Driving through Illinois’ campus, Joseph Bertrand spotted a wayward freshman teammate.
Malcolm Hill was walking from the dining hall to the bookstore, but Bertrand could tell by the lost look on Hill’s face that the young guard didn’t know how long that walk would be.
“So I gave him a ride,” Bertrand said Thursday at the Big Ten media day in Chicago. “Otherwise, he would have been really late.”
That’s the most literal way the Illini are counting on Bertrand, a fifth-year senior, to pick up his teammates this season, including nine newcomers to the roster.
Coach John Groce has made it a priority for Bertrand to ramp up his vocal leadership. Bertrand, a 6-foot-6 wing, must also play a critical role on the court after the departures of guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.
“We need him to be even more productive than he was last year for this team to reach its potential,” Groce said.
Bertrand was always efficient last season, leading the Illini by hitting 50.2 percent of his shots. He also was dynamic at times. He jumped over a Georgia Tech player for a layup in a game in which he scored 10 straight points to lead a comeback.
“He’s so athletic and physically strong and explosive as an athlete that he has ‘wow’ plays,” Groce said. “He’s had several of them in practice already. I wish I could jump that high.”
While he played his role off the bench, his numbers last season didn’t wow, finishing fourth on the team with 7.3 points per game.
The door is open for Bertrand to become a takeover player, especially as he’s fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, but he’s not pushing the issue. And neither are the Illini coaches.
“I’m not one of them guys to hunt down shots,” Bertrand said. “Whatever I have, I take. I don’t really want to force anything.”
Groce said Bertrand is a smart and experienced enough player to understand how to play within the Illini system.
“They just let me play my game,” Bertrand said. “They know how I play.”
Facing his last season, he has set the bar high after helping the Illini win an NCAA tournament game last season.
“I think definitely with me and [transfer Jon] Ekey being the fifth-year seniors, we want to go out with a bang,” Bertrand said. “It’s definitely an important year.”