Illinois commitment Nnanna Egwu has made remarkable progress since he first took up basketball four years ago. From a gangly youngster unfamiliar with the game, he has progressed to the point where he is beginning to draw attention nationally. Illinois Wolves AAU Coach Mike Mullins has had a great deal to do with the transformation.
"He works awfully hard at it. He's got some terrific high school coaches who do a good job with him, and we just try to help him along the best we can ourselves. It's a lot of work, it doesn't happen on its own.
"He's willing to put in the time and effort, and he has a lot of people around him who are willing to do the same because he is such a good kid and is so highly motivated."
One can't talk long to Egwu without him using the word "work" in his conversation. Few players are as dedicated.
"I'm just working on improving my game, trying to get better. I'm not a complete player yet. I have to keep working on it. I get in the gym and work on my game and my individual skills. So far it's helped me produce on the floor."
Egwu, now approaching 6'-10", realizes he must continue to get heavier and stronger. To that end, he has gained 15 pounds of muscle since his Chicago St. Ignatius high school basketball season.
"I'm always trying to gain weight. The postmen in the Big 10 are big and strong, and I have to get my body to where I can battle with those guys. I've been working hard on the weights. That's what it takes. You can't slack off."
As he has continued to improve, Egwu's confidence has soared as well. The more confident he becomes, the better he plays. It is an upward spiral.
"Definitely. We work on it all the time, in each practice and outside the game. You've got to have the confidence working in games. It's one thing to work on a special ability. But if you can't take what you're working on and produce it and use it in a game, it really doesn't mean anything."
"He had a very good high school season. Unfortunately the team struggled a little bit. But we knew he was getting better and better back with us, playing with people who can deliver him the ball at his spots and reward him when he runs the floor, which he does as well as anyone in the country.
"And he has the freedom to face the basket and knock down shots. You're surprised when he misses those now on the short baseline or the elbow. He's come a long way. It's been a pleasure to watch."
Egwu runs like a deer and utilizes that to advantage, for himself and his team.
"You know, that's my calling card. If I'm having a good game, I play defense and run the floor. Even if I don't get the ball, I run the court. It opens up my teammates. I'm just trying to get some easy shots off the fast break."
He is also developing a variety of post moves, including a hook shot.
"You need it, it's a nice thing to have. I've just been working on it with the coaches. If you keep working on it, something's gonna happen soon. You have to have different possibilities for scoring. You have to have number one and number two options."
He likes having future Illini teammate Tracy Abrams on the Wolves team. Abrams is a point guard who knows how to feed the post.
"Tracy's a great player. I appreciate him a lot more, playing with him now. I hope things will continue to get better, not just this spring but this summer."
He also has another big man to compete against this year. Benet Academy's Frank Kaminsky is up to 6'-10" himself, and they help each other improve.
"Working with a guy with his size and his skills in practice also makes you better. It makes all of us better."
Illinois is also recruiting Randle on the Wolves team. Are he and Abrams trying to influence him to attend the UI?
"Right now, we're gonna leave Chasson alone. But if he ever wants to hear anything, I will. It's gonna be up to him, so we'll leave it that way."
Seven footer Meyers Leonard will be a freshman this fall at Illinois and is one year ahead of Egwu. Mullins was asked if the two of them might be on the floor at the same time in the future.
"I think Nnanna is improving by leaps and bounds. His goal and our goal for him is not to go to Illinois and watch. He's going to Illinois to play. We're gonna do everything we can to help that come true for him."