Walking out of the Fighting Illini’s 80-74 loss to Indiana on Sunday, it was hard to not feel disappointed.
The Hoosiers would hold on to win a wild game after Illinois blew another late lead, an alarming trend for John Groce’s team. Despite the evident letdown, I couldn’t ignore the prevailing thought in my mind.
Kendrick Nunn, a sophomore from Chicago powerhouse Simeon, is becoming a star.
Following his career-high 25-point performance in Evanston last week, Nunn hung 24 more on Sunday. The highly recruited lefty has improved across the board in every single category this season, a testament to Groce’s ability to develop talent. More importantly, Nunn was Groce’s first “big time” recruit since taking over for the embattled Bruce Weber.
To see a player like that on the right track is obviously a good sign. But none of that compares to the significance of Kendrick Nunn’s hometown, and alma mater.
Nunn’s laundry list of scholarship offers included programs like Arizona, Ohio State, UCLA, Xavier, and Marquette; earning him recognition as the second best player out of Illinois after Simeon running mate and eventual NBA lottery pick, Jabari Parker.
For Illinois, that means he’s the most sought after player from the Chicagoland area to set foot on campus since Dee Brown. (To me, Jereme Richmond doesn’t count, because he was committed to Bruce Weber for three years.) And if you go by Chicago Public League standards, Kendrick Nunn is the best player to wear the orange and blue since Kiwane Garris and Deon Thomas.
From worst to first, I just listed the top three scorers in Illinois program history.
Not so ironically, Thomas is also a Simeon alum. Before him, Nick Anderson was the Simeon star in Champaign and a key part of the iconic 1989 Illinois team that went to the Final Four. Both players also wore #25 for the Illini, which is the number Kendrick Nunn currently wears.
Three weeks after Nunn committed to Groce, Simeon teammate Jaylon Tate followed suit. And 14 months later, current Wolverine senior DJ Williams did the same.
See where I’m going with this?
To invoke even more Simeon nostalgia, Groce has pulled out the old-school Flyin’ Illini uniforms (as seen above) twice already this season. Once in the Braggin’ Rights tango with Mizzou, and another time in Sunday’s loss to Indiana. Seeing both of those games live, I couldn’t help but think Kendrick Nunn resembled a modern day Anderson.
I was fortunate enough to watch the Illinois-Indiana game from the floor Sunday, and the only thing more apparent than Nunn’s talent was his confidence. He’s shooting lights out, passing better, playing tenacious defense, and getting to/above the rim with increased frequency.
Besides the obvious boost for Illinois the remainder of his career, Nunn’s rise is instrumental for re-opening Simeon’s (and Chicago’s) rich pipeline of basketball talent. While it’s easy to feel disappointed with the Illinois program right now, try to think of what Kendrick Nunn means for Illini hoops moving forward.
Because since leaving Champaign on Sunday, it’s all I’ve thought about.