CHAMPAIGN — Four-plus decades as a basketball coach doesn’t leave Lincoln’s Neil Alexander light on experiences.
He already has more than 800 career victories, and he tutored a McDonald’s All-American and future NBA first-round pick in former Illini great Brian Cook.
Still, what Jermaine Hamlin accomplished at Lincoln the past four seasons was a new experience for the Hall of Fame coach.
“He got cut from our eighth-grade team,” Alexander said. “I’ve been coaching 41 years, and this kid here, you can almost see the improvement each day. I think the upside for Jermaine is really, really good. I think he’s going to get better and better every year. He’s only been playing for four years.”
Hamlin’s development on the basketball court will shift 63 miles to the east for the 2019-20 season.
The 6-foot-10, 225-pound center was officially added to the Illinois roster on Tuesday afternoon after committing this past Saturday night.
The late opportunity to join the Illini changed Hamlin’s basketball plans this coming season. Instead of a gap year at Link Prep in Branson, Mo., the raw Lincoln big man will play in the Big Ten instead.
Illinois, though, was always on Hamlin’s radar.
“It was something I always thought about doing,” Hamlin said about his chance to play for the Illini. “Coach Al, he always talked about Illinois because that’s one of his favorite colleges. He loves that school, so I’ve always heard about it. When it popped up as one of my options, it was a big shock. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Alexander has made fairly regular trips to Champaign the past two seasons. His son, Geoff, is on Brad Underwood’s staff as assistant to the head coach. Hamlin on the team just gives the Lincoln coach another reason to visit.
“He’s close enough we can keep an eye on him and make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” Alexander said.
Hamlin credits Alexander for the growth in his game the past four seasons. That culminated in earning IBCA Third-Team All-State honors as a senior after averaging 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks for the Apollo Conference champion Railsplitters, who finished 27-5 and advanced to a Class 3A sectional championship game.
“It’s team basketball,” Hamlin said of Lincoln. “It’s never one guy taking over. It’s helping each other out. Most of that talking and communication is going to be used at the next level.”
Continued growth — particularly at the offensive end — will be key for Hamlin as he starts his college career. What Alexander saw from him defensively, though, could translate to the next level more expediently.
“He was our rim protector, which gives us something we never get,” Alexander said. “The last big kid we had was Brian Cook. He’s a little bit different than Brian. Brian was a very, very skilled perimeter player. Jermaine, he has a lot of work to do, but the upside is really good.
“He’s got to improve offensively and do those things, but I think he’s going to be a rebounder. He’s going to be a rim protector. ... By the time he gets through a weight training program — we lift weights at the high school level, but nothing like they do at the collegiate level — that will be a whole different thing.”
Illinois has followed Hamlin the past two seasons, but both Hamlin and Alexander said the interest from Illini coach Brad Underwood and his staff intensified at the Peach Invitational in mid-July. Hamlin’s numbers for Brad Beal Elite jumped in that final event on the Nike EYBL circuit.
“He was one of the outstanding shot blockers and defenders on the EYBL circuit this summer, and we feel he can really impact the game on the defensive side of the floor,” Underwood said on Tuesday. “He has the desire to be a great player, and his work ethic shows with the improvements he’s made offensively. He has vastly improved his back-to-the-basket game and has good touch shooting it out to the mid-range. We feel good about the addition of Jermaine to our frontcourt and the promising future he has ahead of him.”