Windy City Warrior
Osiris Eldridge tested the draft waters but is back for one more year.
Osiris Eldridge always knew he would be back for his senior year at Illinois State.
He knew while he was pumping in 21 points to lead all scorers during last year’s Missouri Valley Conference championship game. He knew while watching Northern Iowa celebrate an overtime win that prevented the Redbirds from making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in over a decade. And he certainly knew when he declared he was entering the NBA Draft last spring.
“I always knew in my mind though that I was coming back to school,” Eldridge says. “The process was fun, I got to meet a lot of players and get cool with some guys like Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris. It made it better to workout with players of that caliber to see where I stand.”
Ever a modest individual, the star guard failed to mention that he was impressive enough during his workouts with famed trainer Tim Grover to garner the interest of the Portland Trailblazers who invited him out west for a workout. That’s just how Eldridge is – humble to a fault despite an impressive resume that includes two appearances on the First-Team MVC squad, one nod for the Conference All-Defensive Team and the distinction of being just the second player in conference history to earn Conference Tournament Outstanding Player honors while suiting up for the runner-up team.
Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovich – now in his third year with the program – has seen his top returning player go through a maturation process this off-season and knows that a lack of brashness from Eldridge doesn’t mean opposing defenders can feel at ease given his sense of purpose this year.
“There’s no question about that, he is very humble,” Jankovich says. “At the same time though he has plenty of confidence, but he never flaunts his success, he is very gracious to people. I think he’s really matured a lot and is more single minded than I’ve ever seen him before.”
The Chicago native may be focused on the singular task of winning at all costs in his final year of eligibility, but in order to fulfill his dream of playing in the League he will have to find a way to accomplish the difficult balancing act between what is best for his team and what will pique the interest of pro scouts. Though it is never an easy equilibrium to achieve for a player who is the focal point of an offense and will likely be a secondary option at the next level, Jankovich states that he has the utmost confidence Eldridge will be successful in both regards for one simple reason.
“He has a very accurate grasp of what he will need to do and how he will need to perform in order to increase his draft status and value,” he says.
“A big part of that will be to prove that he is an NBA defender, he’s obviously an NBA athlete, and I think another part of that puzzle is to show that he is a guy who can be a playmaker. I think he will fully embrace that and the further he understands that the better he will do within the team concept. Of course I want him to score a ton of points but he understands that there is a lot more to it than just trying to put up 25 every night.”
Eldridge is certainly capable of exploding offensively at a moments notice given his tremendous athleticism and strength attacking the basket – scouts know this. As a 6-3 shooting guard though, developing strong traits outside of scoring will be paramount to the senior’s chances of playing professionally, especially when taking into account that his greatest strength has always been finishing at the rim. Developing into a lockdown defender as a junior was a major boost to his stock as will continuing to sharpen his point guard skills, a position he may be asked to play at times in the NBA given his size and quickness.
The Windy City product won’t be alone in his quest to show NBA personnel he has what it takes to make it at the next level though, as several other high profile Chicago natives will be auditioning for the final time this season – a matter of great pride for Eldridge.
“I came out in 2006 and our class had Jerome Randle, Patrick Beverly, Sherron Collins and Jon Scheyer; there were a lot of guards who came out with me that are real good,” he says. “There’s just something about Chicago that coming out as a guard, you go up against talent all the time, so you really have no choice but to become a good player when you face that competition.”
While the aforementioned players wound up at more highly acclaimed programs in the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10, Eldridge chose to reward the loyalty of the Redbirds who were among the first programs to recruit the local standout. After feeling a level of comfort on the central Illinois campus that he hadn’t felt at bigger schools, he headed south to resurrect a team coming off a 9-19 season.
A solid individual season that saw Eldridge earn Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year honors helped the team improve to just a game under .500 during his freshman year, but the arrival of Jankovich before the start of the following season gave the Redbirds the coach they needed to make the basketball program significant again.
“When I came here I was expecting a completely different mindset from the players than what I received because they had had so many losing seasons,” Jankovich says. “Normally what you expect to find are some qualities that aren’t so favorable, but what I was surprised to find was a group that was so hungry for a change and a chance to succeed. We’ve tried to work hard at the recruiting side of it while at the same time instilling a philosophy here and it seems to have taken hold. Things have gone so much better than we could have realistically hoped for when we first got here.”
And Eldridge has been the catalyst for that success – though he’ll never take the credit for it.
“Coach always talks about that, saying that I did that, but I don’t look at it like that,” he says. “The school brought in a great coach and we were able to do some great things as a team. We’ve continued to build and improve – it was all perfect timing for everything.”
The timing might never get any better than it is right now. Despite having lost three players from their miniscule six-man rotation – including leading scorer Champ Oguchi – the Redbirds are being tabbed as one of the preseason favorites to win the conference and Eldridge is the preseason pick for player of the year. The senior has already been impressed with his teammates during fall open gyms; calling the squad “a team to be reckoned with” once the season gets underway.
The pressure on Eldridge will be greater than ever this season though. He’s already accomplished the task of getting the NBA to notice his dynamic – and at times downright dazzling – game while tucked away some two hours south of Chicago. The difficulty will now be in living up to the hype surrounding him and his team and knowing that there will be no coming back after this year. There will be no second chances to show his ability to compete in the NBA or to end the 11-year NCAA Tournament drought for Illinois State.
But just as he always knew he would be coming back for this season, Eldridge always knew that ball would end up in his hands.
“Everybody is going to be looking at me as being the main guy this year. I don’t think there is going to be any pressure at all; I just have to be able to perform like I know I can.”