Illini basketball inks three on National Signing Day


WCIA — Illinois basketball added three players to the program on Wednesday, the opening day of the regular signing period. Four-star wings Ramses “RJ” Melendez and Brandin Podziemski both signed their National Letter of Intent with the Illini. Meanwhile, 6-foot-10 Florida transfer Omar Payne also signed a Big Ten Tender of Financial Aid with Illinois, giving the team some much needed frontcourt help.

“I keep saying character over characters, and we hit a home run with this group, and guys who work hard,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “We can’t always control when athletes want to sign, but for us it’s not when, or what time they do it, it’s who they are, and how they fit us.”

Payne was a top-50 recruit in the class of 2019, ranked No. 44 by ESPN and No. 45 by 247Sports Composite. He scored in double figures three times as a sophomore. The Kissimmee, Fla. native played in 30 games with seven starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 3.6 rebounds and ranking second on the team with 34 blocks.

“We are excited to have Omar join our program,” Underwood said in a statement. “This young man has unlimited potential. He has already established himself as a tremendous defender at this level with his athleticism and length. He is also elite in ball screens and fits our system as a big who will excel in pick-and-roll with the ability to expand his offensive game as well.”

Melendez is a 6-foot-7, 195-pound wing originally from Arecibo, Puerto Rico. He played his last three years of high school at Central Pointe Christian Academy (CPCA) in Kissimmee, Florida. Melendez was named Player of the Year in the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association (SIAA) and first-team All-SIAA as a senior, averaging 24.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.3 blocks while leading the White Tigers to a 33-7 record. He also was named a Grind Session World Championship All-Star after averaging 24 points, helping CPCA advance to the quarterfinals. Following the season he scored 30 points in the Northeast Classic while winning King of the Court and also was selected MVP of the TreywayTV All-Star Game.

Melendez averaged 18.6 points as a junior and helped CPCA to its first-ever SIAA state title, earning finals MVP honors. He finished his career as CPCA’s all-time leading scorer with 2,006 points. He is ranked No. 65 by ESPN in the Class of 2021 and No. 97 by 247Sports Composite. Melendez also has FIBA experience, playing with Puerto Rico in the U17 Centrobasket Championships (July 2019). He averaged 9.2 points and 3.2 rebounds, helping lead Puerto Rico to a silver medal.

“RJ is a wing who has great size and terrific athleticism,” Underwood said. “He has developed throughout his high school career, and yet, it still feels as though he’s just scratching the surface. He fits our pace system on the perimeter with his skill and ability to shoot it and pass it. RJ has an outstanding future ahead of him.”

Podziemski is a 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard from Muskego, Wisconsin. He put up impressive offensive numbers at St. John’s Northwestern Academies (SJNA) in Delafield, culminating in being voted 2021 Mr. Basketball by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. Podziemski averaged 35.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 4.0 steals as a senior while leading the Lancers to a 21-7 record. He shot 60.4% from the field, 81.6% from the foul line and 43.4% from 3-point range, leading the state with 108 made threes. Podziemski set the SJNA single-game scoring record with 50 points vs. Pewaukee (Jan. 30), and in his final game tallied 47 points against Lake County Lutheran in the sectional final (Feb. 27).

Podziemski played point guard during his senior season after playing shooting guard as a sophomore (22.5 ppg) and junior (27.6 ppg). A three-time Division 3 all-state selection, he finished his SJNA career with 2,154 points, becoming the first player in Wisconsin state history to eclipse 2,000 points despite never playing on varsity as a freshman. He is ranked No. 72 by 247Sports Composite.

“Brandin is an elite shooter with unlimited range who has a proven ability to score in so many different ways,” Underwood said. “He is wired to score and fits exactly what we’ve been looking for in this class by adding tremendous shooting and size to our perimeter. Brandin is also an outstanding student who will excel at the University of Illinois.”

Melendez and Podziemski join Luke Goode (Fort Wayne, Indiana/Homestead) in the Illini Class of 2021. Illinois’ recruiting class currently ranks fourth in the Big Ten and No. 27 nationally by 247Sports Composite.

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