By Joe Henricksen
Illinois coach Bruce Weber continues to fill the stable as the Fighting Illini picked up another impressive commitment as promising Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius gave a verbal commitment Friday afternoon after visiting Champaign with his family this past Sunday.
Egwu was torn. Illinois clearly had the early lead in the Egwu recruitment at one point and were in on him early. However, a September visit to Purdue, which those around Egwu called a “grand slam,” evened things up to the point where up this week it was 50/50. There was talk that Purdue had even nudged ahead earlier this week.
The choice was difficult on so many levels. You’re talking about two terrific college programs that offered everything Egwu was looking for educationally and from a basketball standpoint. You’re talking about two respected head coaches and two programs that are clean and do things the right way. And you’re talking about a kid who keeps things in perspective and is choosing a college and basketball program for the right reasons.
Illinois offered the business school that Egwu was seeking from an education standpoint, as well as a familiarity — Illinois was one of the very first schools in on Egwu — as the Illinois staff clearly pointed out he was an Illinois prospect with the opportunity to play for the state school.
In the never-ending search for big men, Illinois was able to secure a commitment from the best big man the state has to offer — this side of Robinson senior Meyers Leonard, who will sign with Illinois next month. It basically came down to Purdue and Illinois for the 6-9 Egwu, who has climbed into national top 100 lists.
Much has been made of the rapid progression of Egwu, who picked up basketball only 30 months ago. He was barely a project two and a half years ago, so it’s remarkable to think how far he has come. Though the speed of the game still can give him some fits from time to time, he continues to get better and better as he gets more seasoning as a player and more game experience.
However, having not played much basketball, he has fewer bad habits to break. Plus, everything in the game is so fresh and new to him. He’s like a sponge, taking in anything and everything coaches throw his way, whether it be St. Ignatius coach Rich Kehoe or his AAU coach, Mike Mullins of the Illinois Wolves. He wants to learn, he wants to get better and he sees the progress he is making and, with it, comes added confidence. The Hoops Report can’t recall a player who has come this far in such a short time.
No, he’s not even close to a finished product and is likely an ideal redshirt candidate. The casual basketball fan and observer may very well leave a gym wondering what all the fuss is on a given day. He’s still very raw on the offensive end, sometimes ineffective. Yes, he will struggle maintaining his position in the post, getting pushed out. And is footwork is certainly a work in progress.
However, for comparisons sake, he’s definitely ahead as a player and prospect as current Illinois redshirt freshman Stan Simpson was at the same stage of their careers and possesses more upside. Egwu has a developing jump-hook and his 15-foot jumper looks much better, more fluid than it did 12 or even six months ago. Those two offensive attributes look as though they are on the verge of becoming consistent weapons in the not-so-distant future. When he runs the floor it’s almost comical that he’s 6-9 and growing with how fast he gets up and down. He has that unique combination of size, mobility and coordination. Defensively he’s already a presence in blocking and altering shots with his long arms and timing.
Again, what is crucial for Illinois and any program at any level is getting some type of quality in a big man. There just aren’t many out there. And unlike many other prospects who plateau and don’t get a whole lot better, Egwu continues his rapid rise, which is due in large part to his coachability and love for a new game.
Illinois, which now has commitments from two of the top six prospects in the Hoops Report’s Class of 2011 player rankings in Mt. Carmel’s Tracy Abrams and Egwu, will continue to try and fill up their Class of 2011 recruiting class. The Illini remain in the mix for Rock Island guard Chasson Randle, as well as superstar guard Bradley Beal out of St. Louis, 6-6 James Siakam of Carbondale Brehm Prep, 6-6 Sam Thompson of Whitney Young, 6-5 guard Devin Langford of Huntsville, Alabama, 6-8 Mike Shaw of De La Salle and several others.