By Joe Henricksen
Jereme Richmond has been evaluated, gawked at, talked about, written about and analyzed almost as much as any high school player in the history of this state has been in his first two years of high school. That's what happens when you are 6-6 and your skill level far exceeds those your age and you commit to a major Division I university as a freshman. It's sometimes hard to believe he has yet to even start his junior year.
There has been plenty written about Richmond over the past 8-10 months that has painted the young kid in a negative way. In this day it's no longer just NBA players and college stars that have their critics. Whether it's fair or not, those stars of tomorrow-- today's young prep phenoms -- are scrutinized and talked about from the day they become the "Next Big Thing." And for Richmond it's been that way for the last two years.
After watching Richmond for two days at the Illinois Team Camp at Moody Bible Institute and spending a little time talking with him, it's clear Richmond is starting the process of maturing and handling the hoopla that surrounds his game and actions on and off the court. Nonetheless, it's still baby steps -- as it probably should be for someone his age.
There are times you watch Richmond and think, yep, he's putting it all together. In his early games last Friday he played with much more assertiveness and was aggressive, especially on the offensive end. He was playing hard, running the floor, finishing with authority. He would showcase his vast array of talents, scoring four straight baskets at one point with a thunderous two-hand dunk, a three-pointer, a beautiful pull-up mid-range jumper and an offensive putback. Already at 6-6 or 6-7 with size 18 shoes, you can see how he would resemble a Kevin Durant if he were to add a couple more inches.
After going on a radio show early Saturday morning with a glowing report of Richmond, I came back Saturday afternoon to see some of the tendencies that turn you off from star players -- disinterested, hands on the hips, flat-footed and an impression of boredom. I realize these kids play countless number of games throughout the spring and summer. And it can get tiresome. But you also remember players like Dee Brown, Quentin Richardson, Dwyane Wade, Brian Wardle and Jon Scheyer that rarely ever took a day off -- or a trip down the floor, for that matter. You would walk out of a gym and just appreciate the heart and effort those kids put in, no matter the stage they were on. Again, a lot of times it comes with maturity.
As far as the off-the-court issues Richmond has had to deal with, he has put them all in a positive light. He showed his growth in our conversation by staying positive and admitting he has learned from past mistakes.
"As far as I'm concerned it's a clean slate," says Richmond of his return to Waukegan after being kicked off the team late in the year. "Last year didn't go the way anyone wanted it to go. Our goal this summer is to play well together, grow together as a team."
Richmond continued to talk about the lessons he learned from the controversy of the 2007-2008 school year.
"That's what life is about -- going through trials and tribulations," he says. "You learn from them and get better as a person and make better decisions. You work on differences you have with people and try to react differently."
Yes, Richmond is saying the right things and is on the right path toward repairing what was damaged last year -- both to his reputation and team. Everyone has to realize these are teenagers, some of which are dealing with more pressure and scrutiny than 90 percent of kids their age have to deal with. This is one teenager that has learned a lot and has matured to the point where he knows things will have to change. All of it will not come overnight, but we all can leave a little room for a kid to grow up.
And then there is the Illinois angle. Despite actions that have shown otherwise, there continues to be talk of a Richmond de-commitment out there. But typically when a player de-commits there is a pattern that takes place. The player and family suddenly go into seclusion, the contact between player and university tends to drift. That has been far from the case for Richmond, whose father has regularly gone public about his son's commitment to Illinois and Jereme himself makes trips to Champaign and has even helped in the recruitment of other players. Richmond has developed a terrific relationship with assistant Jerrance Howard, which you can see as Howard interacts with Richmond, whether it be during a stop in play of a game or sitting side-by-side on a gym floor having a big brother/little brother conversation. And when you speak with Howard, his genuine care and concern for Jereme as a person is so clear.
When asked if he has become somewhat of an ambassador for the future of Illini basketball, Richmond says that's not really the role he plays. "To be an ambassador for Illinois basketball is not my job," he says. "But I'm there to show the upside of Illinois."
And the upside of Illinois basketball is so bright with Richmond in it.
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