Illinois signed five talented basketball players who will enroll for college classes this summer. They are highly rated, but how well are they playing this year? How soon can they help the Illini? Joe Henricksen, author of the City/Suburban Hoops Reports, provided updates on those players for WDWS radio recently.
Perhaps the biggest news is the continued development of Chicago St. Ignatius center Nnanna Egwu. Recovered fully from summer back surgery, Egwu has an expanding offensive game to go with his shot-blocking ability according to Henricksen.
"If you go back to April and May of last year in the AAU circuit, he really opened eyes. I was really impressed with how he played last spring. I thought he was a legit top 75 kid in the country and could sneak into the top 50 possibly.
"But then he had that back injury, and it really hampered him. It really slowed him down. He had a bad July, and that's when everybody's watching. He still stuck around some top 100 lists, but the majority of people did not get a good read on how far he had come from his high school season."
"But now in the last 5-6 weeks he has become a dominant player. Defensively he's just got a knack. He's got the length, he's got size. It's offensively where I saw him last spring putting down 15 foot face-up jump shots. He was dunking everything around the rim. That's what we're starting to see now.
"He's got a little turnaround jumper now, 12-15 feet from the baseline. He's developed a little jump hook, and he still runs the floor better than any big man you'll find. He's coming along."
Chicago Orr's Mycheal Henry is probably the most consistent scorer of the group, although he must continue to work on other parts of his game.
"Mike Henry is who he is. He's a big-time scorer. He hasn't missed a beat. He knocks down shots, he scores around the rim.
"He still has to come a little way as far as putting the ball on the floor and be comfortable with it if he wants to be a true 2-3 guy. But he's the ultimate offensive weapon at the high school level because of the size, the release, everything that he has. He should fit in nicely at the college level.
"The thing with him and many high school players, they have to figure out how to get things done defensively. He has a little ways to go on that end. But that comes with time in a college program. He doesn't not play hard, but he doesn't have that motor running 32 minutes. For the most part he does.
"If those two things come along, and he develops the ability to create, not only for himself but for others as well off the bounce, then he's gonna be a complete offensive threat in the mold of a Rudy Gay or someone of that ilk."
Perhaps the rookie who will be under the most pressure to play well early at Illinois is Chicago Mt. Carmel point guard Tracy Abrams. The Illini need a replacement for Demetri McCamey. Will Abrams be the man for the job?
"Tracy Abrams is emerging as a point guard, but he's still not there quite yet. It's gonna take some time, but Tracy is full-bore for 32 minutes. He brings that toughness, energy and leadership, qualities that every coach covets. That's what I like about him and what he brings to Illinois next year.
"You just don't want to turn a team over to Tracy as a freshman and say, 'You're the point guard thirty minutes a game.' I just don't think that's gonna fly for him as a freshman. But he can provide some help in the backcourt, provide a lot of things I think they're missing.
"I think Illinois could be getting another good on-the-ball defender. D.J. (Richardson) is a defensive guy, but they don't have another perimeter defender who is guaranteed to go out there and lock someone up."
When Illini fans ponder the ideal point guard, they reflect on the toughness, leadership and unselfishness of Chester Frazier as a senior. Henricksen feels Abrams has some of those traits.
"He's more skilled than Chester Frazier was. When Chester Frazier came in, he had a lot of deficiencies. But he had fight. He really willed himself to be the player that he was.
"I compare Tracy to a poor man's Mateen Cleeves, that type of player. He's not a Mateen Cleeves replica, but he's gonna add some strength, he's a better athlete than Chester Frazier, and coming in as a freshman he can shoot better than Frazier.
"Tracy's a scorer. He will put points on the board. He will get to the rim in the half court, knock down a shot. It's just becoming that point guard. He's gonna have to be one both size-wise and to fit Illinois's needs. Once he's able to do that, then you're talking about a scoring point guard. Those are sometimes difficult to find.
"He just has to develop the mentality and mindset of the point guard part of it. It's been a slow process, but I think it's coming along for him compared to where he was two years ago. I think that he'll be just fine, but I don't think he's ready to come in and run a team for 25-32 minutes as a freshman when Demetri McCamey leaves."
More than anything, the Illini filled their needs with the 2011 class. That description fits especially well with the fourth Chicagoan in the group, Mike Shaw.
"When they signed this class, more so than the rankings and where they fell in the top 100, I felt these were players that fit what they were lacking but needed. Abrams a developing point guard, Henry a big-time scorer, Nnanna a big man everybody needs in the country. It's hard to find a legitimate big man.
"And then you've got Mike Shaw. He's got such a great body, and he does use it. He will compete, he will dive on the floor. He's just not a prolific offensive weapon as a face-up four man. He'll knock down a shot, but he's not real consistent.
"Mike Shaw's gonna add about 15 pounds, and he'll be a man in about two years. I think he'll be able to provide some minutes as a freshman. With time, I don't think he'll be an All-Big 10 guy ever. I just think he'll be a nice solid piece on a team that could be really good."
Henricksen doesn't see Alabama native Devin Langford play, so he must rely on the advice of others.
"From talking to college coaches, the consistent description is that he has a ton of ability, a ton of upside. If it all comes together for him down the road, he could be a special player at the high major level. That's the read I've gotten from 2-3 guys in the South. The key word always is 'versatile,' how versatile he is."
The 2011 class is solid if not spectacular. It fills long-term needs, although no member of the group is a guaranteed starter as a freshman. Patience will be required as these talented youngsters learn about the college game.
As for future recruiting, the Illini are involved with a number of talented youngsters. Henricksen believes how well they do in the recruiting game depends on their level of success on the court in the meantime.
"It's a nice class for Illinois, they've just got to take care of business on the floor. That's the biggest thing Illinois has to do in recruiting this year going forward."