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CHAMPAIGN — Skyy Clark and Jayden Epps were in orange and blue for one of the first times Wednesday as the team got its first practice with Brad Underwood.
The two freshman point guards have been on campus with off-guard Sencire Harris since May, and with Epps and Clark the only point guards on the roster as offseason workouts begin, it’s a sign that they’ll have an immediate role to play.
Underwood has broached the idea of playing lineups without a traditional point guard multiple times this offseason, but without a veteran guard, Clark or Epps will likely be big parts of the rotation out of necessity. As a highly touted recruit, Clark would be an early favorite to start at point guard.
“We know that we’ve got young guys that are gonna help us,” Underwood said. “And we need to make sure that they’re up to speed.”
Harris will have the opportunity to earn off-guard minutes behind Terrence Shannon Jr., RJ Melendez and a group of talented wings as well.
“He’s athletically as gifted as anybody we’ve ever had here,” Underwood said of Harris. “I mean, he’s breaking all (strength coach Adam Fletcher)’s records, in terms of jumping, quickness, and speed. Obviously, he’s got to gain some weight. And, you know, that’s the process most freshmen go through. He’s wiry strong, to use Fletch’s term. Athletically, he can do things. He’s as quick-twitch as anybody I’ve been around.”
Epps and Clark are both shorter than Harris, but have strength that makes them ready to contribute defensively and get minutes that will be needed early.
Ty Rodgers has that as well at 6-foot-6 with a built frame. He wasn’t at workouts — he’s taking a couple of days off after winning a U18 FIBA Americas gold medal with team USA. He’ll get early minutes with the glut of options the team has on the wing.
“When you’ve got physical bodies and athleticism, you can play at this level and feel great about that,” Underwood said.
Those young guards will do a lot of work with Chester Frazier, an assistant who was a former guard with the Illini. Underwood joked that Frazier, now 36, is having trouble keeping up with them on the court.
“Chester is getting up there a little bit where these young guys can whip him when they play one-on-one,” Underwood said. “I don’t know how Chester is going to take that.”
Underwood said the new faces and youth movement will lead to more teaching and a slower pace. It’s something the coaching staff is excited about.
“That’s fun,” Underwood said. “That’s what we do this for. We enjoy those opportunities to really teach guys who want to be taught and want to grow and want to work and you see that talent.”
This freshman group has the early stamp of approval from the coaches and their development will be crucial in providing the team depth and big minutes in 2022-23.
”They’ve all been very successful,” Underwood said. “They’ve all played at the highest levels, they’ve played against great competition, and I know they’re not going to back down. So you have to feel really good about that group.”
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