On February 15, 2021, the Illinois basketball team landed the commitment of RJ Melendez, a Kissimmee, Florida native and top 100 national recruit.
Melendez fell under the radar late in the 2021 recruiting cycle, as he was one of the final nine recruits in the top 100 who had not made his commitment and just one of two players uncommitted in the 27-100 range via 247sports.
At 6-foot-7,190 pounds, Melendez provides a phenomenal physical base to be a long-term contributor with the Illini.
Let’s dive deeper into who Melendez is as a player right now…
- Fluid athleticism – long strides that help him glide in transition and as a slasher
- Smooth spot-up shooting stroke on a strong elevation & quick release
- Extremely heady cutter
- Thrives in transition as a finisher
- Strong instincts and a tendency to cut passing lanes, racking up deflections
- Flashes as a secondary wing playmaker with clean dump-offs as a cutter
- Self-creation skills are a question mark, heavily reliant on spot-up scoring
- Ball handling is not yet refined, can be loose at times
- Intermediate scoring, development of a floater and pull up should come smoothly because of his impressive touch
- Physically raw, 190 pounds is not weak but he’s still incredibly wiry, could improve his explosiveness
Melendez rode relatively under the radar as a national recruit, but his physical tools, feel for the game and natural shooting stroke provide me all the signs to stamp him as better than advertised.
The Puerto Rican-born wing has untapped potential as a two-way dynamo on the wing for the Illini, who are putting a clear emphasis on adding length. He provides an immediate shooting spark in addition to a high motor and high-level transition threat as a playmaker and finisher.
Similar to Luke Goode, Melendez’s long-term outlook is what excites me because of his combination of length, IQ, touch and energy.
Offensively, Melendez should settle in as a spot-up scorer and a consistent floor stretcher for drivers and a paint presence. His ability to attack off the bounce will improve as he works on his handle, but his pure, quick, stroke should allow him to see the court rather quickly.
As impressive as his offensive flashes are on tape, I would expect a bit more patience in terms of development on this side of the court. The primary flashes on tape are transition-based opportunities on open looks and smooth finishes, but I love his long-term outlook offensively because of his ability to attack closeouts, make plays as a cutter and an advanced feel for dumping the ball after drawing help defense.
Defensively, I think Melendez makes an impact early on with his lateral quickness, instincts and length.
Adding strength to his frame is the obvious development marker on this end, but I think he can be a legitimate defender of four positions in the Big Ten down the line. His agility, toughness and energy fit the Illini ideals, and I see Melendez becoming an early contributor because of it.
The importance of length on the wing is extremely vital for the Illini, as Coach Brad Underwood primarily relies on a three-guard lineup to stretch the floor and attack with versatility offensively.
The bridging gap for the Illini has always been that stretch spot, in my opinion, a spot that Jacob Grandison will serve as an example for moving forward. Melendez has the tools to play that stretch spot, because he is 6-foot-7, while simultaneously being a threat with his guard-like tools as a shooter and slasher.
The Illini were undeniably in a hole in the 2021 recruiting class after missing on nearly every early priority outside of Goode.
Late in the process, it is not rare to see major programs swing on prospects who are less talented because they have available scholarships. Melendez is not that. From everything I have gathered, the Illini have been connected to Melendez for longer than most realize, as Coach Orlando Antigua, Andre Curbelo and even Coleman Hawkins have assisted in the recruitment progression.
The #Illini snag 6-7 wing RJ Melendez, a big time riser late in the ’21 class
Pure stroke, fluid athlete & a strong feel for the game off ball
— Max Feldman (@MaxFeldman6) February 16, 2021
Melendez is better than advertised, and his stock shot up after each time he gained more exposure. Between Melendez, Goode, Grandison and Austin Hutcherson, the Illini will have more versatility on the wing than they ever have had in the Underwood era.
Playing multiple high IQ, athletic 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-7 wings who can all stretch the floor will certainly be a different style of basketball, but it is a proven formula for success around the college game. Melendez will be a key contributor to my two most impactful areas of winning basketball – offensive spacing and defensive versatility.