CHAMPAIGN — Matthew Mayer’s hometown had confidence in him from the beginning.
That’s why when Mayer’s high school sophomore season began, one of his uniforms was missing. His high school coach at Westlake in Austin, Robert Lucero, couldn’t find it anywhere.
Befuddled, Lucero was upset at Mayer, himself and the staff for losing it, until he met with one of Mayer’s teammates years later.
Mayer and Baylor had just won the national title, and a player who was a senior while Mayer was a freshman coming off the bench on varsity fessed up about an investment. He stole Mayer’s jersey right before he graduated.
“In his head he’s like, ‘Matthew’s going to be an NBA player and I want to have his freshman jersey,'” Lucero said.
After becoming a top-100 recruit and multiple productive seasons at Baylor, Mayer is on the cusp of becoming just that.
He tested the NBA Draft waters this spring before opting out and entering the transfer portal. He was invited to the NBA Draft combine in Chicago in May as one of the 76 top prospects alongside former Illini star Kofi Cockburn as another player who would have been on the bubble of being selected in July.
Instead of keeping his name in, Mayer ended up choosing Illinois as his transfer destination for his final year of eligibility.
Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. are two fifth-year transfers trying to put together an impressive year to raise their NBA Draft stock. If they make the league, their jerseys can be purchased by many instead of sneakily swiped.
It will also mean they’ve given an instant impact to an Illinois team that lost its entire starting five from last season. Lucero said he thinks that’s more than possible for a wing that was a jack-of-all trades on a high school team with multiple other Division I prospects.
“Whatever they need, Matthew could give him that with his versatility,” Locero said.
Mayer will likely play the three or four spot for Illinois and gives them added size at 6-foot-9 that Illinois didn’t have on the wing last year. He also is a floor-spacer on a team that lost a lot of shooting.
He was an efficient 48.9% from the field and 39.5% from 3 during the Bears’ national championship 2020-21 season, and excelled as a secondary option and the team’s sixth man.
Those numbers dipped in 2021-22 to 40.9% from the field and 32.4% from 3 in extended minutes and a starting role — one where Mayer sometimes was a ball handler in the pick and roll.
Mayer was a freshman during Lucero’s first year as the head coach, and showed an offensive skill set ever since Lucero saw him during preseason workouts.
Mayer grew from 6-5 to 6-9 during his high school years, and improved defensively while he adjusted to his rapid growth. Then at Baylor he was an impact player on both ends of the floor and should contribute on that end for Illinois as well.
“He’s always been a really good offensive player,” Lucero said. “And then during his time at Baylor, he turned into a really good defender as well.”
He’ll fit into a scheme that will start to rely more on switches defensively. Multiple coaches praised his versatility — a main priority for the Illini in the offseason. With youth and inexperience, someone who has played in a national title game will be a key piece.
“It’s a gadget that I’m sure all coaches want,” Illinois assistant Geoff Alexander said. “His abilities to do the things that he does from shooting it from the perimeter to his deck game to just his overall versatility on the defensive end. I think he could rebound it, he’s gonna be a blast to watch. He’s gonna be a blast to coach.”
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