There’s a ton to be excited about with this year’s Illini basketball squad.
Despite losing his top five scorers from a team that won a share of the Big Ten regular season title, Brad Underwood was able to masterfully replenish his roster with talent, securing commitments from Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon Jr. and Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer to pair with the country’s 11th-ranked recruiting class (per 247 Sports).
Perhaps the most exciting piece the Illini have in my opinion, however, is returning sophomore RJ Melendez.
Some of the Big Ten’s brightest stars over the last few seasons—such as Johnny Davis, Keegan Murray, and Jaden Ivey—took massive leaps from their freshman to sophomore years. While Melendez didn’t play as big of a role for Illinois that those three did on their respective teams as freshmen, I think RJ has all the tools to have a similar breakout.
Although given limited opportunity as a freshman — thanks in large part to Illinois’ plethora of veteran experience — Melendez showed plenty of flashes of potential future stardom, especially late in the season.
He played a huge role in the Illini’s slim victory over Northwestern in Evanston on January 29, providing a spark off the bench both offensively and defensively, scoring 6 points and contributing to several key sequences on the defensive end down the stretch.
Shortly thereafter, he had by far his best stretch of the season, scoring 32 points while tallying 10 rebounds and 4 steals in a 3-game span against Purdue, Northwestern (a second time) and Rutgers on an absurdly efficient 8-11 from the floor. Unfortunately, we never really got to see him build off those games, as he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy which knocked him out of action for three games and interrupted the rhythm he had begun to build heading into postseason play.
But this didn’t stop him from making his presence felt in Illinois’s Round of 32 matchup versus Houston, a game in which Brad Underwood called on him for a season-high 20 minutes in an attempt to mitigate a subpar performance from his veterans.
RJ finished with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in the game which included this momentum-changing dunk and subsequently, one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen as a basketball fan (I’m still seething about it to this day):
This was called a technical foul. pic.twitter.com/Fuj8kjGTXR— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) March 20, 2022
On the season, Melendez averaged just 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. Extrapolated over 40 minutes however, that translates to 18.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. While this is an admittedly flawed analytical method, it shows just how much of an impact Melendez was able to make in his mere 8.5 minutes per contest as a freshman.
Just imagine what he can do in a far more expanded role, one that should be available to him with the departures of Alfonso Plummer, DaMonte Williams, and Jacob Grandison at the wing position.
Melendez’s efficiency over his freshman campaign was particularly impressive. Though we’re drawing from a small sample, he shot 56.9% from the floor and 60% from 3 on the season. His 1.217 points per possession registered in the 99th percentile among all college basketball players nationally.
The eye test suggests that this efficiency — to an extent — can be continued over a much larger sample due to his willingness to attack the rim; take high-percentage, open 3-point shots; and get out and run in transition for some HAMMERS.
Speaking of his transition play, that’s something that can really help take his game to another level. Melendez made the most of his transition possessions last season, scoring 17 points across 10 opportunities, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Just look at him fly down the court to create a fast break out of thin air on this play:
In order to become a star on the wing for the Illini, Melendez will have to be a reliable threat from outside. So far, all signs point to that being a strong possibility as a sophomore. His over 50% shooting as a high school senior at Central Pointe Academy and 60% (9-15) shooting as a college freshman from 3-point range prove he’s more than capable of being a high-level spot up shooter. He’s got a quick release and smooth stroke that should create a deadly kick out option for Illinois’ young guards off dribble penetration.
To fully blossom, he’ll need to be able to create for himself consistently off the dribble. His natural quickness and athletic ability should allow him to take that step with enough ball-handling work this offseason.
As Brad Underwood highlighted last spring, he has “a tremendous amount of gifts” athletically that can make for a true 3-level scorer with the right development.
One of the biggest question marks Melendez faced when he came to Champaign last summer was whether or not he’d be able to handle the physicality of Big Ten play with his relatively skinny 6’7 frame — he weighed in at 180 pounds on the first day of summer workouts in 2021.
By the sound of Brad Underwood’s latest press conference, he and strength coach Adam Fletcher have been working hard to ease those concerns.
“RJ was 210 the other day which is the first time he’s hit that,” Underwood said a few weeks ago.
Pairing improved strength and physicality with his already elite athleticism, Melendez will be a scary sight for opposing Big Ten teams this year.
Here’s a few more RJ Melendez metrics from his freshman season that I haven’t yet covered:
- 15-10 assist-to-turnover ratio (a perfectly fine ratio for a non-primary ball-handler)
- 79th percentile nationally as a defender (according to Synergy Sports Technology)
- 16.4% defensive rebound percentage (tied for second on the team with Coleman Hawkins, only behind Kofi Cockburn)
- 133.1 offensive rating (first on the team)
- 11.5 box plus/minus (first on the team)
Whenever I’ve been asked who I think Illinois’s best player will be this upcoming season, my answer has been RJ Melendez.
I know, it’s extremely bold given all the firepower this group has. But with each new aspect I explore about Melendez’s game, I fall more and more in love with it.
All the tools are there to not only become a great college player but carve out an extremely successful NBA career as well, something that this Illinois basketball program has struggled to produce recently. The modern NBA is dominated by wings, especially ones with length, versatility, and innate scoring ability; all things RJ possesses.
I mean just look at these practice pictures the social media team posted...
It doesn’t matter who you are. RJ WILL DUNK ON YOU.
I don’t think his end-of-season numbers will be quite on par with the likes of Murray, Davis, and Ivey due to all the weapons this Illini team possesses, but I really do think RJ will follow in the footsteps of those guys in becoming a breakout star in the Big Ten as a sophomore. Just like them, I’ll go as far as to say RJ hears his name called in the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft.
Be sure to come back to this column when he does. I’ll be waiting.