Simeon senior guard Kendrick Nunn may not be the savior of the Illinois basketball program, but he may just attract that player.
Nunn, who committed to the Illini on Saturday, certainly has basketball gifts. He can shoot. He can defend. He’ll play hard. He’ll do what is asked of him.
Whether he’s a future all-American or has the NBA in his future, that’s difficult to say now. He’s a 6-foot-2 shooting guard who is ranked No. 56 in the country and is the 17th best shooting guard by ESPN and is ranked as high as 36th and low as 60th by other national recruiting sites. Within Illinois, City/Suburban Hoops Report recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen ranks Nunn behind Simeon teammate Jabari Parker, the nation’s No. 1 player, and Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill, another Illinois recruit.
Nunn’s value to Illinois goes well beyond that, though.
For one, he’s the first Chicago recruit for Illinois first-year coach John Groce. It doesn’t hurt that Nunn is also from the state’s premier program. Secondly, Nunn is the type of player who seems to fit into any system and tends to be on winning teams. Simeon and the U17 USA national team can attest to that. Finally, others players appear to like him as a person and teammate.
All of those reasons add up to Nunn possibly being the most important Illini recruit in the past decade.
“You have to turn on the spigot at some point,” ESPN senior national basketball analyst Dave Telep said. “Anytime you can get a bona fide Big Ten player, he’s from the city you want to make some inroads, I think it’s a significant commitment.
“I think he’s respected because of his toughness. Guys enjoy playing with him. He’s consistent in who he is. I think off the floor he’s engaging with other kids. He’s got a lot to like about him from him personally to his play. He’s easygoing. He’s a good player without being a high-volume scorer. He just fits in.”
Simeon coach Robert Smith has witnessed that effect on his team for the last three years, which have aligned with three consecutive state championships.
“He’s a winner, and he’s tough,” Smith said. “He’s a basketball player. Guys like to play with him. Guys know he’s going to give it 110 (percent) every time he steps out there. Guys like the way he plays the game.”
Rathan-Mayes, who is ranked No. 23 by ESPN, is down to Connecticut, Florida State and Illinois. He is making an official visit to Illinois this weekend.
“They’re different guys,” Telep said of Nunn and Rathan-Mayes. “Most college basketball teams are playing multiple guards. I would imagine they can play together. Xavier is a scorer. He’s a long-range shooter with plenty of confidence.”
Jackson, who is ranked No. 18, is thought to be considering Illinois and Notre Dame. He’s making an official visit to Notre Dame this weekend. Telep believes Jackson is near a decision, and the Irish are the team to beat.
Nunn said Wednesday he has spoken to both players and is hopeful they will join him at Illinois.
“Hopefully bring Illinois back to that team where there was Deron Williams, Dee Brown and three guards,” Nunn said. “I hope people open their eyes about Illinois. I think I’m a good teammate. I’ll push you and get better. I’m someone who people like to play with. I’ve been pretty successful.
“My goal is hopefully we can start to make history, make it to the Final Four and hopefully win a national championship.”
Okafor’s dad, Chukwudi Okafor, said he didn’t necessarily believe Nunn’s commitment would influence his son.
“Kendrick is a good kid,” Chukwudi said. “I love him as a player and watching him this year. It doesn’t really have an impact on Jahlil’s decision. It doesn’t help or hinder. … The only kid I know Jahlil said he’d like to play with is Tyus (Jones). I’d be surprised if they didn’t end up at the same school together.”
Nunn also isn’t giving up on his nationally-ranked teammate. Parker released a list of 10 schools in July, but Illinois did not make the cut. Nunn said he was willing to give Parker one last pitch.
“I haven’t talked to Jabari yet,” Nunn said. “Definitely I’ll try. If we get Jabari, that’ll turn around the school. I haven’t talked to him, but I’m pretty sure I will.”
Whether Nunn can pull off that miracle, Illinois fans have already shown him plenty of love. Nunn said he’s received numerous congratulatory tweets and phone calls. He said his Twitter followers have increased by about a 1,000 since Saturday. He had 3,564 followers as of Wednesday evening.
“They just show me a lot of loves, show me a lot of tweets,” Nunn said. “It’s a lot of attention. It’s good to know that they love me there. When I get there, I’ll be happy to make the decision.”