Jeremy Werner: So, Mr. Piper, the high school season in the state of Illinois has come to a close. The Illini received two good commitments during the season -- first, one from Belleville East wing Javon Pickett and then another (more significant) commitment from Peoria Manual guard Da'Monte Williams. Pickett often gets lost in the shuffle when discussing the Class of 2017, but he put up monster numbers, averaging 23.4 points per game on his way to earning First-Team Class 4A honors. Williams had a good year as well, earning First-Team Class 3A honors after averaging 15.8 points and 5.9 rebounds and helping lead the Rams to a third-place 3A finish. But as he showed at state over the weekend, Williams struggles with consistency. What more did we learn about the two Illini commits during the high school season?
Derek Piper: First and foremost, I think we learned that Pickett deserves to be a more pertinent part of the 2017 conversation. The natural reaction for most people is to direct their focus to what's next. Pickett was the much-needed first piece, but he was largely viewed as a building block to the must-get targets throughout the state. Obviously, Illini fans took more time to celebrate Da'Monte's commitment based on his reputation, potential at the next level and impact on other guys in the class. But Pickett was still relatively undervalued or unknown to many when he committed. He was a late-bloomer on the AAU circuit last summer, which was largely due to the fact that he doesn't play for a shoe-brand program. But Pickett showed that he can flat out score on the high school scene, and he was rewarded by being a first-team selection in 4A. Even though he isn't a top-100 prospect right now, Illini should be excited about his upside when he ultimately arrives in Champaign.
As for Da'Monte's junior season, I think there are two sides to the story. On one side, he had a good year overall and helped lead the Manual program back to the state tournament semifinals for the first time since 2010. Da'Monte had some stellar showings along the way, and he also showed that he can impact the game in more ways than just scoring. On the other side of the coin, his high school season showed that he is far from a finished product. Da'Monte had consistency issues throughout the year, and his two-point outing in the semifinals was disappointing. Sometimes, he lacks the aggressiveness and assertiveness that you want to see from a player of his caliber. And for those who watched him closely, I think this season was an indicator that he isn't currently in position to transition right into the lead guard role at the next level. He played off the ball a good portion of the time, and his handles still need work to be a point guard option in the Big Ten. Too many people remember the type of player his dad was and expect the same thing. That being said, I still like Da'Monte's ceiling quite a bit and think his game can grow even more going into his senior year.
Werner: Jordan Goodwin is an absolute star. The Class 3A All-Stater led Althoff to a pretty dominant state championship run. I'll say it.:Goodwin is drastically underrated nationally. Our Scout.com ranking of No. 73 is too low -- and Scout is higher on him than most other national recruiting services. Regardless of the ranking, Goodwin is must-get for the Illini in my book. He's everything the Illini lack. Sure, it's hard to label him with a position. He's 6-3ish and doesn't have elite athleticism. But here's how I'd label him: a damn good basketball player. He might not be elite at one thing, but he's good at everything. He scores, attacks, shoots, rebounds, creates for others, defends. And he brings two things the Illini have lacked during their last two seasons: leadership and toughness. The comps are all fair: Roosevelt Jones, Rayvonte Rice, Raphael Davis, Sergio McClain. They're all great college players, and Goodwin will be one too -- for four seasons. As good as Williams, Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon are -- Tilmon would be a program-changer in regards to perception and his short-term effect on the court -- is it that far of a stretch to say that Goodwin could have the biggest impact on Illinois than any of them?
Derek Piper: You hit the nail on the head when it comes to the rankings. I've been saying the same thing. With Tilmon playing at La Lumiere in Indiana, Goodwin is clearly the best overall player in the state right now - in my opinion. I think he deserves to be a top-50 player in the class. But his potential impact is far more important than whatever number is attached to his name. I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that Goodwin could make the biggest impact of the guys you mentioned. Tilmon is the No. 10 player in the class for a reason. If he plays two years in college, I think that makes the debate more intriguing. But I don't care what position Goodwin plays. If he goes to Illinois, he's going to be on the floor from the very beginning. And when you consider all that he'll bring during a four-year career, I'd take that over just about anything.
Werner: OK, everyone wants to know the Illini's dream Class of 2017. Goodwin, Williams, Pickett and Tilmon make up everyone's first four. And while Derek Culver, Theo John and Christian Negron all would add much-needed post depth, I'm sold on Simeon point guard Evan Gilyard. Yes, Illinois has Te'Jon Lucas on the way. But last I checked, a team needs more than one point guard -- and a program that has seen an unprecedented rash of injuries probably shouldn't rely solely on one. So, it's time for Illinois to offer Gilyard. Yes, he's 5-foot-9 (maybe). But he's jet-quick, is a plus shooter, penetrates the paint, defends at a high level and is a tough competitor. He reminds me of a higher-ceiling version of Proviso East product Paris Lee, now a rising senior at Illinois State who would've been the Illini's best point guard the last two seasons. Dayton -- currently a better program than Illinois -- offered and is all over Gilyard, who would give Illinois long-term stability at the college gam's most important position. The Illini should see the light and follow suit. Will they? Should they?
Derek Piper: I'm on board with you. Anyone that has followed Illinois over the past few seasons got a front-row seat to the importance of the point guard position. The Illini need another true lead guard in their rotation to go along with Te'Jon. Gilyard has gotten overlooked by high-major programs due to his small stature. But this state has shown that small point guards can have big games. Lack of height has been a regrettable excuse for the state school in their point guard evaluation in the past, especially with guys like Fred VanVleet and Tyler Ulis. I don't think Gilyard is going to become a player of that caliber, but there is a lot to like about his game. His speed and quickness make him dangerous off the dribble. He can create for himself and his teammates. He's extremely tough, a winner and he defends. If he's good enough for Archie Miller, he's good enough for me. I know the Illini have been taking a look - much like they did with Charlie Moore at this time last year. They offered Moore after he continued to perform on the AAU circuit in the spring. We could see the same thing with Gilyard if he plays well with MeanStreets on the EYBL circuit next month.
Werner: You filled us in on the latest with Jeremiah Tilmon's recruitment earlier this week. Another recruitment I'm intrigued by is St. Joseph's Class of 2016 forward Nick Rakocevic. He's a legit power-five conference prospect, but a bunch of programs backed off him during the spring and summer due to what I guess can best be called "attitude" problems. He had a monster prep season and worked his way back onto radars, including Illinois. But apparently, Illinois didn't recruit him to his liking and the teenager publicly chastised the Illini coaching staff. What did Illinois do wrong here, if anything? Where do you expect this recruitment to go from here?
Derek Piper: I don't blame Illinois at all for their reservations about Rakocevic during the last AAU season. His lack of production and continuous attitude issues had many schools backing away. Obviously, he put up huge numbers during his senior year, and that's why the Illini started taking another look back in December. Rakocevic was excited that the Illini were back in the mix, and he wanted to see them up their pursuit. He felt he deserved that with how he was playing, along with the fact that Illinois needed (and still needs) another big. But the Illini remained cautious. Rakocevic told me that Illinois said they would be in contact after watching him in December. But he said they didn't follow through with their word. Thus, he decided to cut them out. Maybe Illinois should have put their foot on the gas. Maybe Rakocevic was a little too sensitive and not patient enough in the process.
As for where his recruitment goes from here, nobody really has a firm grasp. He has recently talked about taking visits to USC and Miami. Earlier in the season, he said he wanted to visit North Carolina. The Tar Heels have shown interest but haven't offered. Memphis was his most recent offer. I talked to a source in Peoria this weekend who said that even those schools he wants to visit are still trying to figure out if they're completely sold on him. Obviously, Rakocevic is a high-major talent and he'll end up committing somewhere this spring. But it still appears to be a murky situation.
Werner: Next up, the spring AAU circuit. A big one for John Groce. A big one for the future of the Illini basketball program.