Mac Irvin Fire wing Justin Smith has been a different player this spring with added explosiveness and assertiveness to his game.
Smith's stock has followed the flight pattern of his Nikes when he's ascended for a slam. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on the EYBL circuit.
"I'm happy with my game but I've got to continue to improve," Smith said. "There's always ways to improve. But the biggest difference for me is just my confidence. Having been there before and knowing what to expect has really helped."
Smith didn't have nearly the success that was expected from him last summer. Playing up a level, he struggled to find his comfort zone and produce up to his capability. Smith averaged just 3.2 points per game with the Fire on the big stage of the Peach Jam last July.
That is a distant memory now, but it was an important one for his growth.
"Last year motivated me and allowed me to go into the high school season knowing what I needed to do and just allowed me to play my game," Smith said. "And that's what I'm doing now."
On Saturday, Smith posted 18 points and five rebounds in an 82-77 win over Seattle Rotary Style at the EYBL session in Hampton, Va. He has scored in double figures during five of the Fire's 11 EYBL games, which leads a team that could have four future Big Ten players.
Smith could be one of those with offers from Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. The Illini extended a scholarship offer in April 2015, and they watched him often during the evaluation periods last month.
Illini coaches John Groce and Paris Parham have stayed in contact with Smith and his parents, who both went to Illinois.
"It's been good. We talk back and forth. Coach Groce calls me and we have good conversations," Smith said. "It's a good school. I like the coaching staff. They seem to know where they want to go. They've got Da'Monte (Williams), and having played with him, that could help my transition to college."
Last summer, Williams said that Smith would be one player he'd want to bring with him to Champaign if he committed to Illinois. Now that he has made his pledge, he is a sell for his AAU teammate.
"I love playing with Da'Monte," Smith said. "He's a good point guard who gets everybody open. But he can also be aggressive with his scoring, which helps us."
Smith is familiar with another point guard and that's former Stevenson stud Jalen Brunson, who won a national title at Villanova as a freshman this past season. Wildcats head coach Jay Wright offered Smith a scholarship last month.
"It was exciting. Having roots there and having ties there - that helps," Smith said. "I've seen them and talked to them when they were recruiting Jalen. So now that they're recruiting me, it's going to be good."
Smith said Brunson made sure to extend a congratulations when he picked up the offer. He's also gotten recent offers from Florida State, Iowa State, N.C. State, Stanford and Xavier.
There are a handful of high-major prospects in the state for the 2017 class, and Illinois' goal from the outset has been to get as many as possible. Smith fits into that mix, and he thinks he's the best of the bunch.
"It's a very strong class," Smith said. "I feel that I'm No. 1. Everyone feels that they're No. 1. But it doesn't matter. We're all going to be playing in college, and we'll just have to see how it goes."