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Looking like the cat who ate the canary, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) waits as Indiana’s guard Al Durham (1) approaches with the ball in a NCAA basketball game at State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

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CHAMPAIGN — Need further proof that the 1980s did, in fact, belong to the Illini?

A total of 18 Illinois basketball players were selected in the NBA draft that decade.

Neil Bresnahan started things as a sixth-round pick in 1980, and Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle closed out the decade as first-round selections in 1989.

The subsequent 30 years delivered just 12 total NBA draft picks from Illinois’ camp, with the most recent decade yielding only one: Meyers Leonard at No. 11 overall to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012.

Ayo Dosunmu will be next, snapping a streak of eight consecutive drafts without an Illini selected.

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard is projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick come the July 29 draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“There’s probably not enough adjectives to describe how happy I am for Ayo,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Everything we’ve heard has been off the chart, from the way he’s conducted himself in interviews to his performance on the court and his testing. That’s a tribute to how hard he works, how he’s developed and how he’s matured over the course of time.”

Dosunmu appears to have a specific window where he’ll fall in next week’s draft. Should the Chicago native get past the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 22, most mock drafts have him being selected before the end of the first round. The Los Angeles Clippers at No. 25 and Denver Nuggets at No. 26 are popular projections. If Dosunmu does fall into the second round, it probably won’t be far.

Underwood is banking on the former.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll be a first-round pick,” the Illinois coach said. “We’ll have to see. It’s always crazy and nuts to try to predict because trades happens, but we know he’s going to be a first-round pick. He deserves that.”

Dosunmu is taking the next step in his basketball career after earning consensus first-team All-America honors in 2020-21 at Illinois.

He was the USA Today National Player of the Year and also claimed the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard after become the first college basketball player in more than a decade to average at least 20 points (20.1 ppg), six rebounds (6.3 rpg) and five assists (5.3 apg).

Dosunmu’s standout junior season came after he declared for the 2020 NBA Draft. The COVID-19 pandemic severely limited the pre-draft process, and Dosunmu ultimately returned to Illinois for a third season. He opted not to even test the NBA draft waters after his freshman year with the Illini.

“What I like about Ayo is that he wasn’t like a lot of these one-and-done kids that expected to go pro right after their first year,” former Illinois and NBA guard Kendall Gill said. “He actually said, ‘I need to stay. I need to work on my game. I need to work on my body and mature a little bit. I’m going to stay for my sophomore year and my junior year.’

“Look at him now. He became an All-American and one of the most decorated players in Illinois history and is going to be a pro. I think that he made the right decision. I would tell every kid to pattern himself like that. Hard work pays, and it paid off for Ayo.”

Dosunmu winding up a first-round pick would be a boon for the Illinois basketball program. Underwood admits as much, and he regularly touts both what Dosunmu was able to do at Illinois and how he turned that to his advantage with the draft approaching while on the recruiting trail.

Underwood called Dosunmu a “great example.”

“He was patient,” Underwood said. “He was able to be a great listener — I say that’s one of his best attributes — and see what people had to say and why he wasn’t maybe where he wanted to be at after year one or year two. Then get in the gym and work and take those things and become something that translates to the next level. He’s going to have a long NBA career. He’s a great example of what patience and hard work will get you.”

Gill sees Dosunmu as the “perfect combo guard” in the NBA, able to use his physical advantage at 6-5 and 200 pounds when running the point. The full package, though, is what could keep Dosunmu in the first round next week.

“I think he did a wonderful job this year of showing his versatility and also his ability to make big shots when the time came,” Gill said. “He’s perhaps one of the most clutch players in Illinois history as far as knocking down shots when they counted. He showed that this year, and I think he can take that to the next level.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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