Heading into the first live recruiting period, lead basketball reporter Derek Piper is breaking down 10 of Illinois basketball's top recruits with their updated scouting report, what they have to prove this spring on the AAU circuit and where the Illini stand with them.
Today: Derek Culver, big man Warren Harding HS (Ohio)
When Illini fans talk about their dream class in 2017, Warren Harding HS (Ohio) junior big man Derek Culver would be on it in a heartbeat.
Culver is long and extremely athletic at 6-foot-10. He attacks the rim with ferocity on offense, and block shots at regularity at the other end.
Culver is currently ranked No. 38 in the 2017 Scout rankings, and he averaged 16.6 points per game this past high school season. When he's on his game, he can be about as dangerous as any post player in the country.
John Groce and his staff have made a habit of recruiting the state of Ohio, and Culver has been a big priority for assistant coach Dustin Ford.
Culver is freakishly athletic with his length, mobility and hops. He utilizes those gifts to make a two-way impact on the floor. Culver is best known on offense for his ability to rock the rim. He also has a solid post and face-up game. Culver is quick for his size, and he'll utilize spin moves to create space. He is also fantastic at attracting the attention of the defense and whipping it to an open teammate. Culver loves to run the floor in transition as well, and he'll finish it off with a flush.
The talented big man can make just as big of an impact at the other end. His long arms allow him to block shots at a high frequency. Taking it into the lane becomes an entirely different ballgame when Culver is in the paint. He is a talented rebounder as well. The key for Culver going forward is to continue improving his stroke in the mid-range and beyond. He could also use more strength to his frame, and he has battled with consistency issues at times.
What he has to prove this spring
There's no denying that Culver is a big-time player, as he is a top-40 prospect in the class. But he has the potential to be dominant, and that's what he needs to do game in and game out: Dominate. Culver has all the tools to get the job done. He needs to show that he has a consistent motor, especially on the glass. In addition, he must prove that his offensive game can take the next step. That will focus on his jump shot, and growing his post game even further. Blue bloods will be waiting to see if he can get it done.
How he'd fit at Illinois
The Illini are looking to make a big splash in the frontcourt in the 2017 class, and they have opportunity to sell. Culver fits the ideal mold with his length, athleticism and versatility. Illinois will have Michael Finke down low, and they figure to have Leron Black as well. But they could use another infusion of talent for the future. Culver could play the four or the five, and he would make an immediate impact - especially as a rebounder, defender and finisher around the hoop.
Where Illinois stands
Illinois has been in the mix with Culver longer than most. They officially extended an offer last May, but they were involved in the early part of his sophomore year. Warren Harding head coach Andy Vlajkovich talked in the fall about the relationship that has been formed.
"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 and pre-blowup that happened with Derek. So they got a kick start on that relationship before some others."
Ford has been the lead guy in this recruitment. He watched Culver religiously during the evaluation periods last AAU season, and he went to see him multiple times in Ohio over the last six months. Ford has formed a good bond with Culver, and he's known Vlajkovich for quite a while as well.
"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, Terrence Dials, and Terrence spoke very highly of Coach Groce," Vlajkovich said. "Those things are all important...I think Illinois has been as impressive as anyone."
Culver and Vlajkovich came to Champaign in October for an unofficial visit.
"It was a nice trip. I like the coaching staff, the trainers and everyone involved over there. They're nice people," Culver told IlliniInquirer.com. "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 took visits to Indiana, N.C. State, Purdue, Xavier and West Virginia after the AAU season last year. But Illinois was the first place where he got to see a high-major practice.
"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," Vlajkovich said. "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."
Illinois has put themselves in a spot to contend in this race, and they will continue to pursue Culver during the April evaluation periods. Groce and Ford will be in Dallas on Friday night to watch him, and Ford will be there throughout the weekend.
Sizing up the competition
West Virginia appears to be the team to beat right now. The Mountaineers were the first high-major to get in with an offer in October 2014, and Bob Huggins was the first coach to meet with Culver in person.
Culver visited West Virginia for a game during his sophomore season, and he went back to campus last fall. His athleticism and ability to run the floor fit their uptempo style.
But there are other big-name programs coming after him as well. Arizona pulled the trigger on an offer, and Vlajkovich said they called as much as anyone during the fall.
"The name 'Arizona' speaks for itself," Culver told Scout.com. "It is a school with a lot of tradition. To have an offer from Arizona is amazing. It makes me want to continue to work harder."
Michigan State is another program that has shown a high level of interest, and they could jump on board with an offer. Culver's recruitment has the potential to blow up this spring and summer if he shows out on the AAU circuit.