College Sports

Illinois basketball coach Groce lauds Belleville East’s Pickett as clutch performer

Illinois officially strengthened its men’s basketball program Thursday when it confirmed the signings of guards Javon Pickett of Belleville East, Trent Frazier of Wellington High in West Palm Beach, Fla., and DaMonte Williams of Manual High in Peoria.

Illini coach John Groce said all three players will make a noticeable impact.

“Obviously, it’s a great, great day for us,” Groce said Thursday afternoon. “Trent, Javon, DaMonte, to have them officially, through the signing, as part of our family ... I certainly feel like they’ve been a part of it for a long time. The recruitment processes were very lengthy. We’ve gotten to know all three young men very well as people, as students, as players.

“We’re looking forward to coaching those guys and continuing to build our program. It was really important that we address ballhandling and playmaking, and we were able to do that with those three young men. We’re very excited to add them officially.”

Groce declined comment on the recruitment of 6-foot-10 senior Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis. Tilmon verbally committed to the Illini in July, but he did not sign Wednesday.

“I’m going to make the entire day about the three guys that have signed. I owe that to those three guys,” Groce said. “They’re special people, their families are special. It needs to be about them. So certainly, for today, I’m not going to discuss any recruiting other than the three young men who have signed.”

Pickett will continue the Illini’s connection to Belleville East. Senior Malcolm Hill, a senior at Illinois, graduated from East in 2013 and has enjoyed a solid career in Champaign.

The 6-5 Pickett averaged 23.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a junior at East and was a Class 3A-4A first-team All-State selection.

“Javon has the ability to score the ball,” Groce said. “He can stretch the floor. ... The thing I appreciate about him as well is whenever I’ve had a chance to personally go see him, it happened to be in big games against really athletic teams in rivalry games. He loves the big moment. He has played very well when there’s a lot at stake. I respect that about him a lot.”

Groce said it’s “a natural thing for all of us” to compare Pickett to Hill.

“I try not to do that, because in fairness I want Javon Pickett to be the best Javon Pickett that God intended him to be. And I want Malcolm Hill to be Malcolm Hill. But there are some similarities. They’re both bigger wings. Javon just has a knack to put the ball in the hole.

“He just has that gift where he can shoot the ball in from long-range (and) he can play in the mid-range. He finds the ball. The ball’s like a magnet to him a little bit. He’s a crafty offensive rebounder. He knows where the ball’s at and anticipates where it’s at.”

Frazier averaged 21 points, six rebounds and two steals as a junior at Wellington. He committed to Illinois in August after considering Memphis, Kansas State, Seton Hall, Georgia and others.

“Playmaking at a really high level,” Groce said of the 6-2 Frazier’s No. 1 asset. “He’s as good as any (playmaker) in the country. He’s great at pick-and-rolls. He has the ability to get his own shot. He’s great in transition and up-tempo situations. He’s good athletically. He has the ability to make guys better as well as score efficiently. He’s a good fit for how we like to play.”

Groce said Williams, who is 6-3, is very much like Frazier. Williams is the son of former Illinois point guard Frank Williams. DaMonte Williams also had offers from Indiana, Cincinnati, Bradley, Illinois State and Illinois-Chicago, but the Illini always were No. 1 on his list.

Williams averaged 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals last season. He joined Pickett on the Class 3A-4A All-State first team.

“He has a lot of similar characteristics,” Groce said. “He’s a little bit bigger. I think he’s a multipositional defender, which makes him really, really valuable. He can guard a lot of different people and different types of players. He also has that ability to playmake. He can get in the paint, he can make others better, he can see things. He can put balls on time, on target. He also has that ability to score.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm