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Watch now: Illinois' RJ Melendez primed for sophomore breakout

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CHAMPAIGN — Since the Illinois men's basketball season ended, there have been offseason workouts for a team without many returning players.

RJ Melendez is one of those players, and has been continuing his steady improvement since he joined campus as a freshman last year. 

“That young guy’s put on a lot of weight," coach Brad Underwood said. "He squatted 300 pounds yesterday, which when he first got here we were afraid to put a bar on his back."

Melendez spent most of the season on the end of the bench with fellow freshman Luke Goode and Brandin Podziemski. During the beginning of conference play he had some games where he didn't get any playing time.

But by the end of the season, he was playing 20 minutes in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and holding his own against a Houston program that was on its way to a second-straight Elite Eight. Melendez also hit a key 3 in the Big Ten title clincher against Iowa in March.

Melendez came in as a top-100 recruit, but he bided his time and took advantage when an opportunity for playing time arrived. 

“I learned patience; just wait for your time and be ready," Melendez said. "Just because you’re not playing doesn’t mean you don’t have to work. You just got to keep working late nights, early mornings and have those workouts and wait for my time."

Now, he'll be one of the key pieces in a scheme that will have a quicker pace that is a good match for his combination of size and speed as a 6-foot-7 wing.

Melendez was an injection of speed most of the time he got onto the court, frequently getting ahead of the defense for leak outs and fast break points on a team that didn't usually push the pace. 

“Every day he improves," Melendez's teammate Luke Goode said. "You see the athleticism on the court and improvement on the court. What he does with the ball is special, and I’m excited to see him have an improved role as well because we’re really close and good friends, so as a teammate and a good friend, I’m excited to see him shine and just show people what he can really do.”

The Big Ten had no shortage of breakout stars last year with Iowa's Keegan Murray and Wisconsin's Johnny Davis turning themselves from role players into some of the top players in the country and future NBA Draft picks. 

A player with Melendez's athleticism and consistent improvement over his high school and early college career could follow a similar arc.

“You go look on social media and he’s all over these sites and stuff about being the next thing, and he really does have the potential for that,” Goode said.

A big part in Melendez reaching that potential will be his ball-handling. Before the team got Shannon in the portal, Melendez was someone who would have had to play a lot of time as an off guard. He still could spend some time there with a lack of proven backcourt options. 

He showed he can cut and get to the rim in a couple of dribbles, but if he expands his game off the bounce then he can transform into a go-to scorer for Illinois.

“He’s a guy that’s got to continually work on his ball-handling and a guy that athletically has a tremendous amount of gifts to do a lot of things,” Underwood said. “We just want to keep enhancing things. One of the big adjustments freshmen make, perimeter players, is usually they get stronger so they can make a move to get to a spot. Then you have to become — this is where Ayo grew — he became a good enough ball-handler that he could make a second move and get to another spot. Then you become unguardable."


Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball

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