Ayo Dosunmu understands he could have left Illinois for the NBA following his freshman season.
More hype around his name, in fact, ensued following the 2018-19 season, at least when it came to the idea he might wind up a late first-round pick.
That idea clearly had some merit. Michigan sophomore Jordan Poole put up similar stats during the 2018-19 season and went No. 28 to the Golden State Warriors. The occasional mock draft had Dosunmu in that slot.
What Dosunmu termed “unfinished business” at Illinois brought him back for a second season in Champaign. He was even better as a sophomore, earning First Team All-Big Ten honors. Dosunmu knows he could have jumped to the NBA this year, too. Probably would have in a normal, non-pandemic year.
Dosunmu will instead play his third year at Illinois with a different goal in mind.
The list of players he rattled off that stayed a little longer in college and still went on to success in the NBA was notable. Guys like Stephen Curry, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
“Everyone’s story is different,” Dosunmu said. “Everyone runs their mile, runs their marathon, at a different pace. You have some guys who are one-and-done, and then you have some greats who spent extra time in college. There’s so many guys who spent extra time to develop and ultimately win. I want to win. I want to be in the same conversation as those greats.”
The winning part is important to Dosunmu. The video he dropped to announce his return to Illinois for the 2020-21 season stated that fact rather clearly. The Illini guard is thinking Big Ten and NCAA titles.
“I want to put Illinois in a position to win a national championship and contend for a national championship,” Dosunmu said. “When I committed here, I said I wanted to help turn the program around. I think definitely we’re right there. Now it’s time to just execute. That’s my goal. That’s my plan.”
Count Illinois coach Brad Underwood as all in on that plan, too. He knows when Dosunmu mentions those goals, it’s not just idle talk.
“You’ve got to understand I have so much respect for Ayo and his sacrifice, his level of commitment,” Underwood said. “Who would I be to not agree with that? I know how hard he works. Here’s a kid who’s First Team All-Big Ten in what was the best conference in the country. He’s arguably going to be the best guard in the country returning — or he’s going to be in that conversation.
“He knows what we have around him, and he truly believes that in the bottom of his heart. We’re a long ways from that point, but I love guys who dream big and/or dream bigger. I love guys that want to think it’s all possible. There’s a lot of commitment and sacrifice in that, and Ayo has done that. I have tremendous respect for what he’s saying.”
The path to a national championship at Illinois — which would be a first — wasn’t exactly what Dosunmu thought he’d be chasing during the 2020-21 basketball season. His goal was to jump to the NBA following his sophomore season with the Illini. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
“I would say it was more of a business decision,” Dosunmu said of his return to Illinois. “If everything was right — if everything went the traditional way — I believe that I would be in a different position right now. The way that everything went down with COVID and not being able to play, I would be lying if I told you it was a Cinderella story where I said I’m going to come back and do that. That’s not how it happened. … I’m blessed that I had two great decisions where I could have gone either way and been successful. That’s pretty much how I took that.”
That doesn’t mean Dosunmu isn’t excited about the possibilities of what could be for Illinois in the 2020-21 college basketball season. He said he got chills watching the video announcing his return and imagining everything the Illini could accomplish.
Those possibilities are something Dosunmu feels like the team deserves.
“Not having the opportunity to play in the tournament last year, I’m blessed with this opportunity in front of me,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to contend for a national championship in their home state and do it the way my story was written from a team that went from the bottom of the Big Ten and helping other great players to come and sacrifice their own talents to help the team win.
“Only a handful of athletes have that opportunity to produce in front of their home state. I’m going to work as hard as I can. I’m going to work doubly as hard as I can because I know that we have the opportunity to win, and I also know we have a target on our back.”