By Joe Henricksen
The days of Illinois coach Bruce Weber being cautious with his scholarship offers are long gone.
After being in the business for three decades and seeing how the culture and landscape of recruiting have changed, Weber has adjusted and become ultra-aggressive. The coaching veteran no longer cringes at the thought of seriously pursuing -- to the point of offering -- a freshman in high school.
Weber and the Illini offered a pair of talented and special Whitney Young freshmen on Thursday, with a pair of scholarship offers going to 6-8 Jahlil Okafor and 6-6 Paul White. The two are at the top of the already-hyped Class of 2014, which follows up an impressive 2013 bunch as well. Illinois can only hope the trend of some past early offers being snapped up -- Jereme Richmond in November of his freshman year and Tracy Abrams in December of his sophomore year -- comes to fruition again.
In comparison to the recruiting practices of five or six years ago, an early offer from Weber now means business. He and his staff have the desire and are intent on securing top talent and keeping the in-state stars home, with the goal of trying to get it done earlier than later. Illinois continues to show and let it be known they are in it to land the state's elite when it comes to the current crop of sophomores and freshmen.
While the offers have gone out to White and Okafor, the focus in 2013 clearly remains the tandem of Simeon's Jabari Parker and Whitney Young's Tommy Hamilton. Those two have become a priority. Combined with the current young talent on campus, this is the group of players -- Parker, Hamilton, White and Okafor -- the Illinois staff believes can elevate the program to another level. Illinois basketball is dreaming back-to-back recruiting classes for the ages.
The Hoops Report -- and many others -- have raved about Okafor, a true big man that doesn't come along very often. And the fact he's being raved about when he has yet to play a high school game says a lot. But Okafor, who grabbed headlines last winter with an offer while in 8th grade from DePaul, is a physical force and specimen. In addition to the size and huge frame, Okafor has talent and even more room to grow with the bloodlines he possesses. He's mature for a player with his size and youth, including soft hands and a feel around the basket.
While Okafor may have the bigger name, the Hoops Report believes White has just as much upside. However, as is the case with many young players who have yet to have much experience playing at a high level, White doesn't even realize just how good he can be. That will come in his natural progression as a player. In time White will evolve into the prototypical point forward. He has the size and skill to go with a smooth, creative game and a bag of tricks, which is atypical in a prospect so young.
With Okafor and White, who will be a part of coach Tyrone Slaughter's loaded Whitney Young program, the recruiting buzz is just beginning. The two will be sporting high-major offers from around the country sooner than later. This tandem is that good. While the sky is the limit for both of these prospects, in the end -- as it always does with the young and hyped -- it will depend on how bad each of them wants it and the work ethic and drive that develops over the next four years.