Alex Illikainen first captured our attention at the 2013 Jayhawk Invitational. Playing with the Minnesota Cyclones, Illikainen demonstrated a high skill level and face-up versatility that suggested he could become a high-major recruiting target.
He advanced into the 2014 travel season ready to solidify his place within the high-major realm. He changed AAU teams and ran with Howard Pulley on the EYBL circuit. There, he was a solid performer for a team that earned an invitation to the Peach Jam.
Illikainen also transferred to Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy for his senior season. He ultimately added offers from Boston College, Providence, Vanderbilt, Indiana, Texas Tech and others, but in the fall he cut his list to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon.
As commitment action occurred elsewhere, he whittled his choices to the Badgers and Hawkeyes, and he pledged to Bo Ryan's program this past weekend on the heels of his official visit.
Illikainen combines elements of a modern stretch four and traditional power forward. He boasts the build and fundamentals to play with his back to the basket yet also can step out and knock down perimeter jump shots. He therefore isn't locked into a single role and should provide multiple strengths for the Badgers' coaching staff to utilize.
|Illikainen is comfortable both inside and at range|
He checks in at 6-8, 225 pounds and thus already possess a solid frame for the collegiate interior. He'll certainly need to add some muscle, but presumably at Brewster he'll approach his ideal college weight even prior to setting foot in Madison.
Posting up, he can score via short turnaround jumpers or right-handed jump hooks. He isn't a dynamic post scorer by any means, but he's capable.
Meanwhile, he's effective in inverted offenses that require him to play away from the bucket. He possesses easy three-point shooting range — he's especially good from the top of the key — and should be effective as a screener and shooter in pick-and-pop scenarios.
He fired up 67 threes in 20 EYBL contests with Howard Pulley, which constituted more than a third of his overall shot attempts. And he buried a very impressive 43 percent on those long bombs, so he isn't some big guy jacking up ill-advised, low percentage shots. He's a legitimate floor-stretcher.
He clearly understands how to play in structure, and few programs operate more methodically than Wisconsin. The Badgers will offer an opportunity for Illikainen to play to his strengths and away from his weaknesses.
A lack of athleticism stands out most. Of course, that's part of the fan stereotype of Wisconsin big men, and with at least some degree of accuracy. The Badgers don't boast a Kentucky-esque frontline with multiple, long-armed elite athletes; they win up front with skill, experience and toughness.
Still, to shine at Wisconsin, Illiakainen must become a more effective rebounder. He averaged only five boards per contest on the EYBL circuit, and a player with his strength and hands certainly can raise that number.
He also may struggle at times defensively, depending on the matchup. He blocked only 10 shots in his 20 games with Howard Pulley, clearly not a strongpoint. And for a player with such a smooth outside stroke, hit converted only 59 percent from the foul line.
Wisconsin enjoys a history of excellent long-term development of its big men, and Illikainen appears to fit the mold. He likely won't be a big producer right away, but as an upperclassman he should become a seasoned, skilled offensive player whose ultimate role on the team will be determined in part by how he's able to acclimate defensively to Big Ten competition.
But in terms of a coaching staff knowing exactly what it wants in a post player, Illikainen made an excellent choice and should get the most out of his ability in Madison.