Jeremy Werner: Hey! Some positive Illini basketball news! With his commitment on Saturday, Belleville East guard Javon Pickett keys the ignition to the start of a hugely significant Class of 2017 for Illinois. The 6-foot-4 guard is currently rated a three-star prospect and a top-five prospect in the state's Class of 2017, according to colleague Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report. Mr. Piper, Javon Pickett seems like the player Illinois should get, the player right in their wheelhouse. He's from downstate, doesn't have a ton of power-five interest yet but looks the part of a Big Ten player. What do you think of Pickett as a player and what can he project to in the Big Ten?
Derek Piper: The Illini should be excited with what they are getting in Pickett, who just continues to elevate his game. It's crazy to think that he didn't have a D-1 offer seven months ago. But late during the July evaluation periods, people began to take notice of his athleticism, skill and ability to score. Now, he has proven to be one of the best pure scorers in the IHSA this season - averaging around 24 points per game. John Groce saw him go for 32 points last month. Pickett is really good at slicing up the defense off the dribble and he knows how to finish at the rim. He has a nice mid-range jumper, and he can hit the three as well. Pickett is versatile and plays with a high motor. As of last week, he was averaging around nine rebounds per game too.
While some players top out early, Pickett is the exact opposite. He's only going to get better as he continues to develop his body and fine-tune his skills. He is 6-foot-4 now, but he could grow a little bit more. I know that SW Illinois Jets program sees quite a bit of Malcolm Hill in Pickett's game. I talked to the AAU program director, Andre McMurray, this past summer and he said that Pickett is mirroring Hill's track for development. He recalled Hill starting to get recognition around the same time, while still flying blew the national radar for the most part. Hill and Pickett are close, and I know that Hill has been giving him pointers on his mid-range game. That can only be a good sign. McMurray essentially told me that if you take some of Malcolm's qualities and put them in a more athletic body, that is what you're going to see with Pickett.
When you're talking about how he projects to the Big Ten, I think you're getting a versatile role player who can have an even higher ceiling than that. Scoring the ball isn't going to be a question, and if he makes it up to 6-foot-6, that would take his projection up another notch. Pickett also has the ability to be a pretty good defender. The Illini staff loves that he is extremely tough too. And don't be fooled by his three-star ranking. That is fit to change, and some evaluators haven't even seen him play yet. But for those who have, they know this is big for Groce and his staff.
Pickett is a program guy, and one that wanted to get things started for the Orange and Blue in this 2017 class. The Illini faithful should feel pretty good about that.
Werner: Sign me up. That's a nice start to the Class of 2017, which is not only this Illini staff's but this program's next best chance to again become a legit Big Ten contender. So how much weight does this commitment bring? Another Belleville play, Althoff's Jordan Goodwin -- a player who often receives comparisons to former Illini Sergio McClain -- seems to have a good relationship with Pickett. Goodwin seems to have the ear of other important recruits. Is Pickett legitimately the first domino to push over bigger dominoes?
Piper: I think this commitment carries quite a bit of weight. While some may be, Goodwin is no stranger to Pickett's abilities. The two are pretty close and talk often. Pickett told me yesterday that they have been talking about potentially teaming up at Illinois for quite a while now. It hasn't been a secret that Goodwin has been an Illinois lean since naming them his leader back in June. Things have gotten a little more complicated there, but most of that stemmed from being afraid to jump on board while Groce's future is up in the air. With Pickett taking that leap of faith, I think it shows Goodwin that he can do the same and really get things rolling.
Goodwin is the type of player who commands big-time respect from all the top in-state targets. I talked to him last weekend about the in-state class and he smiled while talking about how they could do something special if they teamed together at the next level. I asked him if Illinois had the potential to get it done. He responded: "Probably". And this is nothing new coming out of Goodwin's mouth. He told me this summer that Illinois could potentially piece together their own "Fab Five" with the talent in the state.
That's when you start to factor in five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon. Pickett is friends with him, and Goodwin is especially close with Tilmon. On top of that, the buzz from the Da'Monte Williams camp in August was that they would be pretty quick to follow if Goodwin decided to make the move to Champaign. If those dominoes fall, then you have a pretty darn good group to sell to Tilmon - who could take that class to an elite level.
By himself, Pickett is not a game-changing addition. But when you understand the connections and possible chain of events, he could be the start of something that changes the game for Illinois basketball and puts them on the fast track to where they want to go. Sometimes it only takes one.
Werner: You said it, Pickett is not a game-changing addition. But if he is "the domino" of this class and Goodwin and Williams jump on, are those narrative-changing, job-saving recruits for Groce's staff? Or does it still depend on what happens this season? Despite a bad home loss to an improved Nebraska team, I still see this short-handed Illini roster winning six to nine Big Ten games (likely somewhere in between). I'd imagine that; the legitimate partial excuse of injuries; a trio of Pickett, Goodwin and Williams; and three years left on the contract would mean a new athletic director would give Groce more time to prove he can build this program.
Piper: Get those three guys on board and this season will become a distant memory pretty quickly. We've said it all along that the start to the 2017 class is key to Groce's longevity. Well, those are three of the best ballers in a loaded in-state class. Even taking recruiting out of it, it's hard to consider this season a "fair shot" for Groce given the circumstances. Nobody wants to see a home loss to Nebraska, especially while in-state talents shined light on possible recruiting errors of the past. But the injuries have created some uncontrollable flaws and have made it really difficult to find consistency. Fans have a reason to be frustrated.
But Groce will be bringing back a pretty talented roster next season. Experience is going to be huge for this group of freshmen. Hill and Nunn should be even better. You hope to get the real Leron Black back. And you'll finally get to see the point guard of the future in Te'Jon Lucas, who is tearing it up during his senior season by the way. I think that alone gives Groce a case to save his job.
Adding a trio of Goodwin, Pickett and Williams goes beyond that. Now, you're talking about returning to that level as a Big Ten title contender and relevant threat on the national level. They allow you to really sell those final two spots in that class and aim high. One blockbuster recruiting class can make a world of difference. Further success in this class would buy Groce the time he needs, while restoring life and hope in a fan base that has been gasping for air. That won't be hard for a new athletic director to see.
Read Piper's in-state Class of 2017 update and breakdown.