'His skill set is incredible'

‘His skill set is incredible’

Brad Underwood and his staff are fired up about the new brand of basketball that will be on display in Champaign, as they’ve constructed a roster that is geared towards speed, floor spacing and versatility at both ends.

Still, the Illini have big shoes to fill at center with two-time All-American Kofi Cockburn putting his collegiate career behind to make a run at sticking in the NBA. Cockburn will go down as one of the most dominant players in program history and he deserves a ton of credit for Illinois’ run of success.

That said, his exit gives the Illini a chance to shift gears with their play style and it opens the door for Baylor transfer big man Dain Dainja — a top-100 recruit in the 2020 class — to show what he can do. It’s quite the contrast to go from having one of the most accomplished big men in the country and then turn to a guy in Dainja who has played a total of nine minutes in college basketball. Of course, 6-foot-10 junior Coleman Hawkins will be a factor at the five as well.

Dainja is an unknown at this level for the time being, but he’s really impressed the Illinois staff since arriving on campus back in December. Illini big man coach Geoff Alexander spoke on what’s stood out about the redshirt sophomore.

“His work ethic, first and foremost,” Alexander told Illini Inquirer on Tuesday at the Fighting Illini Tailgate Tour in Rockford. “That dude works like a fiend — almost like an Ayo (Dosunmu) with his schedule in that he’s regimented. Three times a day you know where he’s at and what he’s doing. You see that in his body. He and Fletch have spent countless days and hours together. His body’s getting right. He’s looking more athletic. And his skill set is incredible.”

Underwood told reporters back in April that Dainja, who was 290 pounds when he arrived at Illinois, has dropped around 20 pounds. Transforming his body has been a huge key in tapping into the potential he showed as a high school prospect.

“Man, that process has been crazy ever since I got here,” Dainja said this spring. “The first day I got here, we wrote out a plan for what we’re going to do and we just attacked it ever since I’ve been here. I feel like that’s been the best thing for me ever since I got here, just shaping my body up. I feel like I took tremendous steps with that, me and Fletch. I really appreciate Fletch. Every day he’s on me nutrition-wise, stuff I can eat, stuff I can eat late at night. He’s on me all the time about it. Texting me, calling me.”

In addition to his work in the weight room, Dainja has gotten to showcase that diverse skill set on the practice court. The Illini love his ball-handling and passing, as well as his comfort playing outside of the paint and how he’s light on his feet at his size. Dainja battled Cockburn on the scout team during the second semester and the staff was encouraged by the results. Alexander discussed what he saw.

“Two really good players,” he said. “Obviously, Dain’s not as big as Kofi but his length bothered him. He’s super, super long with a 7-foot, 7-inch wingspan. His reach is higher than Kofi’s. So, he may not be as big but he can play as big. There were days that Dain had his way with Kofi. Obviously, Kofi had his moments against Dain. But it was fun to be around, fun to see. Very, very competitive. I think you’re going to like Dain’s mental edge that he brings.”

The Illini want to utilize Dainja on the perimeter and in the high post quite a bit. They feel like they can run offense through him, while forcing the opposing bigs away from the rim. That will allow Terrence Shannon Jr., RJ Melendez and others to play downhill and attack the basket off the bounce. Illinois also believes that Dainja can push the ball up the court in transition after securing a rebound.

“If you think about going from having Kofi in (the paint) to having Dain on the perimeter, it’s going to allow us to play faster, it’s going to open up driving lanes to get to the rim,” Alexander said. “You’re going to see a completely different offensive basketball team. Our speed is going to get back to where it was pre-Kofi. Our pace of play and number of possessions were down big time last year.”

In order to really stress Big Ten foes like Zach Edey and Hunter Dickinsonthe Illini want to see Dainja be more consistent as a shooter.

“We’re working with him on his jump shot,” Alexander said. “Also, we’re trying to get him to eat up space and get downhill almost like you see with Giannis. Put him in the middle of the floor and the defense sits back. I’m obviously not saying he’s Giannis, but that’s kind of the thinking we have with him in terms of how they’ll guard him.”

‘Life after Kofi’ is going to be different, but with respect to a player whose jersey will hang in the rafters, the Illini feel like some of those differences can play to their advantage — especially if Dainja turns out to be the kind of player that they envision.

“Our ability to be versatile is going to be incredible,” Alexander said. “You may see a lineup out there with 6’5” to 6’9” and you may have Dain Dainja bringing the ball up.”

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