Illini impress Scout top-40 forward Derek Culver on visit

The Illini hosted four-star 2017 power forward Derek Culver on an unofficial visit last weekend. Culver came away impressed after watching practice, hanging out with the team and talking with the staff.

Ranked as the best 2017 power forward in the Midwest by Scout.com, Warren Harding (OH) junior Derek Culver can impress you in a variety of ways.

Culver possesses loads of athleticism, versatility and skill in his 6-foot-8 frame. It’s not hard to see why he is one of the top 40 players in the 2017 class. Culver is a handful on the offensive end with his length, mobility and improving lefty stroke.

The attention continues to grow after a big summer for the highlight of Ohio. The state is as familiar as any for John Groce and his staff, and they took a liking to Culver before he hit the national radar. The relationship has grown there, and Culver took his first trip to Champaign last weekend to conclude his slate of fall visits.

“It was a nice trip. I like the coaching staff, the trainers and everyone involved over there. They’re nice people,” Culver said. “I had fun because I got to chill with the guys a little bit, which is something I didn’t get to do on my other visits. It was nice to chill with the guys and see how the college life is.”

Culver also got to take in a high-major basketball practice, which was his first opportunity to do so.

“It was a nice experience being my first time seeing a real college practice. It was at a high level the whole time,” he said.

Warren Harding head coach Andy Vlajkovich accompanied Culver on the visit, and he said the Illini made a strong impression on his high-level hooper.

“He was impressed. Derek has a very good relationship with Coach (Dustin) Ford. He was really impressed with Coach Groce, and the way he interacts in practice, the way he runs their program and the culture that they have,” Vlajkovich said. “He definitely had a good experience. He’s a long way from making any decisions, but the visit went good—went smooth. Overall, it was a good experience.”

Culver has been busy since the end of the AAU season, as he has taken visits to Indiana, N.C. State, Purdue, West Virginia and Xavier as well. But the trip to Champaign was different, and that was a positive for the Illini.

“The other visits took place in August and September. So he got to see those campuses and some football games and that kind of stuff,” Vlajkovich said. “But this visit was a little different because they were in the heart of their practice. So he got to see the nuts and bolts of the program.”

“That’s the first time he got to see a quality Big Ten program practice. The intensity of it was impressive. How hard you got to go every day is impressive. The upgrades they are doing to the State Farm Center and their facilities are impressive. The overall commitment to basketball is a sell. Coach Groce and his staff, and the culture and intensity they play with are sells as well.”

You don’t have to remind Illini fans of the importance of the 2017 class. They have been focused on a number of targets since the spring, or even before that. While Culver hasn’t been discussed as much as others around Illini nation, he has been a big-time priority for the staff.

Ford watched Culver many times on the AAU circuit, and Illinois has been to Ohio twice already this fall during the open period.

“Saw him a lot in July. Stopped through here a couple times in the fall. They’ve definitely put the time in, and they were one of the first ones to kind of get in the mix too,” Vlajkovich said. “They started in on him last year before the pre-ranking or pre-blowup that happened with Derek. So they got a kick start on that relationship before some others.”

Since then, the Illini have remained consistent with their approach and they have made Culver a top priority on their recruiting board.

“We’ve had great dialogue with them. Derek is very high on their list. The relationship with Dustin and I go back quite a ways. I know what he’s about, and Coach Groce spent a lot of time in Ohio. A kid I played against in high school played for him at Ohio State, Terrance Dials, and Terrance spoke very highly of Coach Groce,” Vlajkovich said. “Those things all are important. I talk to Derek all the time about branding himself and marketing himself by the way he carries himself, and I think college coaches are doing the same thing. I think Illinois has been as impressive as anyone.”

Culver and Ford talk often, and their discussions even include other prospects on the landscape.

“Me and Coach Ford just talk about recruiting and other guys in the class. We talk about Illinois basketball and how it’d be a good fit for me to be there,” he said.

The Illini also express what it is that draws them to Culver’s game. Athleticism and versatility are the key components that stand out.

“I think they really like that he’s a power forward with some athleticism to him,” Vlajkovich said. “They say that they look at skilled forwards and athletic forwards, and he’s got a little bit of both. I think his versatility is probably the thing they are most impressed with.”

Illinois isn’t the only program paying close attention, though. Vlajkovich listed Arizona, Cincinnati, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, N.C. State, Pitt and Purdue as other schools who have been heavily involved. He said Arizona has not offered but they call as much as anybody. Michigan State hasn’t extended an offer either, but they have been in to see him recently.

Right now, Culver remains open to all possibilities with the plan to make his collegiate decision around this time next fall.

“Really my recruitment is just open right now,” Culver said. “I’m taking in everything and having fun with it. I’m just happy to be getting recruited and I’m just taking it day by day.”

While Culver sits back on his recruitment, he is focused on attacking the upcoming season on the hardwood. He averaged 14.5 points and 10 rebounds per game last season on a team that had four guys averaging in double figures. Culver wants to take that production to another level this year.

“My goal heading into this year is to average 20 points and 15 rebounds,” he said.

Aside from being more experienced and more developed this fall, Culver is ready to get the most out of his play with his conditioning and physical maturation.

“I think this is the best shape he’s ever been in,” Vlajkovich said. “I’ve really noticed that with his game over the last three weeks. I think he’s become more explosive. I think his jump shot has come a long way. I think he’s playing the best basketball of his career, and he still has a long way to go. I know that may sound bad, but it’s because his ceiling is so high.”

Vlajkovich added that his staff has challenged Culver to become an elite rebounder and make the same type of impact on the defensive end as he does on offense.

“He makes our team better offensively because he’s a very good passer, he’s very skilled and he commands a lot of attention. He’s a very willing passer, he’s a very good teammate and he makes everyone around him better at the offensive end,” Vlajkovich said. “My challenge to him is can you do the same thing at the defensive end? Are you going to play with the same motor and the same alertness on defense as you do on offense? We’re also working on making him an elite rebounder. Are you rebounding out of your area? Are you rebounding in traffic? Every ball has Derek Culver’s name on it, so go get it.”

The numbers will pile up on their own if Culver plays to his potential. That is why Vlajkovich isn’t focused on giving him statistical goals. He wants to see Culver do one thing on the court: Dominate.

“I want him to dominate games,” Vlajkovich said. “I want everybody that comes to watch him play this year leave saying ‘oh dear, that kid is a monster’. I think there have been games when people have left saying that, and there have been games when people have left not saying that.”

With his motivation and oozing talent, look for Culver to wow anyone that steps foot in the gym this season.


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