PMP 2024: Dealer's Choice

PMP 2024: Dealer's Choice
Photo Credit: Illinois Sports Information Department

For some, when they make their Pick My Post donation, their answer to my "what article do you want written?" email is "whatever article you want to write." We call that Dealer's Choice around here. And since these PMP articles are all unlocked and available to all, I try to make them something everyone would want to read. That choice today: revisiting my 2026 article. Thanks to Todd V. for his donation and here's his PMP Dealer's Choice.

In the "2026" article I wrote on April 17th, I made the argument that Underwood's recruiting this spring was about the 2026 season, not the 2025 season. Here's a snippet from what I wrote to get you up to speed:

I mean, just look at this list of transfers the last four years:

2021-22: 5th-year senior (Plummer), 3rd-year junior (Payne)
2022-23: 5th-year senior (Mayer), 4th-year senior (Shannon), 3rd-year redshirt sophomore (Dainja)
2023-24: 5th-year senior (Domask), 5th-year senior (Guerrier), 5th-year senior (Harmon)
2024-25 (so far): Sophomore, Sophomore, Junior, Junior

That's a very clear shift. Josh's tweet on April 2nd absolutely nailed it. Instead of supplementing the returning roster with experienced plug-and-play players from the portal (as he's done the last three years), Brad Underwood seems to be building the 2026 team in April of 2024.

I'm not saying he's sacrificing 2025. He noted last night at the Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser that Marcus Domask is applying for a Palcho-like 6th year (attempting, like Palcho did, to count 2020-21 as both a medical redshirt year and a Covid waiver year). If he's trying to bring Domask back, he's not saying "don't give me any seniors - I want to build for 2026 instead." 

But I think there's a very clear shift here. If the roster were to hold together for two years - and yes, I know that's an impossibility in this day and age - then let's look at the 2026 team. The 2026 roster would be...

SR: Ty Rodgers, Kylan Boswell, Tre White
JR: Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, Nico Moretti, Carey Booth, Jake Davis
SO: Morez Johnson, Jason Jakstys
FR: Jeremiah Fears

And then I went on to point out that if the Illini were a top-4 seed in the Midwest the path to the Final Four would be St Louis and then Chicago and then Indianapolis. The Reverse 2005.

Obviously there were a dozen disclaimers in that article. Yes, you cannot count on a single 2024-25 Illini player to return for 2025-26. Coleman Hawkins will be a Kansas State Wildcat next year. I'm probably investing in Blackberry after the iPhone was introduced.

However, every single thing that has happened in the 2.5 months since I wrote those words has only further convinced me that this is a 2026 plan. Maybe I'm just blind to my own take and ignoring signs that it's not true, but let me update some of that stuff listed above.

At the time, the portal class included two sophomores (Carey Booth & Jake Davis) and two juniors (Kylan Boswell & Tre White). Since then we have added one senior (Ben Humrichous from Evansville) and three more freshmen (Tomislav Ivisic, Kasparas Jakucionis, and Will Riley).

So let's compare the last two rosters:

2023-24: 4 fifth-years, 1 senior, 2 juniors, 2 sophomores, 3 freshmen
2024-25: 1 fifth-year, no seniors, 3 juniors, 3 sophomores, 5 freshmen

Given that Brad Underwood has prioritized age in his first three portal years – he brought in three fifth-year seniors last year at this time – I have to think that this is a multi-year plan. We had two players return for 2025 (DGL and Ty) and I have to think he expects at least eight to return after next season.

One reason for that has been talked about a lot this spring: this is the last year for Covid seniors. True seniors next season (players in Luke Goode's class) arrived on campus in the fall of 2021. The Covid waiver was for the 2020-21 season so players in Goode's class are simply entering their fourth year. They never received a Covid waiver because they were seniors in high school when the Covid season happened.

But I think there's also some "we made an Elite Eight run this year - how do we make an even deeper run?" to it. Historically – and I think this is still true in the portal world – deep runs are teams that return a fair bit. We just saw the benefit of Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon returning for another season. 2023 was a bit of a mess and 2024 was amazing. And that's not just because we swapped Matthew Mayer for Marcus Domask.

This is a topic being discussed a lot in college basketball circles right now (especially with Covid 5th-years coming to an end). I saw this tweet from Evan Miyakawa just last week:

(I'm not a 247 subscriber but Evan Miyakawa is quote-tweeting an Isaac Trotter article there which discusses the same thing and I'm certain is solid reading on the subject.)

Which brings me back to the point of my "2026" article in April. When I see that we landed Kylan Boswell from Arizona, my first thought is about 2026, not 2025. When I see a player like Morez Johnson, my first thought is that he's a three-and-done or two-and-done player, not a one-and-done player. In my view, most every player we added, even these superstar freshmen, are "they'll be even better in 2026" players.

I mean, I'm an Illini basketball fan. We've never had a one-and-done player. In fact, I think we've only ever had two 2-and-done players? Let me look this up.

Yep. Meyers Leonard and Nick Anderson are the only two Illini sophomores to enter the NBA Draft. And Anderson was technically a junior since he was an academic redshirt his first season at Illinois. I understand that this might be changing soon, but, well... let me just wander off in that direction and talk about it.

ESPN's Jonathan Givony released his preliminary 2025 Mock Draft this morning (the old "way too early" mock draft the day after the current draft). And in this mock draft, he has two of the incoming freshmen – Kasparas Jakucionis and Will Riley – as first round draft picks next June. He currently has Jakucionis (remember, that's yah-koo-CHOH-nis) being picked 18th and Will Riley being picked 22nd. That would be the first-ever Illini one-and-done followed up immediately by the second-ever Illini one-and-done. This recruiting class is different.

(And, if I may, there's never been a more resounding W for my "wait until June" spring recruiting mentality than 2024. When some of those "top transfer classes" lists came out in May and Illinois wasn't in the top-25, applying my "hold... hold... HOLD..." policy was difficult. And then on May 28th we added a player listed at #18 in this 2025 mock draft and on June 23rd we added a player listed at #22 in the same mock draft. The next time I say "check back in June", if you protest at all, I'm going to throw this in your face. Sorry, but you're never allowed to whine in April or May ever again. At least not while Brad Underwood is in charge. You have to wait for the entire roster to be filled out.)

Still, Riley and Jakucionis (did you say it right in your head this time? yah-koo-CHOH-nis) being listed in this 2025 mock draft doesn't necessarily mean they'll be one-and-done players. It means they'll likely be on the NBA radar at some point in the next few years – Givony wouldn't put them on the list if he hadn't heard that kind of buzz – but there's another factor here that must be considered: NIL.

Here's what Sportrac lists for the NBA Rookie Scale at the #27 spot (the pick where the Timberwolves selected Terrence Shannon):

Red means team option for 2027 and 2028. First two years (gray) are guaranteed. So that's $2,554,200 for next year (guaranteed). $2,682,880 for 2026. And then a team option for $2,809,920 in 2027 and $5,069,096 in 2028. The full contract if the options are picked up: $13,115,096.

So now think about the reported $2 million in guaranteed NIL that Coleman Hawkins got from Kansas State. That means that Terrence Shannon will make $2.5 million next season and Coleman Hawkins will make $2 million. See where I'm going with this?

Now add in what Josh Whitman said last week about how revenue sharing arrives in the fall of 2025. Schools will be able to choose how to distribute the $22 million in TV/ticket money due to the student athletes yearly after the settlement. NIL will be more standardized, although that's still currently being negotiated, and scholarship limits will be replaced by roster limits. The revenue share will have to cover all revenue sports, and Title IX will play a role here (we don't know how that will work yet), but it's safe to say that everything is changing. And the student athletes will benefit.

I'm not here to tell you that all Illini basketball players will have $2 million available in the future. Coleman played it correctly and, by leaving and playing the open market, guaranteed himself $2 million instead of risking a possible 2nd-round NBA contract. The hope in the future (as hinted at by Whitman last week) is that some of that settles down and there's not this "put yourself out there on the open market to make the most money" environment like existed this spring. We don't know the "how" just yet, but we do know that the $22 million in revenue sharing will play a big role here.

My point: Shannon's $2.5 million and Coleman's $2.0 million tells us a story. A story that will be repeated to Will Riley and Kasparas Jakucionis next spring if they're truly showing up on the NBA radar after their freshman seasons. If your draft projection is "maybe first round if some of your workouts are solid?", the guaranteed money in college is going to sound very good. The words "revenue sharing starts in August" will mean a lot at this time next year. As I wrote last week, it's possible that we'll look back on 2024 as the height of the "Wild West" transfer portal.

Before, the draft decision was a simple one: "I'll declare, and I might fall to the 2nd round, but even as a 2nd round pick, a non-guaranteed, NBA-minimum salary is better than $0 (and going to class) in college. As a last resort, if it doesn't work out, I'll go make $180,000 playing in Europe."

Now the math is changing. Coleman Hawkins almost certainly guaranteed himself more money in 2025 by staying in college. Yes, that was a unique scenario and I don't expect $2 million to be the standard. This was a 5th-year player who could immediately elevate a college team and Kansas State paying $2 million for the one-year boost.

But it means that college players, especially after revenue sharing starts in the fall of 2025, can better manage that risk. The fallback isn't "I'll just go make $180,000 playing in Europe." The fallback might be "I can still make $400,000 playing in college." I know those words might punch purists in the gut (they punch me in the gut, but I have a lot of padding). It sounds strange to talk about a player legitimately "making money" in college. But that's where we're headed.

So let's go back to Riley and Jakucionis. If they have solid freshman seasons and go through the NBA Draft evaluation process this time next year, with both getting "possibly late-first, early-second" evaluations, might they return to college for guaranteed money over the risk of how far they might fall in the NBA Draft? Won't players stay in school a little longer now since there's money to be made and wait for that "somewhere in the first 20 picks" certainty? (And even that isn't certain, as Kyle Filipowski and Johnny Furphy just proved.)

And if that's the case, and if schools can figure out how to use revenue sharing and NIL enforcement to keep players on campus instead of heading to the open market, is it possible that this next era in college athletics sees significantly fewer lateral transfer portal moves? Players will still be entering the portal to move up to a power conference (and the NIL + revenue sharing they can provide). But perhaps we see less RJ Melendez "Illinois then Georgia then Mississippi State" transfers while players are looking for NIL deals.

And if THAT is the case (time to bring it full circle), then might the strategy in April, May, and June 2024 have been "how do we build a national champion in 2026 where we can sell out the entire Lucas Oil Stadium with Illini fans at the Final Four?" I mean, if I was going to do that, I would...

  • Add a junior like Kylan Boswell who might follow Terrence Shannon's path (really good in his first year after transferring, one of the top players in college basketball his second year after transferring).
  • Retain a guy like Ty Rodgers who could be the glue of the next two Illini teams. Every great team needs a Roger Powell to be the glue.
  • Add an international player like Jakucionis who could be great as a freshman, get a solid NBA grade, but return to see what revenue sharing is all about in 2025-26.
  • Add a high school superstar like Will Riley who could follow a very similar path. High NBA Draft projection after one year but with NIL + revenue share, a candidate to come back to school and put himself in the lottery (while making a possible seven figures?).
  • Add non-senior pieces like Tre White and Carey Booth who probably aren't on the NBA radar but could be enticed to stick around for 2-3 years.
  • Keep a ridiculous athlete like Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn on the roster so that when he combines the basketball with his crazy athleticism, it happens for your team.
  • Add a Euro seven footer like Tomislav Ivisic who might be a bit of a project but that's OK because there's plenty of depth.

I think I landed the plane, right? You get what I'm saying now, yes? I think I covered every single reason I'm only thinking about 2026 in this 'one year and then rebuild your entire roster' 2024 world. I might be proven wrong, and we might enter the 2025-26 season with Jakucionis playing for Kansas and Riley playing at Arkansas. It's possible that revenue sharing and NIL restructuring only creates a market where players leave more often, not less.

And I should note - this doesn't take away from my 2025 excitement. I'm really excited to see this team next year. Like you, I think they can be very dangerous come March. I'm just saying that I'm looking at 2025 like we now look at 1988 and 2004. An "oh man, if most of this roster returns, are we top-3 preseason?" kind of season. I could absolutely be wrong and this time next year we're talking about an outstanding 2025 Illini team that was then disbanded by NBA Draft early entrants and players departing through the portal.

But if I'm right, and if we can keep most everyone around for two years instead of just one, and if Jeremiah Fears is the "immediate contributor" freshman guard that I think he is, we're going to see 3-4 Illini players listed on 2026 NBA mock drafts the day after the draft next summer. Ben Humrichous will graduate, but if we return eight of these current players to combine with Fears, uh, you might want to book an Indianapolis hotel room for early April, 2026.

You know, just in case.