By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) He’s three inches shorter, five pounds lighter and unlikely to be named National Player of the Year (or go No. 2 in the NBA Draft), but that doesn’t mean Brandon Paul can’t still pull an Evan Turner this season.

And by that I mean, Paul has the talent and potential to lift the Fighting Illini basketball team to lofty Big Ten heights – and perhaps beyond – much in the same way that Turner elevated Ohio State three years ago.

The biggest question might be if John Groce can live with Paul making mistakes along the way, the way Thad Matta lived with Turner’s.

Back in December 2009, I was chatting with a friend in the stands during a game at Assembly Hall in Champaign who had spoken to the Illinois coaching staff just the day before. They told him that NBA scouts were already starting to chirp about Paul, the 2009 Illinois Mr. Basketball, who had set a freshman record a month earlier with 22 points vs. SIU-Edwardsville in his Illini debut.

After that conversation, Paul’s draft stock no doubt cooled considerably after he went on to average only 7.8 points for the season while Illinois failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. But it appears that Paul’s draft status is likely heating up again here in 2012 during the 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard’s senior season.

After Illinois won the Maui Tournament championship, Paul was named the event’s MVP. ESPN’s Andy Katz followed up by naming him his National Player of the Week. And this past Wednesday during Illinois’ victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, ESPN broadcaster Bob Wischusen said about Paul, “He’s playing the way a [Big Ten] player of the year candidate would play, early on.”

Indeed he is.

Currently, Illinois is off to a rip-roaring 8-0 start in Groce’s first year as coach and the team finds itself ranked No. 22 in the country. The Illini’s performance thus far has been unexpected, but I have felt all along that Illinois did have a chance to surprise this season – if Paul raised his game.

So far he has and is averaging 18.3 points per game on 48.0 percent shooting, including 41.5 percent from three-point range, while also tallying 4.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.6 blocks. Paul, however, is still coughing up 2.4 turnovers per game, although that is down from the 3.4 he averaged last season.

It’s those ballhandling miscues by Paul that most make me think of Turner. During the former Buckeyes star’s National Player of the Year campaign in 2009-10, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Turner averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.

He also averaged 3.5 turnovers.

Turner, at times, could be an extremely careless – or, perhaps, daring – ballhandler. Surely, at more times than OSU coach Matta would have liked. But he also was an incredibly dynamic talent, and Matta decided that turning his star loose far outweighed the cost of the inevitable turnovers that would occur by doing so.

End result: A 29-8 season for Ohio State that included a co-Big Ten Championship, a Big Ten Tournament Championship and trip to the Sweet 16.

Last season, Paul showed a ceiling as high as the Sistine Chapel’s when he erupted for 43 points in a victory over Ohio State. The rest of his year wasn’t at that same stratospheric level, but Paul still averaged 14.7 points per game for the year and, as I mentioned, his game has always been considered to boast NBA potential.

Paul likely will have many more impressive performances as this season wears on, but he’s also going to have maddening stretches where he turns the ball over more than Groce – and Illini fans – would like. If everyone can live with that, however, and let Paul play without the fear of making mistakes, who knows how far he could take the Illini this season.

Although, perhaps, Evan Turner could tell him.

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.