Freshman guard RJ Melendez has been steadily getting more and more time over the past few weeks and on Sunday we saw a breakout performance against Northwestern. He reached double figures for the first time in his career with 14 points in just 17 minutes. Melendez added in six rebounds, two steals and a block in addition to going 6-6 from the free throw line with no turnovers. He was the most valuable player on the floor on Sunday, which was huge in a game where the Illini committed 20 turnovers.
At 6’7, Melendez offers rare size and athleticism at the guard position. Illini coaches and teammates rave about his ability to run the floor; we saw that on full display with his throwdown against Northwestern (below).
There’s definitely a few times you can tell he’s a freshman, but that’s the moments of growth you’ll get with any young player.
Since arriving in Champaign, Melendez has gained 20 pounds and really been praised as a hard-worker on the court and in the weight room.
It’s hard to know when a freshman is ready to contribute, but if Melendez can bring anything like he did on Sunday for the rest of the season, he appears ready. Not only did he provide some much needed scoring, but he was really impressive defensively on Northwestern’s Chase Audige, who finished just 4-15 from the field and 0-5 from three.
Sunday’s game was a good representation of why Illinois is so excited about this kid. He has the size and speed that no one else on this team has and that we haven’t seen in Champaign in a while. He can be a versatile defender and exploit defenses in new ways that open up opportunities for teammates. While he’s only a freshman, we’re seeing some really exciting flashes out of him and I can’t wait to see where he takes his game in the future.