Tate has proved capable backing up Abrams

Bradley’s Walt Lemon, Jr., drove down the middle of the lane in the second half against Illinois on Sunday at State Farm Center and had the ball swiped by Illini guard Rayvonte Rice. Rice and point guard Jaylon Tate had one defender between them and the basket at the other end.

Rice took three dribbles down court and tossed the ball to Tate. He put the ball on the floor once and jumped as if for a layup, but instead lobbed the ball back to Rice. It was a classic give-and-go.

Rice finished off the play with an emphatic dunk. It wasn’t the first time the two had connected for an alley-oop this season, and it won’t be the last. The assist was one of six that Tate had in Illinois’ 81-55 victory.

Afterward, head coach John Groce had some praiseworthy words for his freshman point guard.

“I had a kid at Ohio, D.J. Cooper, I used to tease people and say, ‘Yeah I taught him how to pass like that,’” Groce joked. “You can’t teach that.”

A year after Illinois’ backup point guard was its shooting guard, Groce might be glad his team finally has someone who’s natural to the position. And a comparison to Cooper — who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 in 2011 — is as good as it gets.

Tate comes to Champaign via Simeon Career Academy, where he dished the ball to the likes of Jabari Parker (now with Duke), Kendall Pollard (Dayton) and Illini teammate Kendrick Nunn.

He’s no stranger to handing off the rock to scorers like Rice.

“A guy either has the ability to put balls on time, on target and has that vision and knack for putting the ball spot-on where it needs to be right at the right time or he doesn’t,” Groce said. “He has that knack.”

Four games into his career, Tate has 17 assists and only three turnovers. Not bad for a guy who had few scholarship offers from big-time programs, and was considered second fiddle to his Simeon teammates.

With 20 minutes per game, he’s also seeing more time than any of the other four freshmen on Groce’s squad.

Illini fans may have lamented the loss of the shiny object that was 2014 point guard prospect Quentin Snider after he de-committed from Illinois in favor of Louisville a week ago. But Tate is looking better every day.

Forward Jon Ekey said having a capable presence behind Tracy Abrams makes all the difference.

“He does a good job of bringing in energy off the bench whenever he’s called on,” Ekey said. “It’s always good that whenever Tracy’s going and pushing it, once he gets tired, we’re able to bring in another guy just as quick and just as creative.”

While that creativeness can be seen on the court, Groce said it’s Tate’s demeanor off the court that is most worthy of praise.

“My dad has always taught me you can really tell a lot about a person in two circumstances,” Groce said. “One, when adversity hits; and two, when no one’s looking. Jaylon Tate — when no one’s looking — he’s getting extra work. All the time.

“He’ll be in the gym. He’s watching film. He’s asking questions. He really cares, so he’s picking things up pretty quickly.”

Whether he’s picking it up or dishing it off, Tate is only going to see his role increase on the 2013-14 Illini as the team heads into the tougher part of the nonconference schedule and into Big Ten play.

Illinois fans don’t get to see Tate when no one’s looking. They’ll have to settle for alley-oops passes like the one to Rice on Sunday instead.

Sean can be reached at sphammo2@dailyillini.com and @sean_hammond.