When the University of Illinois basketball coaches talk about the newcomers due to arrive this summer, there’s a sense they know something others do not.
They don’t quibble with the ranking formula that recruiting services use. They understand some players rate 5 stars, others 3 stars. And that’s an important designation for many fans who follow the recruiting game from home.
The Illini coaches pay practically no attention to how someone else ranks a prospect. That’s probably true of most coaching staffs because they do their own evaluations and plug in factors the recruiting services don’t. At Illinois, they place heavy weight on how a player projects in coach Brad Underwood’s system, and how he’s likely to perform in the Big Ten Conference.
They’re confident in their ability to spot the potential to grow and improve and plug gaps in their game. And they believe they are good enough at teaching the game to help recruits develop from season to season.
That’s true of someone like Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who will start out as a 6-foot-9 forward with the ball-handling and passing skills to penetrate and find open shooters. They believe they can help him greatly expand his game.
That’s true of someone like juco point guard Andres Feliz, who they believe cruised under the radar and is a steal.
It’s true of shooting guard Alan Griffin, who they got in on early, before he became Player of the Year in New York. That’s a pretty big state, by the way.
It’s true of Tevian Jones, who is a 4-star recruit but who they believe is a future pro if he puts in the proper work.
It’s even true of Ayo Dosunmu, who is rated a 5-star guard. But when Underwood speaks of the only recruit to jump on board in the fall, he describes a player who can and will get better at just about everything.
The one recruit, though, who makes Underwood smirk like the cat who swallowed the canary is Samba Kane, the Sudanese big man who the Illini staff uncovered playing in Florida.
When this recruiting class is finally assembled, and when evaluations are more meaningful in, say, two years, it’s Kane who could be the one people point to as the biggest steal of all. Even on tape, he appears to be better than advertised.
“I know he’s better,” Underwood said. “You always want to err on the side of caution when you talk about players, but Samba is unique. He’s 7-feet tall. He has a long wing span. I think there’s a presumption that tall skinny guys aren’t skilled. He’s not that guy. He’s very skilled. He has great hands. If he lacks anything it’s physical strength in terms of banging with people. But in our stuff we move guys around.
“So I’m quietly very, very excited about his upside. And when you watch him, I’m not comparing him to Thon Maker, but you watch the Milwaukee Bucks and what Maker does and those are things Samba does.”
Thon Maker is also a Sudanese 7-footer. The Bucks made him the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
“Samba can shoot 3s. He can space the floor, Plus he’s fast,” Underwood said.
Right now, Kane is a bigger, more skilled version of sophomore-to-be Gregory Eboigbodin. What he will be in two years is what Underwood gets excited about.
“His ceiling is scary,” he said.
There’s another thing about Samba Kane that fans may have noticed. Like Trent Frazier, who became a social media favorite with his positivity during the coaching change that sent John Groce to Akron and brought Underwood to Illinois, Kane seems to have become an Illini cheerleader on Twitter, acting like he’s already on campus even though that won’t happen for another five weeks or so.
Underwood loves his enthusiasm.
The real judgments will begin in the fall, when Illinois takes the court for Underwood’s second season. And Underwood would remind that freshmen are freshmen. They need a period to adjust, just as Frazier did as a freshman last season.
But he’s undeniably excited about the big recruiting class that will be here before long. Excited for what they already are and for what he believes they can become.