Illinois already has one commitment for the 2011 class, guard Tracy Abrams out of Chicago Mt. Carmel. They have a visit coming up from Nnana Egwu, a slender 6'-9" post player from Chicago St. Ignatius and hope to add him to the mix. He is a project, but he has the most upside of any big man in Illinois within his class.
Among the remaining prospects with an interest in the Illini are guards Bradley Beal from St. Louis Chaminade and Rock Island's Chasson Randle. Sam Thompson out of Whitney Young is a talented wing prospect, while James Siakam (Carbondale Brehm Prep) and Chicago DeLaSalle's Mike Shaw join North Carolinian and former North Chicago product Quincy Miller among power forward prospects.
Shaw was ranked among the top ten in the nation after his freshman year, but his rankings have plummeted after a confusing summer of AAU ball. He has excellent skills for both inside and outside play, but he seems passive and disinterested at times. Joe Henricksen, author of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, has seen Shaw play frequently and wonders how some services can still be ranking him high.
"For Shaw to be ranked in the top 20 players in the country, I just don't get it."What he does get is the potential of Siakam, who he ranks as the # 5 player in the Illinois class compared with #8 for Shaw. Undersized for a power forward, Siakam has the athleticism and intangibles to make up for a lack of height.
"Oh yeah, there's no question about that. He's a legitimate 6'-5". I'd take 6'-5" Siakam over a 6'-8", 6'-9" guy that doesn't get anything done. His arms are unbelieveably long. His tenacity, I love him. We need guys like him.
"He's a tremendous athlete, and he probably has the best motor in the class of 2011. Will he be a superstar? No. But you win with guys like James Siakam."
The 6'-6" Thompson has been sheltered from the recruiting wars by his parents, who want him to focus first on academics. His game has also taken time to develop. But he will be looked upon this winter to replace talented graduates who helped Whitney Young to a state championship last year. With more playing time, he will likely blossom.
"Sam Thompson is gonna be a guy where it all comes together a little later than everybody else," Henricksen surmises. "He's not as physically developed, he's not as mature and experienced. But that time is gonna come.
"His combination of length and athleticism are the type you just don't find very often. Shooting consistently, making decisions on the floor, those things will come in time with more experience.
"He's just one of those late bloomers. The whole package just hasn't come together yet, but he'll get there. He shows enough flashes and enough moments that makes you realize the special talent that he is."
Abrams has seen his national rankings plummet lately. Playing with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU team this summer did him more harm than good. He likes to play a team game, but that is impossible among a group of stars all wanting to showcase their individual talents.
"That's not really what they're about. They're not about developing chemistry. It's a road show. They collect a bunch of talent and put it out there. It's just a different culture now.
"If they only saw him play in the summer, I'm surprised he is in the top 80. He just did not fit with where he was playing, and he had a rough go of it."
Henricksen does his own ratings of Illinois players. He sees them play often enough to provide a fair analysis of their games. Not so the national experts. They simply don't have the time to watch everyone around the country enough to see them both when they are on a roll and when they're down.
"I don't even pay attention to national rankings. Once you get past the top 25, they don't know what they're doing. I can't even begin to explain national rankings. They don't see guys play very often.
"Is there much difference between the 40th player and the 66th player? Often, there's none. Sometimes, the 66th player is better than the 30th player. You can't really rank these kids after seeing them a couple times. You have to see a kid a lot to really appreciate what he can do."
Abrams is still near the top of his class in Henricksen's mind.
"I watched him at the Illinois team camp a couple times, and at Moody Bible. The intangibles is why I have him ranked so high. I don't think the national guys really get a feel for that kind of stuff.
"All the things he brings to the table like getting after it defensively and not having a whole lot of baggage with him. He's a tremendous combination of speed and athleticism for his size.
"He's got some flaws. Right now, he's not a pure point guard. He's more of a scoring guard. He's still inconsistent with his shot. But I just don't anticipate him dropping in my rankings for all that he brings to the table."
Chicago Morgan Park's 6'-4" wing Wayne Blackshear took over Henricksen's top spot with an outstanding summer. But Abrams is right behind him.
"Right now, I have Blackshear number one, Tracy two and Sam Thompson number three. I wouldn't be shocked if Sam Thompson ended number one. But as far as upside, if you compare Chasson Randle with Tracy Abrams, there's no comparison.
"Looking down the road, if Tracy works hard and wants to be the player he can be, he just has such a higher ceiling than a lot of those other guys."
That isn't to say Randle is a bad player. He had tremendous success this summer, making a national team for his age group and leading the Illinois Wolves 16 and under team to some AAU championships. He lists Randle as fourth best in the state.
"There's a lot of talent in that class. Chasson plays for an AAU program that showcases his ability. And he got some great exposure in the national team he played on that helped generate more interest."
The Illini still have a number of irons in the fire for 2011, more than are listed here. They are off to an outstanding start with Abrams. If everything falls into place as hoped, it could be one of the best Illini classes in a long time.