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.
Simeon's D.J. Williams, a 6-7 junior ranked among the top players in the country, becomes the first Illini recruit in the Class of 2015. He also becomes the first Simeon player in history to commit before his senior year.
"I just love that school," says Williams of his future college destination. "And it's just the way they recruited me. They've been so loyal and have showed me so much love."
The ultra-versatile Williams, who had offers from Florida, DePaul and growing interest from several high-majors, is a consensus top 50 player in the country in the Class of 2015 and is ESPN.com's 29th ranked player in the nation.
Williams has made multiple trips to the Illinois campus and been around the basketball program over the past year. That comfort level made it easier to pull the trigger early.
"I think coach Groce is one of the best coaches in the country," says Williams. "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."
After waiting in the wings behind last year's stellar senior class, led by All-American Jabari Parker, Williams becomes a focal point this season for a Simeon team shooting for an unprecedented fifth straight 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," says Williams.
Blessed with size and skill, Williams is the prototype small forward with upside and untapped potential. A more fluid athlete than explosive, Williams is a solid ballhandler and unselfish passer for his size on the perimeter with a smooth shooting stroke and range out to the three-point line.
Williams 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 Illinois freshmen and Simeon graduates 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 its former legendary coach, the late Bob Hambric, Simeon players were not even allowed to commit or sign before the spring signing period of their senior year. Simeon coach Robert Smith, however, believes players do need to adjust to the changing culture in recruiting.
"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 points out. "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," says Smith of his mentor, 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."
For Illinois, Williams jump-starts the Class of 2015 recruiting class, with St. Rita's Charles Matthews and Plainfield East's Aaron Jordan among the local players Groce and his staff are heavily involved with. Groce hopes to close out his stellar 2014 recruiting class with a bang next week as he hopes to add Curie star Cliff Alexander to the mix.
Illinois has already secured commitments from top 50 talents in point guard Quentin Snider out of Louisville and 6-7 forward Leron Black out of Memphis, along with Champaign Centennial's 6-9 Michael Finke.
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