Jalen Coleman-Lands worth the wait for Illinois men’s basketball

By Joey Figueroa

It has been four years since the Illinois men’s basketball team has finished in the top-5 in the Big Ten in three-point shooting. Since head coach John Groce took over in 2012, two Illini — current juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn — have posted top-20 three-point percentages in the Big Ten. The last time an Illini finished within the top-10 in three-point shooting was 2011.

Jalen Coleman-Lands is here to change that.

“He is a ridiculous shooter,” Groce said. “He’s about as good as any freshman shooter I’ve recruited as a freshman coming in.”

Coleman-Lands is the highest-rated recruit Groce has secured since Greg Oden at Ohio State — when Groce was an assistant. He is a national consensus top-50 recruit and has been ranked as high as No. 33 in his class by 247Sports and ESPN. Along with fellow four-star wings, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan, Cole-man-Lands’ commitment gave Illinois the second best recruiting class in the Big Ten, as well as a top-20 national ranking.

At La Lumiere High School, Coleman-Lands averaged nearly 15 points per game and shot a scorching 47 percent from downtown. He is widely considered to be the best shooter in his recruiting class, and his teammates have already taken notice.

“Over the summer when he first started playing, he was a straight lights-out shooter,” Nunn said. “That’s what I see in him. He works hard and he’s got a nice offensive game to him.”

In four of the last five seasons, the team that led the Big Ten in made threes has also been a top-5 scoring team in the conference.

The type of floor spacing Coleman-Lands can provide could potentially open up the Illinois offense, especially in the pick-and-roll sets Groce runs often. At 6-foot-3, Coleman-Lands possesses the ball-handling skills to get the Illini into their sets at the top of the key, as well as the length to see minutes in three-guard small ball lineups in which he can thrive as a cutter and spot-up shooter.

Groce likes his players to be able to play multiple positions, and Coleman-Lands’ versatility will be valuable to the constantly rotating Illinois lineups.

“We have guys that are learning multiple positions who have the ability from the basketball perspective to play small or play big to give you different looks within positions,” Groce said. “Our versatility is something that I really like about our team.”

Unfortunately, the prized combo guard hasn’t been able to confirm his hype right away.

Coleman-Lands kickstarted what has become a preseason full of injuries for the Illini when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his leg in early July. His rehabilitation has gone smoothly, though, and after being cleared for gradually increasing amounts of basketball activity in the beginning of October, it isn’t too far-fetched that Coleman-Lands could be ready for the season opener.

“If he’s ready to go well before we play our first game, which we anticipate, awesome,” Groce said. “If he’s not, am I going to play a guys who’s hurt or injured? No. I’m stating the obvious, but believe me, I want him playing yesterday.”

Coleman-Lands didn’t see any time on the court during the ILLINI ALL-IN scrimmage a few weeks ago, but unlike his other injured teammates, Coleman-Lands was dressed to play. He has taken his time away from basketball in stride and has a refreshingly auspicious outlook on the experience.

“With basketball, you don’t really realize what it does for you and how much you love it until it’s taken away,” he said.

Coleman-Lands said he’s never missed this amount of time because of injury. Although he hasn’t been able to fully take part in team drills and scrimmages, he has been soaking in the system and has appreciated the bonds he’s already been able to make off the court.

A large part of that came during the Illini’s four-game stretch in Europe over the summer.

“I was thankful to go,” Coleman-Lands said. “That was an experience I’ll never forget. I feel like I benefitted from it chemistry-wise and I got closer with my teammates.”

He may have to shake off some rust, but it appears Coleman-Lands will be ready to make an instant offensive impact for Illinois. Along with Hill and Nunn ­— when he returns to health — Coleman-Lands will have a good chance to be the Illini’s third top-20 three-point shooter in the Big Ten — or even better.

With his undying positivity intact throughout a bumpy offseason, Coleman-Lands believes he and his fellow newcomers can bring some stability to a program that sorely needs it.

“I like the guys coming in,” Coleman-Lands said. “I feel like they’ll be a tremendous help to our success and winning. It’ll be a good year.”

[email protected]

@joeyfigueroa3