Nunn and Tate continue basketball careers together at Illinois

Jaylon Tate first remembered playing basketball against Kendrick Nunn in seventh grade. Nunn had a vague idea of how long he has known Tate.

“Since we been knee high,” Nunn said.

The two incoming freshmen started as local rivals on the basketball courts on the south side of Chicago.

“We used to always go back and forth with each other,” Tate said.

They eventually became teammates on the Meanstreets AAU squad and then at Simeon Career Academy. They dominated their Chicago Public League and statewide competition.

Nunn was part of four straight state titles, two more than Tate, who had transferred to Simeon after his sophomore year at De La Salle.

It only seemed fitting that the two freshmen both chose to continue their basketball careers in Champaign, playing for head coach John Groce, who said while the two are improving, they still have much to learn.

“Us having a really good bond off the court makes it easier for us on the court,” Nunn said. “Just playing with him in high school, we already have a type of bond and toughness together.”

Tate said his chemistry with Nunn has made the transition to college basketball go smoothly. He also credited his high school coach, Robert Smith, for preparing him for the next level.

“They are very competitive kids,” Groce said. “They’re used to playing with and against some of the best players in the country.”

Tate said the strong competitive nature means he and Nunn go at each other with great intensity to this day.

“That’s only on the court,” he added. “Off the court we’re the best of friends.”

The best friends are coming to Illinois at a time when the program has been heavily criticized for not recruiting Chicago harder.

The uproar was at its loudest when Simeon alumnus Derrick Rose left the state to play at Memphis. Anthony Davis of Perspectives Charter went to Kentucky. Two-time Mr. Basketball in Illinois, Jabari Parker, also from Simeon, left for Duke.

Those criticisms started to fade when Nunn committed to the program in September 2012, and Tate the following month. Groce and his staff had landed Nunn, a consensus top-75 recruit, from perhaps the most well-known high school team in the city.

Memphis, Marquette and Ohio State all recruited Nunn. He knew staying in-state carried a lot of significance for the program.

“It’s how Illinois guys should get recruited and come to Illinois. It’s just a pipeline from Chicago to Champaign that I think is big,” Nunn said.

Groce said Chicago only adds to the strong basketball culture of the state of Illinois.

“California and New York, I believe, are the only two states that have turned out more professional basketball players than the state of Illinois,” Groce said.

Groce credited his staff for its stepped-up recruiting efforts in the city, as further evidenced by its strong pursuit of Curie Metropolitan’s Cliff Alexander, a consensus top-three recruit who will choose his college on Nov. 15 in a televised news conference.

“I really like what the assistant coaches have done a great job, getting us involved with talented people and players,” he added.

The Chicago basketball scene is also engraved with tragedy. In 1984, Simeon senior Benji Wilson was killed the day before his team was to start the season. Wilson was the first Chicagoan to be named the No. 1 recruit in the nation.

No one knows for sure which college Wilson would have attended, but his teammates said he would have likely been an Illini.

Since then, Wilson’s old jersey number, 25, has been sought by the Simeon players who put on an Illini jersey.

Nunn will be the one to don that number.

“A lot of great players wore No. 25 back at Simeon and also here at Illinois, so I just want to continue that tradition.” he said.

With the addition of Nunn, Tate and transfer senior Ahmad Starks from Whitney Young, five players on Groce’s roster call Chicago home, the other two being Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius and Tracy Abrams of Mount Carmel.

Egwu said Nunn and Tate are both great at using their speed to attack the basket, and because the two had great success in high school, they won’t accept losing.

Egwu told them to be ready for adversity.

“I keep telling them to keep moving on, to keep pushing, to keep working hard, to keep improving,” Egwu said.

The basketball careers of Nunn and Tate are still young. But their history together runs deep. And Illinois hopes to make the connection between their hometown and Champaign a staple of the program’s future. 

Erik can be reached at [email protected] and @e_prada.