D.J. Williams chooses Illinois; first in Simeon history to commit early

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Coach John Groce and Illinois basketball are on a recruiting roll. How big? Groce and his staff can even get a Simeon product to commit early.

The Wolverines’ D.J. Williams, a versatile 6-7 junior ranked among the top players in the country, became the first Illini recruit in the Class of 2015. He also is the first Simeon player in history to commit before his senior year.

“I just love that school,” Williams said of Illinois. “And it’s just the way they recruited me. They’ve been so loyal and have showed me so much love.”

Williams, who had offers from Florida, DePaul and growing interest from several high-majors, is a consensus top 50 player in the Class of 2015 and is ESPN.com’s 29th ranked player in the nation.

He has made multiple trips to the Illinois campus and been around the basketball program, which gave him a comfort level that made his decision easier.

“I think coach Groce is one of the best coaches in the country,” Williams said. “I have a great relationship with the coaches there. Coach P [assistant coach Paris Parham] is my man, and he’s been recruiting me since the day he got the job at Illinois.

‘‘I was able to spend time there, and when I would watch their practices I could just see myself playing for them, playing at Illinois.”

Williams will be part of a class that will follow the stellar 2014 class, which is headlined by a pair of top 50 recruits: point guard Quentin Snider and 6-7 forward Leron Black.

After waiting in the wings last year behind Simeon’s upperclassmen, led by All-American Jabari Parker, Williams becomes a focal point this season for a Wolverines team shooting for an unprecedented fifth consecutive state championship.

“Committing now does take a little pressure off and puts the focus on getting better as a player and winning another state championship,” Williams said.

Williams is the prototype of a small forward with upside and untapped potential. He is a solid ballhandler with good passing skills, a smooth shooting stroke and three-point range.

He joins a long list of Simeon products who have played at Illinois over the past three decades, including Illinois’ all-time leading scorer, Deon Thomas. Current freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate recently added to the Simeon-to-Illinois pipeline that includes Nick Anderson, Ervin Small, Bryant Notree, Kevin Turner, Stan Simpson and Calvin Brock. But Williams is the first to commit prior to his senior year.

Under former coach, the late Bob Hambric, Simeon players were not allowed to commit or sign before the spring signing period of their senior season. Simeon coach Robert Smith, however, believes players need to adjust to the changing recruiting culture.

“So many kids are getting offers early now and committing earlier, so you don’t want to miss out on a great opportunity and situation by waiting,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the family and about them feeling comfortable with the choice and the timing of the decision.”

Smith says the Simeon connection to the Illinois basketball program began with Hambric and continues today. He understands “not everyone can go to Illinois,” but like Hambric, he sees the benefits of playing for the major state university.

“He wanted kids to stay home, to go to Illinois,” Smith said of Hambric. “But he always believed it was more than just basketball. It was about life after basketball, and nine times out of 10 they’re going to be living in Illinois, so it can serve those kids well to stay at home.”

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