Underwood's pitch to recruits: Be the next Ayo

Underwood's pitch to recruits: Be the next Ayo

WESTFIELD, Ind. — Illinois has prioritized its backcourt in recruiting the 2020 class. 

That’s more than evident by the dozen lead guards with an Illini offer. It’s a group that stretches from coast to coast, with Illinois targeting the likes of Andre Curbelo and RJ Davis in New York, a Chicago transplant in Nimari Burnett in California and the big names from the Midwest like Adam Miller, Caleb Love and DJ Steward.

The need is obvious. Andres Feliz will exhaust his eligibility following the upcoming 2019-20 season, and by the way the Illini coaches are recruiting, they expect the draft projections to hold steady and Ayo Dosunmu — a potential lottery pick — to leave after his sophomore year.

The latter is the main pitch. Come to Illinois and fill a similar role to Dosunmu, who was a Big Ten All-Freshman team selection and the first true freshman to lead the Illini in scoring in their history.

“Ayo, he balled out,” said Burnett, who played with Dosunmu as a freshman at Morgan Park before transferring to Prolific Prep (Calif.). The 6-foot-3 guard had 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists in Team WhyNot’s 87-70 win against Oakland Soldiers on Saturday.

“(Dosunmu) could have been a draft pick, but it’s good that he’s staying another year and continuing to develop,” Burnett continued. “I think he’s going to be a draft pick next year. I know that if he does well in the system, I can do it as well. It’s making me look forward to college basketball.”

Illinois assistant coach Chin Coleman is the lead recruiter for Burnett and Steward. Assistant coach Jamall Walker is at the forefront of Love’s recruitment. The message is the same. 

“Ayo’s a really good player,” Steward said. “They say I kind of play like him — long and lanky and can attack the basket and knock down shots. That’s what they’re really feeding me is I can come in and fulfill that role.”

“They want me to come in after Ayo and obviously turn their program around,” Love added. “They want me to come in and get them to the Final Four and the national championship. I think I fit well. I can either play point guard or combo because Trent Frazier would still be there.”

Both Steward and Love are spending the EYBL season fine tuning their point guard skills since they’re both already capable scorers. 

Steward put up 24.3 points per game this past season — his first at Whitney Young after transferring from Fenwick — while Love averaged 19.4 points for Christian Brothers College Prep in St. Louis.

“I know I can score right now,” Steward said. “I have to develop on hitting guys in the right spot and just getting them open. If someone steps up, I’ve got to make that pass. They mostly want me to be a point guard. The game is changing nowadays. Point guards are more scorers now, so that’s what they’re really trying to feed me.”

Steward is currently splitting time at the point for MeanStreets with Marian Catholic guard Ahron Ulis, so he hasn’t lost many scoring chances. 

The 6-4 guard posted his third 20-point game of the circuit with 29 points on 10 of 19 shooting in a Saturday morning loss to Team Final. 

“We try and switch it off sometimes,” Steward said about playing alongside Ulis. “We’re both going to be point guards at the next level, so we both have to get ready and prepare ourselves for the next level.”

While Love does occasionally hand off point guard duties to Whitney Young’s Tyler Beard for Brad Beal Elite, the CBC standout mainly has the ball in his hands. Love had 10 assists in Saturday morning’s win against The Family, and his focus this spring is on ball handling and decision making.

“It’s different because you’ve got to know where everybody’s at,” Love said about running the point. “You’ve got to control the game and be that leader picking everybody up. It’s tough, but I’m pulling through. I’ve got to pass a little bit more. Usually I’m shooting the ball a lot, but I have no problem with passing.”

Stealing the spotlight

These five Illinois recruiting targets caught beat writer SCOTT RICHEY's eye during the second day of Nike EYBL action in the Indianapolis suburbs:

Moses Moody

The four-star guard was nearly unstoppable in the morning session at the Pacers Athletic Center. Moody dropped 32 points in an 85-74 Brad Beal Elite win against The Family Detroit, shooting 4 of 9 from three-point range while also hauling in nine rebounds.

Patrick Baldwin Jr. 

Baldwin hardly missed in Phenom University's 108-92 victory against Team CP3. The five-star 2021 wing — ranked No. 1 nationally by both Rivals and 247Sports — was 10 of 14 from the field and finished with 27 points and four rebounds.

Jonathan Kuminga 

An up-and-down game with Vegas Elite meant plenty of shot opportunities. Kuminga took them. While the five-star 2021 wing missed all of his three-point attempts, he still put up 29 points on 12 of 28 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists.

Jaylin Williams 

A double-double Friday night got the 2020 four-star forward out of Fort Smith, Ark., an Illinois offer. He followed it up with another in Woodz Elite's 79-73 win against E1T1. Williams, who's ranked No. 100 by Rivals, had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Matt Cross 

It's been a rough start to EYBL play for BABC, but Cross continues to shine. The three-star forward broke out at the end of April in Atlanta and has maintained his high level of play. Cross' 21 points and 11 rebounds was a lone bright spot against Seattle Rotary.