CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Dain Dainja is almost bewildered about where his physical development has taken him in the last four months: the leg strength, the endurance, the weight loss, the confidence. For months, Dainja has been tucked away with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcherready for this moment and the reality he’s staring in the face.
Dainja probably wouldn’t have guessed when he was a top-100 senior in high school that he would have played exactly nine minutes over three games during his first two years of college basketball, which included two different schools. But after transferring to Illinois from Baylor at the semester break, Dainja is embracing what’s in front of him; and as the Illinois roster undergoes a major renovation, that means opportunity.
But to maximize his role with the Illini, he had to reshape himself. He’s spent countless hours with Fletcher — who is continuously praised by head coach Brad Underwood and the players — cutting weight and adding strength. Underwood said last week that Dainja weighs roughly 270 pounds, down from the 290 he weighed when arriving on campus. In a video posted to the Illinois Basketball social media accounts last week, Dainja said his bench press has increased from doing 225 one time to 280 pounds.
On Wednesday in the tunnel of the State Farm Center, Dainja raved about how much his frame has changed in just four months, blending the opportunity to look back with appreciation of his journey and look forward to the summer months as he prepares for potentially a large role with the Illini, who are entering life without Kofi Cockburn after he declared for the NBA Draft.
“The results were crazy,” Dainja said of a full body scan he had last week to monitor his progress. “Just by seeing the results and by seeing how much I can do in three, four months, it gave me a whole bunch of motivation. I feel motivated now. I want to go even harder now that I can see what I can do.”
For months, Fletcher posted videos of Dainja running stairs inside an empty State Farm Center, hurling a medicine ball through the air, running on treadmills or photos of the specified diet to help him work back into basketball shape and into maximum operational capacity.
The nutrition plan, which also includes work from team nutritionist Palmer Johnson, will extend through the summer and into fall practices. Dainja’s diet consisted of fish, protien shakes, water and anything to add the right muscle mass. The physical development was part of the recruiting pitch to land Dainja in the first place.
“Man, that process has been crazy ever since I got here,” Dainja said. “The first day I got here, we wrote out a plan for what we’re going to do and we just attacked it ever since I’ve been here. I feel like that’s been the best thing for me ever since I got here, just shaping my body up. I feel like I took tremendous steps with that, me and Fletch. I really appreciate Fletch. Every day he’s on me nutrition-wise, stuff I can eat, stuff I can eat late at night. He’s on me all the time about it. Texting me, calling me.”
The last few months haven’t exactly been easy. The reward for all of the time spent with Fletcher included, at least immediately, a seat on the bench in street clothes as Illinois won a share of the Big Ten regular season championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Dainja knew the payoff would come in the future. He had to stay the course.
“He’s an unbelievable warrior,” Underwood said. “That kid is driven. He wants to be great. He has literally done everything that we have asked him to do from the weight room to the workouts to the nutrition piece. That’s a commitment and a buy-in. We’re talking about a high-character guy who hasn’t played a game yet, but goodness has he been tremendous to this point.”
Illinois is tasked with helping replace Cockburn, a two-time All-American who leaves a 7-foot, 285-pound hole in the middle of the floor. Dainja, as of right now, appears the most likely candidate to replace the Illini legend as starting center.
When Underwood talks about Dainja, he’s been intentional in putting the caveat that the big man hasn’t played a game yet at Illinois — and barely did at Baylor — and owns just six career points in college basketball, due in part to a foot injury that sidelined him at Baylor. But Dainja is a different player than Cockburn and one who can usher in the next era of basketball without a traditional back-to-the-basket big man.
“A guy with just a different skill set than what we’ve had,” Underwood said. “Elite handles, elite passer, right hand, left hand. For a guy that big, I call him a dancing bear. He’s just really light on his feet. He’s got some quick-twitch to him. So he’s just a guy that’s a unique piece at that size. Then he’s got a 7-8 wingspan.”
Said Dainja: “Illinois recruited me in high school. They kind of knew what I can do. I’m kind of an all-around player. When I got here, I was able to showcase my game. I feel like I’m more comfortable here than the previous school I was at to really be able to play my whole game.”
Dainja admitted that a few years ago he thought he’d be in college for a few years before pursuing his professional career. Most every high-major player thinks along the same lines. But his route traveled a different path and he now enters his third collegiate season with his best opportunity to date to make an on-court impact. Getting to this point has required plenty of time with Fletcher — and will require more moving forward — but Dainja is welcoming his chance to make an impact on a new-look Illinois team.
“It’s all God’s plan for me,” Dainja said. “I’m not in a rush to go to the next level or anything. The most important thing to me is getting better every day. I’m more worried about the present. I don’t let things like that get to my head. Whenever the time is right. … Coming out of high school I did think it would only take me a few years and I’d be out. I’ve always been like that. My progress every day. I’m taking things day by day.”