Ten performer here. But for a team acquiring a player this late in the offseason, Lewis brings a similar playing style to Abrams, and brings better distributing tendencies than either Tate or Coleman.
The 6-3 senior’s numbers weren’t the prettiest efficiency-wise last year, but he does bring some interesting skills to the table that could become effective in his new home. Even though he only rated in the 22nd percentile in points-per-possession in all situations last year, he was quite effective in the pick-and-roll, a situation that Groce’s offenses find themselves in more often than any other. In Groce’s three seasons as coach, Illinois’ offenses have finished 33rd, 4th, and 4th nationally in the amount of times that a play has been finished out of the pick-and-roll either via a shot or a pass. Lewis finished in the 82nd percentile of all players last season in pick-and-roll efficiency, so he’ll fit well in that regard.
Like I said, this isn’t a move that’s going to shoot the Illini into the top-25. It’s a depth move where the ultimate goal was to provide the Illini with another, more veteran option at the position in the case of Tate and Coleman — both more highly-regarded players, talent-wise — not working out. Lewis certainly does that, and seems like a pretty good fit in the offense the team will run in the halfcourt. He needs to cut down on his turnovers, but there’s at least a way where you can see this working out positively.
Even if he only ends up playing 15 or so minutes a game as a backup, this was the best Illinois could have hoped for following the Abrams injury: a good fit that is only a one-year commitment.