Illini sitting well with Ayo
Brad Underwood and his staff made a huge early splash by reeling in the state's Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith against top-level competition, and the Illini fully intend on repeating that outcome with the heir apparent: Morgan Park five-star lead guard Ayo Dosunmu. Early indications have been very positive for the home-state program, who have clearly made him the top priority on their recruiting board.
There has been some wonder on whether the additions of Smith and top-100 guard Trent Frazier would deter Dosunmu from looking towards Champaign for his future. But that does not appear to be the case. Underwood's system is geared towards utilizing multiple playmakers who can play fast, be versatile threats and benefit from each others' skill sets. This offensive guru is not interested in placing positional limitations on his attack plans.
That has seemed to resonate with the Dosunmu camp. If you watch Dosunmu on the AAU circuit, he can play on and off the ball. Smith and Frazier are similar in that regard. No worries about having too many ball-handlers as long as you can guard the opposition, and Dosunmu (6-foot-5) and Smith (6-foot-4) have the length to defend wings. The Illini are going to push this sell as hard as possible, and there's no question that Dosunmu would give Illinois an absolutely dynamite backcourt.
Furthermore, a blue-chip prospect like Dosunmu isn't going to sweat any competition for playing time. He always operates with supreme confidence, but it is in a quiet and composed form. He has some dog to him, but his game speaks louder than his bark.
The No. 21 overall prospect in the 2018 class has played at a high level this spring after coming back from a foot injury that kept him out of the state title game in March. Dosunmu is sixth in the EYBL with 22.4 points per game. He is wired to score with an outstanding feel for the game and a knack for attacking off the bounce. Dosunmu exploded for 33 points on Saturday night in Atlanta, while also going 12-of-14 from the line.
Illinois would be elated to add Dosunmu to the movement. Bringing Chin Coleman on board as an assistant definitely played well in the Irvin corner, and that should be beneficial. There has been plenty of dialogue and positioning up in the Windy City in regards to the Illini. And their approach with former Morgan Park Mr. Basketball Charlie Moore certainly factored into that equation. Illinois went quietly in that third bout, but that will not be the case with Dosunmu.
State has the ammo to load up
Inserting Smith, Frazier and Da'Monte Williams into the mix is an important first wave of talent for Underwood to bolster his backcourt for the future. More work needs to be done, though, as the following classes are shaping up to be crucial for Illinois' growth timeline.
With four scholarship spots available, the Illini are looking for immediate help in the short term. But regardless of what they're able to bring in with grad transfers, the 2018 class has become huge for the new staff. And 2019 is maybe equally as important.
Fortunately for Illinois, the state has the ammo out there for a needed reload. It starts with another dynamic lead guard in Dosunmu. In addition, the Illini are in position with two high-major caliber wings in Talen Horton-Tucker and Tim Finke. Both have versatile skill sets. The new staff has made strong impressions. That is a luxury. But the Illini will have to prioritize -- knowing that there is probably a good chance they won't get both.
Through 12 games on the EYBL circuit, Finke is averaging 15 points and 6.2 rebounds per game -- while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from beyond the arc. His best outing of the weekend came on Saturday with 16 points and five rebounds. Finke has a high basketball IQ. He is skilled with an ability to dribble, pass and shoot. His outside stroke needs to be more consistent, though. He also needs to improve when it comes to creating his own shot.
Horton-Tucker is averaging 13.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game -- while shooting 43 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. He is also a very capable outside shooter, but he has not hit at his achievable rate on the circuit. Horton-Tucker can get to the rim, though, and he has sneaky athleticism. He is a really good passer. He has moments where he gets into a zone. One of those came on Friday night when he went off for 33 points and nine rebounds.
Not a bad pair for Illinois to have within their reach. The Illini had an in-home visit with Finke last month. Meanwhile, they will work to bring Horton-Tucker to campus for the first time likely next month.
How about some big guys? That's what the state is surely missing in 2018. But Illinois will have two big in-state opportunities for the frontcourt in 2019. That leads to the Brad Beal Elite duo of E.J. Liddell and Francis Okoro. Liddell played up on the 17U circuit for the first time this past weekend, and he definitely showed that he belonged. He went off for 25 points with four blocks on Saturday against the CIA Bounce.
The Illini are in love with Liddell's game and overall upside. Assistant coach Jamall Walker got involved very early with him, and Liddell has already been to Champaign a few times. It's probably safe to say Liddell was the most productive sophomore in the state this past season. He scored 77 points combined in two regional games against Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett. Liddell will be a stud before his high school career is over, and he would be an outstanding fit at the four-spot for the Illini.
In addition, Illinois has a prime opportunity to impress Okoro -- who is a top-30 prospect in the 2019 class. After moving around the country, Okoro is happy being at Normal West living with his aunt and uncle. That's just an hour away from the Illini campus. And while he was up and down in his first full high school season as a sophomore, you can clearly see the development that is taking place with him. Okoro is averaging 8.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game on the circuit. He had 17 points and 14 rebounds in his final game of the weekend on Sunday.
Okoro now has a few reliable post moves at his disposal. That is in combination with his natural strength, mobility and high motor. Big-time programs will come around for him. But Illinois will get a shot. Okoro said that he'd like to get to Champaign for a game this upcoming season.
Landing a 2018 big will be a challenge
Since the 2014 class -- when Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander were two of the top six prospects in the country -- the state has been nearly desert-dry in regards to big man prospects. The major exception is Tilmon, whose spurning of the Illini has once again put them in desperate need of frontcourt help.
The state doesn't have the answer Illinois is looking for in the 2018 class. And the class as a whole does not shape up well for teams in need of bigs. There is an overall lack of depth at the national level in regards to high-major prospects at that position.
That puts an even larger premium on those who are in the upper echelon. Five-star power forward Silvio De Sousa is at the top of the Illini wish list, and assistant coach Orlando Antigua will work to strengthen his in-roads as quickly as possible. But knowing his talent and how the competition might shape up, De Sousa could turn out to be a long shot.
Illinois has an offer out to Trevion Williams, who is the seventh best center in the class. But many have the Detroit native pegged for Michigan State -- a squad that has done exceptionally well at bringing in bigs in past classes. Purdue has also jumped in the mix recently, and they have effectively used the Caleb Swanigan comparison to get him thinking.
And in regards to the depth issue on the national scene, four-star forward Darius Days is not currently ranked in the top 100. Illinois loves him, though, and he is probably significantly underrated at this point. But it goes to show that a prospect like that recently picked up a Kansas offer.
Don't see immediate traction with some new targets
Even with a group of proven talent-getters, it's going to take time for this staff to really show what they can do on the recruiting trail. Rome wasn't built in a day. And these relationships and recruiting pitches don't magically click into place overnight.
The Illini sent out handfuls of new offers during the spring evaluation periods. There were many players they liked, and many that are on the outside of Illinois' geographical wheelhouse. That's not a bad thing. You want your program to be able to recruit at a national level, while also enabling your assistants to use the ties that they have previously established.
But at the same time, you're not going to see an immediate transformation -- especially for targets who already have attractive options that have been involved much longer. That's not to say that Illinois won't be able to emerge as a major player for some of their new prospects. They will certainly try with guys like De Sousa, Days, Ignas Brazdeikis, Elijah Weaver, Jerome Hunter and others. But there are no guarantees.
Right now, many of these players simply don't know much about Illinois. You don't read them mentioning the Illini much or at all in recruiting updates. They aren't the first team that comes to mind. Maybe not even one of the first five, six or seven.
Take Brazdeikis for example. In Atlanta, he listed Michigan, UCONN, Florida, Vanderbilt, SMU, Oklahoma and Washington as some of the schools off the top of his head. He talked in depth about a few. Illinois offered him a scholarship after the second EYBL session and they're high as can be on his game. They want him for next season. But they need time to get the chance to be a legit option.
Brazdeikis says that he's leaning towards 2018 right now, but that could change. And Illinois' odds could change with others by the time visits and decisions are made. They just have to keep pounding the pavement. But right now, you're not seeing big jumps made off the bat.
High trajectory for up-and-comers
The future is bright down the road for some in-state underclassmen. That has been put on display this spring on the 15U circuit.
Peoria Manual freshman point guard Adam Miller has a sky-high ceiling. His floor game is off the charts for a player at his age level. He has superb handles, vision and overall feel. Miller is electric in transition, and he makes plays off the bounce in the halfcourt as well. He showed off a nice runner this past weekend. He needs to find more consistency with his outside shot, but he has big-time potential.
Morgan Park shooting guard Nimari Burnett teams up with Miller on the Mac Irvin Fire 15U squad. Burnett was born to score, and he has the makings of being a future star in Chicago. As usual, he showed off his lights-out stroke from beyond the arc. He can hit in the midrange as well. The key for Burnett is to develop his off-the-dribble game, and also add more strength. He will be a prime Illini target down the line, and he has an offer already too.
Another name to pay attention to is Fenwick freshman guard D.J. Steward. There have been glowing reviews of Steward on the spring circuit, but the Meanstreets 15U team was not in Atlanta over the weekend. Nevertheless, make sure to watch out for him as well.