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Four Illini players have 2023 NBA Draft potential

Who has a chance of getting their name called on draft night?

Jimmy V Classic - Illinois v Texas Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The 2023 NBA draft is just under five months away, and the Illini haven’t even completed their regular season. Conference play is heating up, and the Illini (14-6, 5-4) are embroiled in a battle to avoid the bubble. The coming weeks will go a long way to determine the short- and long-term futures of several players on the Illini roster who have NBA aspirations.

This year’s roster faced significant roster turnover. But none of that churn resulted in a single Illini player from the 2021-22 season making an NBA roster. This year’s squad could buck that trend with a vengeance.

So let’s talk about the 2023 NBA Draft prospects on the Illinois roster.

But first, three disclaimers.

  1. The NBA comparisons are stylistic and speculative in nature. They are not forecasts for where any of these players will be selected.
  2. I’m not going to discuss the players who are highly unlikely to enter the draft or be on an NBA roster for the 2023-24 season. So I won’t be discussing Jayden Epps, Dain Dainja, or Ty Rodgers.
  3. The ideal NBA fit has nothing to do with where I think they will be selected.

Coleman Hawkins

NBA Comparison: Joe Ingles

Ideal NBA Fit: Brooklyn Nets

Continental Tire Main Event - Virginia v Illinois Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jonathan Givony, writing for Draft Express at the time, said the following of then-NBA prospect Joe Ingles:

“…things didn’t work out all that well for Australian Joe Ingles, who really had a tough week. Ingles’ perimeter shot wasn’t falling for him right from the get-go, partially due to poor shot-selection, but also because of the fact that he seemed to lose his confidence after he had a few open looks rim out. It wasn’t hard to see the talent. Ingles is an above average athlete with great size for the small forward spot, is capable of creating his own shot and seems to have good court vision… but he wasn’t able to put that together... At some point he started getting frustrated and seemed to force the issue…”

If that doesn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins, I don’t know what does. Hawkins brings tantalizing versatility to a package completed by mind-blowing mental errors. He clearly has potential to play with an extraordinary basketball IQ, but sometimes his judgment disappears for long stretches of games. But his ability to pass, hit shots, and defend makes him a potential late-first round pick this year.

While the Nuggets seem like a great fit for Hawkins’ skill set, I went with the Nets because they could use another playmaker with size. Kevin Durant has a similar physical profile to Hawkins, so Hawkins can spell future Hall of Famer as part of Brooklyn’s second team. When Ben Simmons and (Name Redacted) are not on the floor, Hawkins allows Joe Harris and Patty Mills to focus on spotting up while he steps into the secondary facilitator role. With Nic Claxton’s emergence as a rim runner and rebounder, Hawkins can play in his natural roles while using his size against opposing wings defensively.

How can he maximize his draft stock? Play like he did against Wisconsin. When his shot is falling, Hawkins can make teams pay for leaving him open. His ballhandling ability and passing skill means you have to respect him with the ball in his hands from all over the court. But when he’s playing like his six 3-point shot performance against the Badgers, he completes the circle of being a lethal threat.

Matthew Mayer

NBA Comparison: Shane Battier

Ideal NBA Fit: Oklahoma City Thunder

Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

A month ago, Mayer looked like a fringe UDFA/late second round flyer. He had been inconsistent and passive in the Illini offense. The much ballyhooed leadership ability was not evident nor was the scoring potential that was expected with a bigger role.

Then he went 5-of-5 from downtown at Madison Square Garden against Texas. Since then, he’s been a central figure in the Illini offense. He has also increased his rebounding output with five games of 6+ rebounds since December.

And then he had to go and block six shots against Michigan State.

That completely changed his perception in some circles. He’s quietly been averaging over two blocks per game since December. This ability as a versatile rim protector will no doubt involve him in more NBA discussions.

While he projects as more of a second-round pick, his shot-blocking ability and improving in-game perimeter output make him a legitimate “3 and D” prospect who could make a roster.

And yes, my comp for him was a lottery pick. But Shane Battier was known for his defensive prowess and shooting ability. He was willing to do whatever his team needed him to do to win a national championship. He wasn’t what experts called a freak athlete, but instead a cerebral, physical, versatile player who excelled on both ends of the floor.

I love the fit in Oklahoma City. They are a team full of long, versatile misfit toys who are a League Pass must watch. They have so much future potential that Mayer almost becomes a veteran leader due to his five years of college experience. That could be a great role for the affable, confident Texan.

Mayer has national title pedigree, and could seamlessly fit on an NBA bench from a talent perspective.

How can he maximize his draft stock? Keep blocking shots. If he continues to emerge as a premier rim protector to complement his offensive versatility, he has a chance to be a 2023 NBA Draft selection.

RJ Melendez

NBA Comparison: OG Anunoby

Ideal NBA Fit: Golden State Warriors

Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

So we’ve reached the controversial portion of the article.

My 2023 NBA Draft projection for RJ Melendez is based less on his productivity this season (6PPG, 3RPG, and 38% shooting from the field) and more on the player he can become.

Orlando Antigua saw a long, springy, versatile wing when he recruited Melendez. And that tantalizing upside is still there. He has yet to consistently employ those talents in games.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Melendez hasn’t shot the ball well this season. He’s shooting 27% from behind the arc. And if that percentage doesn’t significantly improve, he’s unlikely to make an NBA roster next year.

But he has shown a willingness to do whatever the team needs him to do when his shot isn’t falling. He hustles on both ends and makes significant contributions on the glass.

Now theoretically, his minutes could decrease with the impending return of Luke Goode and the progress of Ty Rodgers.

But if he’s able to fight for his rotation spot and continue to work on improving the consistency of his shot, he could make an NBA roster. I could see him in an up-and-down role with an NBA team and their G-League counterpart. He could fit in San Francisco with a squad that is straddling the fence between building for the future and maximizing a competitive window. They have developed Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, and Jonathan Kuminga in a similar fashion. Melendez can develop his shot working behind arguably the two greatest shooters in the history of the game.

OG Anunoby has a similar athletic profile. And yes, it took him a while to get his NBA legs under him. But now he’s become a versatile defender and effective three point shooter with the ability to attack the rim and change games.

How can he maximize his draft stock? He can hit more shots at a higher rate on a consistent basis. Yes, that sounds like a drastic departure from the remainder of this season. But if he goes on an offensive heater, he could find himself with professional opportunities at season’s end.

If not, perhaps he can best maximize his draft stock by coming back to Champaign for another season.

Terrence Shannon Jr.

NBA Comparison: Anthony Edwards

Ideal NBA Fit: Milwaukee Bucks

Illinois v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

So this one is a bit easier. Shannon has played like an NBA draft pick for a good chunk of the season. He’s leading the team in scoring and put up an all-time classic Illini game against a tough UCLA squad. He’s electric in transition and plays with an anger that is often beautiful to watch.

When his outside shot is falling, he is pretty unguardable.

And when it’s not, he’s still a devastating slasher who is a menace when he gets downhill.

I know his NBA comparison is a former No. 1 overall pick. And perhaps Edwards doesn’t get enough attention because he plays for one of the most incompetent sports franchises in history. But Shannon could be a two-way force. His high IQ and ridiculous athletic ability are exactly what NBA clubs seek in wings.

Shannon’s outside shot has been inconsistent. But all indications are that he dedicates extra time to working on the flaws in his game. That sounds like another former Chicago Public League star who got buckets for the Illini and carved out a successful niche in the NBA.

Despite Milwaukee’s championship aspirations, they are a putrid transition team. A second team featuring Bobby Portis and Shannon would be a more aggressive, impactful unit. And with Shannon’s ability to get downhill and attack the rim, I think Milwaukee has a forward who is pretty good in those situations.

How can he maximize his draft stock? Put this Illini team on his back down the stretch. If he becomes the kind of player who can lead a team through a long tournament run, he’ll hear his name called sooner rather than later on draft day. Leadership and consistent outside shooting are the areas that will round out his potential as an NBA starter.