CHAMPAIGN — Zacharie Perrin’s basketball journey to Illinois is completely different than any other player on the 2022-23 roster. Brad Underwood likes it that way.
The Illinois coach has approached the roster in the same way since taking office in March 2017.
The fewer similar pieces the better when it comes to piecing together the roster puzzle.
Perrin fits that mold. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward from Grandfontaine, France has an exclusively European basketball background. A series of experiences that set him apart from his new Illinois teammates.
“I’ve said many times that the European market is good for us,” Underwood said Friday, a day after Perrin officially signed with Illinois. The Illini previously brought Matic Vesel and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk straight from Europe. Vesel lasted a season before returning to Slovenia, while Bosmans-Verdonk moved that offseason to South Carolina after two injury-plagued years and one as a backup big.
“I love the fact that these guys are growing up in clubs,” Underwood continued of European players. “They grow up with a lot of practice. Your skills develop. There are so many practices involved. If we start with AAU programs and the recruitment cycle, there aren’t nearly as many practices. (European players) get to know their teammates, so that’s where they become very role-oriented and their skills are exceptional. Zach is no different.”
Perrin’s recruitment to Illinois was a six-week process that began with the French big man deciding not to sign a professional contract in France and instead play college basketball.
Illinois has done its due diligence, with Underwood and assistant coach Geoff Alexander drawing on their European contacts.
The Illini eventually offered Perrin and intensified their pursuit, with BYU, Florida, Memphis, Texas and UCLA also in the picture.
“Basketball is kind of a small world sometimes,” Underwood said. “When guys make those decisions, we have a lot of international connections that we speak to several times a week. … I’ve heard a lot of very positive things from NBA scouts who’ve seen him play. There were many recommendations. Geoff has extensive European contacts and has been there many times.”
Perrin’s hiring was not too dissimilar to how the Illinois coaching staff was forced to approach rostering when the COVID-19 pandemic ended all in-person hirings. Underwood and co. got pretty adept at breaking down the film about those who might be interested in the COVID shutdown. The focus shifted to digging deeper into Perrin’s character.
“I think we’ve all been very busy,” Underwood said. “We’ve all spoken to enough NBA people to watch these guys over the course of a season. We speak to our contacts in Europe, basketball agents who see them. On all these fronts he was in high demand. That’s why we’re excited about him.”
Perrin will only arrive in Champaign in August before the school year after spending the rest of the summer with the France U18 national team as they prepare for and then compete in the FIBA European U18 Championships in Turkey. Missing eight weeks of summer training on campus means Perrin has some catching up to do when school starts.
“It’s a gradual build for him,” Underwood said. “His IQ is something that excites me. He’s a great student, but there’s still an adjustment when you’re in a whole new place and far from home. Fortunately, we have a very diverse campus with many international students. He won’t be the only one going through this.”
A crucial part of Perrin’s early development in Illinois will come during his time with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. While Perrin now checks in at 6-10, three years ago he was a 6-4 guard prior to a growth spurt. Underwood also said Perrin has the frame to go from 220 to 240 pounds comfortably.
“When you’re growing so fast, you’re still trying to find your body, but you see those perimeter skills,” Underwood said of Perrin. “You see him step out and shoot it. The basketball piece of a man growing so fast is really exciting because you know there’s diversity and a lot of positionless basketball in his future. It’s about him gaining that strength and athleticism that Fletch will help him with.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email address is [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).