The landscape for 2016 point guard options is pretty clear cut for the Illinois basketball program, but the possibilities in the frontcourt are less defined.
The Illini prioritized a handful of out-of-state big men in the class last summer. They pulled the trigger on offers to top-100 prospects like Nolan Narain (San Diego State commit), Isaac Humphries, Marques Bolden and Tony Bradley.
After no success there, John Groce and his staff shifted their focus closer to home with Barret Benson, Joey Brunk and Nick Rakocevic. They didn’t have better luck there either, as Brunk committed to Butler and Benson pledged to Northwestern. Even before Benson's commitment, the Illini seemed to cool on the Hinsdale South product after an average showing on the AAU circuit this spring. Meanwhile, they went ice cold on Rakocevic amid attitude questions and an overall plummet from his position as the top prospect in the state.
Instead of giving up on adding a big in this class, the Illini decided to test the waters in July. They extended late offers to California center Jayce Johnson and Texas power forward Clevon Brown. The staff is hoping to land an official visit with at least one of them. But Johnson and Brown aren’t the only 2016 bigs on the Illinois radar.
The Illini snuck in a recent offer to four-star center James Banks. The 6-foot-10 Atlanta native announced this week that he will play his senior season at La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.), which is where Groce pulled his top 2015 commit in Jalen Coleman-Lands.
What We Saw In July
Banks played on one of the most talented AAU teams in the country this summer with the Atlanta Celtics. The squad was highlighted by a backcourt tandem of Kobi Simmons and Josh Langford, who are two of the top-15 players in 2016. In addition, the Celtics possess one of the country’s best 2018 prospect in E.J. Montgomery.
Oftentimes, this made shots hard to come by for Banks. The Celtics advanced to the championship game of the Adidas Gauntlet Finals in Atlanta last month. But Banks took just seven shots in four games during the tournament. Nevertheless, the athletic center found other ways to help his team be successful.
“Just doing things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Banks said. “Playing hard, hustling, rebounding and being a presence down low blocking shots. Being a versatile player and doing everything to get it done.”
While Banks mostly aided in an unsung role, he had one game in Atlanta that stood out. While registering just three field goal attempts, he finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. That is closer to what you saw from him during his junior season at Mt. Vernon Christian, in which he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds per game.
There’s a reason Banks is considered a top-50 prospect (No. 47) in the 2016 class, per the Scout rankings. He is a very attractive option with his length and athleticism. Banks can play with his back to the basket and he runs the floor in transition as well. He also has the ability to alter shots and clean up the glass at the other end.
How He’d Fit In Illini Class
Point guard is the biggest need for Groce and the program, but a high-level big guy isn’t far behind on the wish list.
The Illini cleared up a down-low void by adding top transfer center Mike Thorne Jr. this spring. However, Thorne is just a temporary fix with his one year of eligibility. While the Illini will swing for the fences in 2017 with five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon, the focus in 2016 is filling immediate needs to be competitive.
Adding Banks would bolster the frontcourt and give Illinois its best center prospect since Meyers Leonard.
Where Do The Illini Stand
The Illini are new to the race after offering a scholarship just last month, but there are some positives on their side. For starters, Banks likes what assistant coach Jamall Walker has been selling to him over the last few weeks.
“Coach Walker and them have been doing a good job," Banks said. "I really enjoy what they’ve been putting on the table. I want to give them a look and see if they can help me at the next level.”
Luckily for the Illini, Banks has remained wide open in his recruiting process. He doesn’t currently have an official visits scheduled, nor has he cut down his list. Banks said he plans to figure all of that out over the next few weeks. With the opportunity at hand, Walker has turned up the heat on the pursuit.
“They’re coming at me pretty hard and are starting to make me a priority,” Banks said. “They’re doing a good job with what they’re doing.”
A big sell to the big man is the fact that he could be a starter in the Big Ten as a freshman if he chose to come to Illinois.
“Of course, that’s something that excites me,” Banks said. “Being able to get buckets right away and play right away and make an impact at the next level.”
The Illini should also feel good about how Banks’ move to La Lumiere can help them. Head coach Shane Heirman has a great relationship with the Illinois staff, and it’s no secret that he was a big proponent of Coleman-Lands landing in Champaign. Heirman won’t have the same pull with Banks, but he can be a positive voice of authority for the program.
Sizing Up The Competition
Banks has no shortage of options at the next level. He currently possesses more than 20 high-major offers, including Auburn, Georgetown, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Mississippi State, N.C. State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Purdue, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tennessee, Texas, USC, Vanderbilt and others. Banks has also received interest from Duke and Kentucky.
He took an unofficial visit to Kentucky in June, and the Wildcats figure to at the top of his destination list. However, it appears unlikely that Kentucky will pull the trigger on an offer — unless they are unable to land other targets. With that in mind, Banks is unsure about his next move at the moment.
“I have quite a few offers," Banks said. "So right now, I don’t really want to single one out over others because I’ve been a priority for a lot of those schools."
This recruitment could go a number of ways, as Banks looks to ultimately cut his list to five and then take official visits. The Illini hope to remain in the mix and take their shot by getting him on campus.