By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Dusting off the orange-and-blue almanac, one can find that since 1957 with George Bon Salle and Harv Schmidt, a total of 56 players from the University of Illinois have had their names called in the NBA Draft.
Some of them have been flops (such as Frank Williams). Others have been average (Brian Cook, for example). And a handful have been quite good (Derek Harper and Eddie Johnson to name two.)
But not a one of them has ever been a true superstar.
Not until Deron Williams came dribble-driving along, that is.
These days, “D-Will” – he of the two Olympic gold medals and the current Sports Illustrated cover – has given the University of Illinois (for the first time in its proud basketball history) a brand-name star that Illini fans can be deeply proud of.
And in the coming years, Williams – having now been christened the face of the new-look Brooklyn Nets – could also become one of new Illini coach John Groce’s greatest recruiting assets. Those signs are beginning to show.
For example, Saturday at his home in Toronto, 6-foot-4 standout combo guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes – a current senior at Huntington Prep in West Virginia – will choose his college destination from the trio of Florida State, Connecticut and Illinois.
Many scouts believe Rathan-Mayes – nicknamed “XRM” – is leaning toward Florida State, where his father played basketball from 1988 to 1990. And with family in Connecticut, Rathan-Mayes also has strong ties to the home of the Huskies, also putting them in solid contention for his services.
Rathan-Mayes this week told NBCConnecticut.com, “It definitely plays a factor, my dad playing at Florida State. Not a lot of kids can say their dad played at the same school recruiting you. My dad being from Connecticut, me playing at UConn when I was younger, I think it would be just as special.”
Without any familial connections, Illinois is the clear outlier in XRM’s recruitment. Yet, the Illini are in the mix, thanks in large part to Groce’s dogged recruiting efforts and in no small part to Deron Williams’ orange-hued heritage.
“D-Will and Kobe are my favorite players. I pattern my game after D-Will a lot – big, scoring guard, physical,” Rathan-Mayes told the Champaign News-Gazette last month, helping to explain his Illini interest. “A lot of people say I play like him. Being compared to him is pretty special. That’s just an honor for me. I have a long way to go. It’s a lot of work left to do. But it’s somebody I look up to.”
And Illinois, at long last, has a superstar it can sell. Paul Klee, the Illini basketball beat writer for the News-Gazette, called it the “D-Will Effect.” And it could significantly affect Illinois basketball’s fortunes as Groce seeks to rebuild the sagging program.
Seven years ago, Williams helped propel the Illini into the Final Four when he drained a three-pointer to cap a mad rally from 15 points down against Arizona in the Elite Eight. That shot – the first time that Williams branded himself in America’s basketball consciousness – was in many ways Illinois’ “Laettner Moment.”
Not unlike the Duke great’s incredible buzzer-beater vs. Kentucky two decades ago, Williams’ three gave Illinois a trademark NCAA Tournament moment. I’ve long expected that shot by Williams to someday pay dividends for Illinois with the youngsters who were influenced by its impact.
But I never imagined that Williams would also develop into a bona fide trademark superstar, as well.
He has, though. And, in turn, Williams has become a basketball hero to the likes of Rathan-Mayes, who tweeted a screen cap of D-Will following him on Twitter after XRM’s official visit to Illinois last month.
Saturday, the Illini might not end up with XRM declaring to the world that he’s coming to Champaign to be “the next Deron Williams.” But my suspicion is that some day soon, with Williams’ continuing NBA ascent, somebody will.
Because, where there’s a D-Will, there may be a new way into the living rooms of top recruits.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.