Allow me to reflect back to November of 2013. The scene was the gymnasium at Stephen Decatur High School in Decatur, Illinois. The next-to-last game of the night was nearing its conclusion when the East St. Louis basketball team made their way into the gym to play in the last game of the night in the annual Decatur Turkey Tourney.
A Decatur native myself, I had been to the Turkey Tourney in the past, and the event had featured its fair share of future NBA stars throughout its history. Lanphier's Andre Igoudala and Peoria's Shaun Livingston, both future NBA champions with the Golden State Warriors, had their names in the tournament's record books. Darius Miles, a former East St. Louis Flyer himself, wowed crowds back in the day.
But in the years leading up to the 2013 event, the star power at the tournament had diminished quite a bit. That was, until a 6'9" freshman named Jeremiah Tilmon took the floor for his first high school game. Admittedly, I had heard little about Tilmon before the event other than "he's supposed to be a stud, eventually," but at first glance, he passed the eye test.
I tempered my expectations for the freshman, knowing that the adjustment to high school basketball could be especially tough for post players. Nonetheless, Tilmon started for his team that night, and didn't last very long in the first half before picking up two quick fouls (something he did often his freshman year), and spending a lot of the first half on the bench.
Tilmon struggled in ways that you would expect a freshman playing his first varsity game to encounter some difficulties. He finished the game with 7 points despite spending significant time on the bench due to foul trouble, but the moment I will never forget from that game was when all 6'9" 225 pounds of him came charging down the lane after a missed free throw and threw down a monstrous putback slam on top of a defender and got the entire gym on its feet.
A family friend sitting next to me at that game leaned over, said "wow", and asked "who the hell is that kid?".
Now, East St. Louis went on to lose that game at the very end. But that was the first real flash I saw of what Tilmon could do. And as he continued throughout the next couple of years to work hard at his game, plays like that became more and more frequent as he grew more comfortable as a player.
From KCMO to STL
I tend to think the turning point in Tilmon's career really came when he switched AAU teams from MoKan (who, interestingly enough, just dominated the Peach Jam final to win the EYBL championship), to the St. Louis Eagles. While the move was primarily made due to travel distance for team practices and functions (go figure, St. Louis was closer), Tilmon landing with the Eagles was probably one of the best things that could have happened to his development at that time.
Don't get me wrong, a team with Trae Young, Michael Porter, Shake Milton, and Juwan Morgan would have been absolutely stacked. But Tilmon needed an environment in which he could develop as a true post player, and the Eagles afforded him the best opportunity to do so. Additionally, he was able to play along side talent like Jayson Tatum, Tyler Cook, and several other future D1 players. But more importantly, Tilmon was able to play the role of a true post player.
The spring of 2015 was when I really started to notice progress in Tilmon's skills. His physical abilities were always advanced for a guy his size, but he began displaying more effective post moves and understood the game better overall.
Meanwile, off the court, recruiting was really starting to heat up for Tilmon. Illinois was being joined by some stiff competition, some of which are considered "blue blood" schools. But time and time again, Tilmon made it clear that Illinois was recruiting him the hardest.
Change of Plans
During the summer of 2015, Tilmon was taking summer classes to ensure that academics wouldn't hold him back from his goals of playing college and pro basketball. He also spent significant amounts of time working out privately on his big man skills. One thing that I never saw reason to question was Tilmon's work ethic.
In the fall of 2015, a lengthy teacher strike at East St. Louis disrupted, among other things, the athletic programs at the East Metro school. A storied football program was forced to forfeit several games because the school was closed, and if not resolved, the basketball program may have faced the same fate.
Tilmon was at a point in his career where he couldn't afford to miss time on the court due to a teacher strike, so in a somewhat bold move, he enrolled at La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, IN just weeks into the school year, and prepared himself for a junior season with an entirely new team in an entirely new environment.
I really don't think I need to go into the details of some of the issues that come with living in East St. Louis, but La Lumiere certainly was a big change for Tilmon. He was away from the distractions that come with East St. Louis, away from the potential pitfalls the city is known for, and could focus far more intently on both academics and basketball.
Stepping His Game Up
La Lumiere was just emerging on the map as a national contender in the prep school circuit. Big man James Banks, who would end up at Texas, had joined the roster. This meant that Tilmon would not only now be playing the top competition in the country, but that he would also be going up against a much higher level of competition in the post each and every day in practice.
La Lumiere's run through the season and into the DICK's National playoff, which included a win over the nation's top ranked team in Montverde, challenged Tilmon to continue to develop as a player, and for the most part, he was up for the challenge at every obstacle. But after suffering a shoulder injury in the early minutes of the national championship game, he finally met a new challenge he hadn't encountered yet when he injured his shoulder and was forced to watch the remainder of the game from the bench as his team fell.
Sitting out the entire spring during his final EYBL season was extremely difficult for Tilmon, too. His injury ended up requiring surgery, which all but guaranteed he would also miss the opportunity to participate in USA Basketball this summer. But Tilmon knows that a lot more hypothetical weight is on his shoulders this upcoming season at La Lumiere with Banks and Humphries gone.
How Tilmon responds to his injury will be the key over the next few months. If he is able to regain full motion of his shoulder and maintain a high level of conditioning (he will be playing more minutes this year, after all), then he will have a chance to show that he's ready to be an immediate impact player at the college level.
From a perception standpoint, he's the biggest recruit for Illinois in years, and his impact reaches far beyond the 90' of the court. But his recovery and development as a player are vital to the longevity of his career.
Is he a one-and-done? Right now, I don't think it's a sure thing. He will be a solid contributor as a freshman, providing valuable minutes as both a defender/rebounder and a post presence. But Tilmon still has a lot of room for improvement as far as his skills are concerned. The degree of competition at the college level will challenge him early and often, but if he is able to find early success, the boost in confidence will go a lot way toward preparing him for a Big Ten season that will be nothing short of a grind in the post.
Tilmon is arguably the most important Illinois recruit of the last 10 years. Now, it's up to him and the staff to see that he plays to the potential he's always had.
The potential I caught my first glimpse of in November 2013.