The Illini missed out on 2016 small forward Xavier Sneed on Monday, but they shouldn’t fret with their current situation on the wing and the possibilities in the 2017 class.
One of those possibilities is Belleville East small forward Javon Pickett, who burst onto the scene with a big-time showing in July. The Illini extended an offer to Pickett on his unofficial visit to Champaign in early August. Since then, he has solidified his place as one of the top targets on John Groce’s recruiting board.
The Illinois staff has visited Pickett on multiple occasions since the open recruiting period began earlier this month. Pickett also made a return trip to campus on Sept. 12 for an unofficial visit. That time spent with the Illini coaches has sparked their relationship.
“My relationship with them is growing. I’m starting to more comfortable with them now. We can laugh and there’s things I can talk about with them. We talk about shoes and make jokes with each other,” Pickett said. “That’s all good, and they’ve got a nice bond with my family. So that’s making it even better.”
Pickett also got to spend time with 2017 five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon on the visit. Tilmon has visited the Illini campus numerous times over the last two years. Pickett said he is becoming close with the state’s top prospect.
“It was nice hanging out with him. Me and him are starting to grow with a bond,” Pickett said. “We’re starting to talk almost every day. So we’re becoming real close. It was just fun playing games and hanging out with him.”
Pickett and Tilmon went to Memorial Stadium to watch the Illinois football team defeat Western Illinois 44-0. After that, they went over to Ubben to watch Malcolm Hill and the Illini scrimmage. Pickett said he played in one pickup game and also played “H-O-R-S-E” with Tilmon and the coaching staff.
To close out the visit, Pickett and Tilmon hung out with Hill and some other Illini teammates. Pickett plays on the same high school and AAU team as Hill did coming up in Belleville. The two are very close, and Hill stays active in helping Pickett develop.
“I talk to Malcolm a lot,” Pickett said. “When I talk to him about the game, he just says that I need to get that killer in me. Get the juice. He says sometimes I play like I’m laid back, and sometimes you just need to go out and get it. He helps me with the way I play—with moves and stuff like that. He teaches me how to do those, and he tells me the good and bad things I do.”
Pickett said he didn’t get to watch Hill much last season, as he was putting in his own work on the court. But he is no stranger to Hill’s moves on the offensive end, and he is constantly trying to implement those into his game.
“Last year, I didn’t really get to watch him that much. But I know how he plays and I’ve seen some of his highlights. His dad and his little brother tell me that our games are similar,” Pickett said. “He’s got some good moves that I’ve been working on. I can see how we’re similar.”
The Illini hope that Hill’s success on the Big Ten stage will be a strong selling point for Pickett to do something similar. They will also benefit in that they were the first high-major offer for the 6-foot-4 wing. Drake, Illinois State, Loyola, Missouri State, SIUE, St. Louis, Tennessee State and UIC have also offered Pickett to this point.
That list will only grow going forward. Pickett said that Cincinnati, Creighton, Indiana State, Northwestern, UAB and Xavier have shown interest recently.
“My recruitment is going pretty well right now,” he said. “I’m starting to get more attention and offers.”
Heading into the month of July, Pickett didn’t have a D-1 offer to his name. But that changed with what he put on display at the NY2LA Summer Jam in Milwaukee.
“That was a breakout month for me. I just really worked hard. I showed people that I have an all-around game,” Pickett said. “I can shoot and I can get to the basket. When I get a smaller person on me, I can score over them. I can also play defense and rebound pretty well. A lot of coaches told me I have a great motor and that they think I can play at a high level.”
Pickett certainly showed that with his athleticism, versatility and ability to score in a variety of ways. He is confident in his mid-range game, and he feels that he can get to the basket at will. On top of that, he is expected to grow another two or three inches.
As that happens and his game continues to develop, Pickett could very well compare to Hill. In fact, he is already drawing those comparisons with his skill set and progression timeline.
“I got to see Malcolm in the same situation—pretty much the same way,” SW Illinois Jets director Andre McMurray said. “Javon is extremely talented with his length and his athleticism. He can shoot it, he can guard and he can rebound. But what really, really separated him is his motor. Javon’s motor went to another level. I’ve never seen a kid play that hard from start to finish, every possession.”
“At this stage, I’d say that Malcolm had a better basketball IQ. But with Javon, there’s something different that’s there. I’m not saying he’s better than Malcolm. But once he picks it up defensively, he’s going to be a load.”
For now, Pickett is working hard to better his overall game with countless hours in the gym.
“I’ve been working on ball-handling drills and going to the basket. Working on finishing through contact and being able to dunk when somebody is on you,” he said. “I’ve been practicing step-backs and doing other things to help out my jump shot. Also focused on defense and lifting.”
While the recruiting focus has typically pointed northbound for the Illini, they are sitting on a potential gold mine in the southwestern part of the state. Pickett, Tilmon and Belleville Althoff wing Jordan Goodwin could be considered three of the top five players in Illinois for the 2017 class.
Groce and his staff have done a great job of getting in early and making a concerted effort with that trio. They will continue to be top priorities, and landing them together would be monumental for the program’s future.
“If we put us three together, that will be a good backcourt with a really good post player. So that’s really just good all over,” Pickett said. “We’re all cool with each other and have a nice little bond. I’m close with Jordan and I’m getting closer with Jeremiah. If we all ended up together, that would be a great team.”
The Illini hope to bring that to fruition in Champaign.