CHAMPAIGN — Like most top-100 prospects, Dain Dainja after two years of college probably dreamed of preparing soon for his first NBA game. But that’s not Dainja’s story. His story has had to be one of patience, of discipline, of persistence.
Dainja, the No. 91 overall prospect in the Class of 2020, has logged just nine minutes, six points and three rebounds during his first two college seasons. He redshirted his freshman season at Baylor, in part due to a foot injury, and watched from the sideline as the Bears won the 2021 NCAA Tournament championship. He then played in Baylor’s first three games last season before entering the transfer portal and sitting out the second semester after enrolling at Illinois last January.
But after almost a full calendar year of improving his body with Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher and improving his on-court skills with head coach Brad Underwood and assistant coach Geoff Alexander, Dainja can’t hide his excitement to play a sizable role for a good high-major college basketball team. Expected to be a key piece of an Illini frontcourt rotation that must replace Kofi Cockburnthe 6-foot-9, 270-pound center is champing at the bit to hit the court.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Dainja told Illini Inquirer. “All season my energy is just going to be super crazy. Just from only being able to play that little amount of time, transferring to a bigger role this year. I’ll just say my energy is going to be stupid crazy.”
The question is what Illinois is getting out of Dainja, still an unknown as a college basketball player. A highly-regarded prospect out of Minneapolis, Dainja was known as a skilled offensive prospect—good handle, good passing, powerful on the block but not explosive—with some defensive potential due to his 7-foot-7 wingspan.
Dainja certainly is not Cockburn, a two-time consensus All-American who was basically an automatic 20 and 10 each time he touched the court last season. But who is?
Illinois isn’t counting on Dainja to replace Cockburn. They’re counting on him to be a piece of a newly-configured frontcourt puzzle that will also include skilled junior forward Coleman Hawkins — likely the starting 5 — Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer and four-star freshman Ty Rodgers.
Dainja will likely be the Illini’s most physical interior option. The Illini staff raves about his passing and his ability to handle at his size — reminiscent of former Purdue star Trevion Williams? — though Underwood acknowledges that Dainja sometimes can get a bit overconfident in his dribbling.
The Illini also think he can be an important piece defensively for a team that doesn’t have many other options to battle physical Big Ten bigs one-on-one like Hunter Dickinson and Zach Edey. The Illini have said that Dainja gave Cockburn some problems at times last season during practice.
“Unbelievable, unique skill set,” Alexander told Illini Inquirer. “Has the ability to play out on the floor with his ability to pass and handle. His ability to be in the box as Kofi was, he still gives you a major threat there. He just gives you different intangibles that offensively, the way we’re playing, allows us to do that. His ability to short roll and play in that pocket and be able to pass out of that pocket. Today’s game, that’s where it’s at. Space the floor and open it up. You got to play in short rolls. He gives us the ability to do that. …He’s very, very long. He’s a physical guy. I think he can slide his feet [defensively] better than people give him credit for.”
Illinois believes it likely is getting the best version of Dainja. The time away from playing competitively seems to have fueled him rather than defeated him. His love, his dreams were taken away for two years. He’s spent the last two years reshaping himself — dropping 45 to 50 pounds, Brad Underwood said — and building up his game. Alexander said Dainja has worked as hard in his year with the Baylor transfer as any player he’s ever seen, sometimes logging as many as three workouts a day with Fletcher.
“He didn’t get the chance to play. You take that away from him? It becomes pretty important,” Alexander said. “Not saying he didn’t have that [before], but you add that on top of that and his eagerness, he wants to be out on the floor. He fights for every rep. If you try to take him out in practice, he doesn’t like that. There’s a lot to say about that.”
Dainja said he tried not to get too beaten down by the injuries but admitted the last two seasons were tough. But he just committed himself to the process and the game he loves so he could make the most of his delayed opportunity.
“Just my hunger just to get back on the floor. A lot of coaches, a lot of scouts told me the things I needed to work on and the things that can take me to the next level,” Dainja said. “This past year, I’ve just been attacking that full force. The biggest thing for me was getting in shape. Coming out of high school, I was a little bit overweight. Right before the injury, I actually lost weight but as I got injured I put back on weight. After that, when I came back, I was like, ‘That’s it, I’m going to get back and get my body right.’ That was the biggest thing.
“I feel like I can give a lot to this team defensively and offensively. I feel like defensively that’s one of the biggest things I’ve been improving and my consistency. A lot of times coming out of high school, I wasn’t very consistent with my offense. Now, I feel like I’m doing what’s best every single time. Not wasting no time.”
Underwood has deep respect for what Scott Drew has accomplished at Baylor, taking over one of the worst situations in college basketball and lifting Baylor to a national championship. His teams are known for their toughness and defense. Maybe that’s why he took two exports from Drew’s program.
Underwood said Mayer’s championship experience will be important for Illinois because it’s “where we want to go.” Dainja may not have played a game on the Baylor title team, but he soaked up everything about that team and what it takes to be a champion. Underwood has asked Dainja to help lead a younger team even though he lacks on-court experience.
“Everybody’s kind of known me coming out of high school as an offensive guy, so I felt like that was one of the biggest things I learned from Baylor was the defense, how important that is and how important that is to winning championships,” Dainja said. “[Underwood and Drew are] definitely two different type of coaches. Coach Underwood’s definitely pushed me, pushes me every day in practice, even some of the little things like leadership. I’m a junior now, so he wants me to be more vocal out there and help the younger guys. He’s just always on me about the little things.”
For two years, Dain Dainja has been a good idea for two high-major teams: a skilled, physical big with great length and a good work ethic. But in a few weeks, he’ll finally be able to put his game to practice — only not in practice, in a season full of games.
“This is a blessing knowing that you’ll be able to play in a few weeks,” Dainja said. “I’ve been training for this. I’ve been trying to just keep my head high mentally, physically as well. I’ve just been getting better day by day, stacking days. That’s my plan right now.”
Added Underwood: “He’s done the hard part. He’s dropped the weight. He’s passionate about being a great player. He loves the game. He loves to play. So along with that, he loves the work and loves the process of doing that. Now, he needs to play games.”