- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson doesn't mind criticizing his own play over the past few seasons.
He admitted he didn't perform as well as he hoped. He said he was a one-dimensional player. He settled too much for 3-pointers. His ball handling wasn't where it needed to be.
Now in his final season, Richardson gets this is his last opportunity to correct all those things or graduate with regrets.
"It's definitely at that point now," Richardson said on Illinois' media day. "No reason for me to hold back. It's my last year. I have to give it everything. I don't want to go out saying shoulda, coulda, woulda. It's time do it now."
Richardson isn't just hoping he improves. He's spent the offseason working to improve.
Richardson did constant ball-handling reps with both hands. He handled the ball while being knocked around with pads. He dribbled in traffic and on the fast break. He dribbled to create his own shot from various ranges and did it to get others open.
"I have to handle the ball," Richardson said. "I have to make plays. In (former coach Bruce Weber's system), I just shot the 3, sat in the corner and waited for players to make plays for me.
"(Illinois coach John Groce) said I have to be a playmaker. I can't be a one-dimension player. That's something I've said to myself. I can't go into my senior year being just a shooter."
Groce has seen Richardson make steady growth in that area. Groce expects Richardson to play some back-up point guard along with his shooting guard duties this season.
"D.J. has really worked to attack his ball handling this spring, summer and fall," Groce said. "Coach (Jamall) Walker has worked with him. I'd say 2/3 of what D.J. is doing in workouts is putting the ball on the floor in some form or fashion to kind of expand his game a little bit. D.J. has been very committed to that. He's worked really hard. He's gotten a lot better at taking care of the basketball, and I think feels more confident handling it.
Walker handles the Illini guards' workouts. He doesn't think ability was ever Richardson's problem with ball handling; it was more his confidence in doing it.
"He's been building confidence," Walker said. "Sometimes like anything, if you don't have confidence and believe in yourself, you won't want to do it. Since we've been here, he's been constantly getting better.
"He's been receptive. He listens. He's that guy who comes into the gym, he's energetic and he wants to work. You don't have to rev him up going into a workout or drill. He's ready to be coached. You wish you could have 12-13 of him and have that energy."
Aside from his ball handing, Richardson has always focused on his shooting consistency and mixing up where his shot selection. Last season, 204 of the 336 shots he took came from 3-point range, from which he shot a career-worst 34.8 percent (71 of 204). He also averaged 10.5 points, which was up from the previous season (8.6 points), but down from his freshman season (11.6 points).
The plan this season is to take less 3-pointers and shoot more mid-range jumpers. It's something his teammate Brandon Paul has seen him improve on so far.
"'I've seen a change in that during open gyms, skill work and team workouts," Paul said. "He's shooting off the dribble. I think he has one of the best pull-up games. That's something he's worked on."
Richardson hasn't been pleased with his individual play the past few seasons nor has he been happy about the team's success. He's been to one NCAA tournament in his career.
That's one more category he'd liked to alter this year, even if few believe the Illini can achieve that.
"No one has a clue if we can do anything this year," Richardson said. "They maybe have us among the last five teams in the conference. I really see our team having a great run in the conference. It all starts with us seniors and putting the team on our shoulders."