Freshman guard ready for competition

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- D.J. Richardson can't believe it. He swears there's still a point to go to decide the winner of a pickup game on a recent afternoon at the Ubben Basketball Complex on the University of Illinois campus.

"I'm not going to cheat you," Richardson shouts.

No one listens. The winners stay on, and most of the losers walk off. Richardson isn't going anywhere. He makes sure he gets picked up again.

As everyone prepares for the next game, the last one of the day, most of the players are laughing and enjoying themselves. This is simply recreation to most, something to do on an afternoon in the offseason. Richardson doesn't crack a smile, though. The last game still angers him. The game starts, and he quickly takes and makes his team's first two shots. Later, he seals the victory with a long jumper.

Finally, he relaxes.

"That comes out a lot," Richardson said afterward of his competitiveness. "I love to win. I don't like to be cheated to win. A lot of people -- if they lose -- they're OK with it. I'm a winner. So hopefully I can bring that winning mentality here. That's what I try to get out of the guys when I come here. Everybody should be a winner."

Richardson may be only a freshman guard and may have yet to participate in a real practice or play in a true game for the Illini, but already he's proved something to his teammates and to Illinois coach Bruce Weber. Through his play in pickup games and workouts, he has shown that he is everything he was hyped to be as a top-50 recruit coming out of national champion Findlay Prep.

Weber has been especially impressed by Richardson's work ethic. It's what gives him hope that Richardson can replace Chester Frazier as the team's defensive stopper.

"He's just plays so hard," Weber said. "He really wants to guard. He does what we want him to do. If anyone can replace Chester, it's him. We feel good."

Defense matters to Richardson. It was something he began falling in love with after transferring from Peoria Central to Findlay Prep for his senior high school season. With a team full of talented Division I recruits at Findlay, Richardson's role was to bring energy and defense.

Back at the Ubben Basketball Complex, Richardson does the unspeakable during one of the day's earlier pickup games -- he calls a charge. An opponent drove through the lane; Richardson set himself up a few feet away from the rim; Richardson absorbed the contact, hit the floor and yelled out for the charge. Like his later pleas about the score, his teammates don't listen to him and check the ball up top.

"This means a lot," Richardson said of the pickup games. "People don't understand where you get better. This is where you get better. It's not just individuals, it's not just conditioning, it's open gym. Every open gym I try to play as hard as I can. I try to get better every day. I think our guys got to get the mentality. I want to get better. A lot of guys on our team don't have that mentality."

Illinois starting point guard Demetri McCamey has witnessed few players ever call charges in pickup games, but he's gotten used to it with Richardson.

"He's really competitive and doesn't want to lose," McCamey said. "He's just got that killer mentality."

It's a mentality that Weber hopes motivates McCamey. While McCamey has improved "200 percent" since his freshman season, Weber still questions his energy at times. With Jeffrey Jordan leaving the team after last season, Weber views Richardson, who is 6-foot-2, as possibly another point guard, and he could push McCamey for playing time.

"That's what we keep telling him," Weber said of McCamey. "'If you don't get your butt in gear, these guys are going to pass you by.' The competition should be pretty good."

That competition between McCamey and Richardson already has begun. Often in pickup games, they are on opposite teams and usually they're looking to one up the other.

"We go one-on-one every day," Richardson said. "We argue on the court. We trash-talk, go back and forth score bucket after bucket. One day, we both had four or five points against each other. We were trash-talking during the game, but right after, we were smiling, laughing and joking. We leave everything on the court."

Where Richardson will fall in the lineup is yet to be determined. He, McCamey, junior Alex Legion and freshman Brandon Paul all could be in the mix for major minutes at guard this season. Richardson's ultimate goal is for the team to win, he said, but he would like to start.

"It's a goal for me to start," Richardson said. "If I did start, I think I can bring a lot of energy to the team and help the team to a good start every game defensively and offensively. As you see in open gym, I took a charge. I do a lot of things a lot of players don't do in open gym. I dive for the ball, take charges."

Oh yeah, and he likes to win.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.