By Joe Henricksen

September 2008 Archives

Prospects making right choices

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By Joe Henricksen

Roughly two years ago the City/Suburban Hoops Report was pretty critical of the Class of 2009 in the state of Illinois. There just didn't seem to be much of what evaluators look for when it comes to analyzing individual classes. By that we're talking star-quality talent at the top and depth throughout the class.

While the class still doesn't have a whole lot of off-the-chart talent in the top 10 or even in the top half-dozen, there is definitely more overall talent and depth than the Hoops Report anticipated. This is a prime reason why you can never really write off a class -- or hype it up -- too early in the process. A couple of years ago no one could have anticipated Lake Forest's Matt Vogrich making the jump he has. No one would have predicted Drew Crawford of Naperville Central would be a Big Ten player.

But as signing day approaches in a little over a month and verbal commitments come rolling in, one thing is becoming clear with the Class of 2009. There are a lot of prospects making the right call in terms of the level and program they are choosing. There are several players that likely could have waited it out or even signed with a more high-profile program and possibly played at a tad bit higher of a level. Instead, a lot of these prospects are truly finding the right fit and playing at the right level, with the "right level" meaning a level the player can succeed at and not get recruited over in coming years.

Whether you're talking Crawford to Northwestern, Seton Academy's Tony Nixon to Northern Illinois, Seton Academy's D.J. Cooper to Ohio, Rockton Hononegah's David Brown to Western Michigan or Seneca's Seth Evans to Wisconsin-Green Bay, so many players are finding the right fit and not getting too caught up in playing at the highest level possible. In this day that's nice to see. In each one of these individual cases, the Hoops Report honestly believes these schools are getting true steals for their respective levels.

Northern Illinois is coming off a 6-22 season. And there were several schools in on Nixon that were on more solid ground as a program than the Huskies. Yet, thanks in large part to impressive assistant coach Dennis Gates, NIU got a steal. Look for Nixon to flourish playing in the Mid-American Conference.

Both Cooper and Brown are heading to MAC programs that are already in the top half of the league. The Hoops Report loves Cooper and what he brings to the point guard position. Again, a perfect fit.

After a solid and consistent summer, Evans was a player that was receiving added attention -- even after committing to UW-Green Bay -- from several schools. In the end Evans has held true to his commitment and should enjoy a terrific career playing at the perfect level.

Now it will be interesting to see how some of the remaining prospects handle the recruiting process. A couple of players that really stand out in my mind are Shaun Pratl of Richards and Simeon guard Jeremy Jones. With Pratl now locked in to playing college basketball, his recruiting stock should soar should he wait it out until the April signing period. Both Pratl and Jones, due to different circumstances, are late bloomers -- Pratl due to splitting time between football and basketball and Jones from simply waiting his turn at Simeon.

The 12 Most Wanted

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By Joe HenricksenThe 12 Most Wanted

Here is a look at the dozen players in Illinois, regardless of class, that are simply the 12 best college prospects. These are the players that project to be the best college players and will, in the Hoops Report's eyes, have the best chance of making the most significant impact at the college level.

You will notice the list is backloaded, with seven of the 12 reigning from the Class of 2011 - this year's sophomores. The following is a ranking of the 12 best college basketball prospects in the state of Illinois.

1. Jereme Richmond, 6-7, WF, Jr., Waukegan
Perhaps no one in the state has as much pure basketball skill as Richmond. The knock remains his desire and attitude. Will he bring it every day like other greats do? He has slowly been getting better in those areas. But Richmond can beat you in so many different ways on the floor and is such a versatile threat. Though a much shorter version of Kevin Durant, his game is eerily similar.

2. Crandall Head, 6-3, 2G, Jr., Chicago (Crane)
Watch him run up and down the floor a few times and it doesn't take long to realize he's a phenomenal athlete with arguably the highest ceiling of any player in the state. The question is will Head reach the greatest heights that he can? He's come a long way in a short time but still lacks the necessary skill level to be the best of the best. Nonetheless, he oozes with talent and untapped potential. And there is that physical presence with the crazy hops and long arms.

3. Sam Thompson, 6-5, WF, So., Chicago (Whitney Young)
The potential is there to be the best of the bunch in the Class of 2011. But he's still just a pup, a fawn. He's not as advanced physically as his 2011 counterparts, but he's extremely bouncy and ridiculously long. He will block shots, handle the ball, get out on the wing and defend, hit a three, get out on the break and beat everyone down the floor.

4. Tracy Abrams, 6-1, PG, So., Chicago (Mt. Carmel)
The Hoops Report admits gushing a little more about Abrams than others have. It's all about getting better each day with the physically gifted Abrams, who has a great feel for the game and can impact it on both ends. He does so many things so well, yet can improve in each area. That alone makes him a scary prospect. He was nothing short of amazing during Mt. Carmel's run to a sectional championship last March. He was fearless for a player his age in such a big setting and flourishes in big moments.

5. Wayne Blackshear, 6-4, 2G/WF, So., Chicago (Curie)
He just has the look. He's got the size and athleticism. He's physically mature. While his perimeter skills (perimeter shooting and overall ballhandling) must get better, he's already a beast getting to the basket and finishing with the best of them. An absolute terror along the baseline, a little reminiscent of former Simeon and Illinois star Nick Anderson. With improvement in the skill areas, the sky is the limit for Blackshear.

6. Mike Shaw, 6-8, WF/PF, So., Chicago (DeLaSalle)
The skill package Shaw brings to the floor for a player his size and age is pretty remarkable. He handles it well for a 6-8 player and will float around the perimeter and knock down a three. Yet, like so many other top players, he's going to have to show that he wants it. There remains too many times where he's a non-factor on the floor, though the needed assertiveness may come with age and experience.

7. Lenzelle Smith, 6-3, WF, Jr., Zion-Benton
Smith is on the list for different reasons. He's not a freak athlete, he won't be confused with a pure shooter, his body type is different and questions can be raised as to what position he is best suited for. But it's about productivity, winning and making those around him better. He's a phenomenal passer who gets so much done, both around the basket and on the perimeter. Plus, he will be an impact, four-year guy for a college program.

8. Brandon Paul, 6-3, 2G, Sr., Warren
The top-rated Hoops Report player in the Class of 2009. In reality, despite his presence in national rankings and an undeniable pure athletic body, he's a late bloomer. He didn't have the fanfare early in his career as a lot of other players did coming into high school, which shows he's just now scratching the surface. Of all the players in the senior class, Paul has perhaps the most upside. He's long, athletic and has greatly improved his shooting. He still has work to do with his ballhandling and needs to turn his physical attributes into being a disruptive, lockdown defender, which he has yet to do.

9. Chasson Randle, 6-1, PG, So., Rock Island
Another player who, like Thompson, is just beginning to grow into his body and develop physically. He's extremely skilled and has the all-around skill level that leaves any observer impressed. He still has to adjust to the physical nature of the game. That should come in time. Another plus is he's an elite student with a great head on his shoulders and support around him. In this day and age, those attributes are highly underrated and coveted by college coaches.

10. Donivine Stewart, 5-11, PG, So., Limestone
There are definite Stewart doubters out there. But he's a player you have to watch several times to appreciate all that he brings to the table. For starters, his feel and understanding of the game for a player his age is off the charts. And remember, he put up 25-plus a game as a freshman. But his lacking the height and superior athleticism of others, you wonder how high he can go. On the plus side, he will be around for four years as opposed to a lot of the top national prospects.

11. Chris Colvin, 6-2, PG, Sr., Chicago (Whitney Young)
He has such a burst and great first step. He's a powerpacked point guard who can break anyone down off the dribble and finish at the basket. He has battled inconsistency in his career but is poised for a breakout season as a senior. An improved jump shot and overall decision-making are the final pieces of the puzzle for Colvin.

12. Jacob Williams, 6-5, WF, So., Chicago (St. Patrick)
Of all the players in the 12 Most Wanted, this is the least recognized name. But the Hoops Report loves this kid's talent. He hasn't received the hype of the other players in the Class of 2011 have. But like several of the others in the sophomore class (Blackshear, Thompson, Shaw) he has great versatility. He can face up and shoot the three, put it on the floor on the wing and get to the basket.

Super Six assistants with eyes on Chicago

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By Joe Henricksen

As it relates to recruiting, a college basketball program that is set up properly should resemble a talented bullpen of a Major League Baseball franchise. If a school is fortunate enough, the head coach is the closer--i.e. Mariano Rivera or Francisco Rodriguez. One would think there would be more true, knockout closers out there in the college coaching ranks. In reality, there are fewer than you would believe.

The setup men, though, are also vitally important. Those save opportunities for the closer in baseball are only there if the short relievers did their job. And in college basketball recruiting, it's often the assistants that make that initial contact and form that early bond with the potential recruit. While it's the head coach that gets the glory, just as the closer is rewarded with the mega-million dollar contract, the assistant coach is often undervalued by many. As previously mentioned, a program is on much more solid ground if the head coach possesses the closer ability and mentality.

When it comes to recruiting the Chicago area, there are endless coaches trying to make their way into the city and suburbs to land prep players. Whether it's a coach from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Big Ten, Missouri Valley or the Horizon League, there are players available in the Chicago area for everyone--and plenty of them. And there are several coaches that are a step above the rest when it comes to recruiting the area.

The City/Suburban Hoops Report highlights the "Super Six" that, despite coaching at different levels--from low-Division I to a high-major--are masters in the Chicago area. These are the coaches that lay the groundwork, are at the tip of the tongue of AAU coaches, high school coaches and players throughout the city and suburbs. There are many but these coaches (in no particular order) are a major presence - and hottest names - in and around Chicagoland.

Jerrance Howard, Illinois
People forget just how young and relatively green Howard is as an assistant coach. Howard is just 27 and, stunningly, is just beginning his second season as an assistant coach after brief stints in the roles of administrative assistant and basketball operations. But that's just one reason why what he's doing has been so impressive. There haven't been many assistants that have garnered the accolades Howard has in such a short time. Parents respect him, prospects love him. And he's an absolute tireless worker who is always looking to make a new contact. There just isn't an assistant out there that brings more energy and passion to the job and to the school he works for than Howard. It goes without saying the University of Illinois will always target Chicago, but Howard has established relationships with those he needs to in a hurry. There were doubts when he was hired by Bruce Weber - "he's too young... he's not experienced... he's not a Chicago guy... " - but he has been the perfect fit and just what the program badly needed.

Dennis Gates, Northern Illinois
He's a former Chicago Public League kid who starred for a state champion - and legendary team - at Whitney Young a decade ago. He's smart and articulate (he was a first-team Pac-10 All-Academic selection). He's beloved and, more importantly, trusted by city and AAU coaches. And since returning from California, where he played and coached for two years, he has had a major presence recruiting the Chicago area. That's good news for coach Ricardo Patton and the NIU fan base. The bad news is that the Hoops Report would be shocked if Gates were in DeKalb long. He's just too talented and brings so much potential in recruiting to a college program. He will be coveted by a high-major program soon.

Tracy Webster, Kentucky
In some respects, Webster was labeled a failure by some Illini fans due to not landing some of the big names that were targeted during his time in Champaign. In reality, it's not really even close to being true. Don't forget he provided much of the groundwork for several of the heralded recruits that have committed to Illinois. He is well connected throughout the city and suburbs, having starred for Thornton in the late 1980s and coaching at Illinois, Ball State and Purdue. And now he has the Kentucky name and tradition as ammunition. There is no high-major school outside Illinois that is hitting Chicago's underclassmen harder than Webster and the Wildcats. Kentucky, with Webster at the lead, is very much in on the sophomore trifecta of Mt. Carmel's Tracy Abrams, Curie's Wayne Blackshear and DeLaSalle's Mike Shaw.

Paris Parham, Illinois State
You want a true rising star? Here's your man. Since the Kevin Stallings era at ISU, it was if there was a roadblock on Interstate 55 between Chicago and Normal. With Parham the Redbirds gained instant credibility in the city. Parham is a true Chicago guy and is as well connected as anyone due to his pedigree. He played in the Chicago Public League in high school. And after recruiting the Chicago area as a college assistant for 10 years, he came back to coach where he grew up. He coached AAU basketball and in the Public League as head coach at both Phillips and Morgan Park, where he was named one of the top five young high school coaches in Illinois by the City/Suburban Hoops Report just three years ago. He seems to know everyone, is as personable as they come and is thought of as family by recruits and their parents. Parham was front and center in the recruiting of recent commitments Terry Johnson of North Lawndale and Zeke Upshaw of Chicago Lab.

Tavaras Hardy, Northwestern
Of all the assistant coaches on this list, Hardy has the toughest job. You try recruiting to a conference doormat that has higher academic standards than anyone else in the conference. And, like Jerrance Howard at Illinois, it's awfully impressive how much he has managed to get done with such little experience. Remember, he was working for JPMorgan Chase & Co. just a few years ago. But suddenly, thanks in large part to Hardy, local talent is staying home - and it's actually quality local talent. Talk with prospects that are being recruited by Hardy and those that have already signed or committed to the Wildcats, and they absolutely gush about Hardy. He has been instrumental in keeping the likes of Lincoln Park's Juice Thompson, Glenbard East's Mike Capocci, Batavia's Nick Fruendt, Glenbard West's John Shurna, Lake Forest Academy's Kyle Rowley and, most recently, Naperville Central's Drew Crawford.

Brian Wardle, Wisconsin-Green Bay
The former City/Suburban Hoops Report Player of the Year in 1997 while playing at Hinsdale Central is not going to be outworked by anyone. There isn't an out-of-state college coach that spends more time cultivating the Chicago area. Wardle, who worked two years as director of basketball operations at Marquette, is constantly in Chicagoland no matter if its winter, spring, summer or fall. Ask a prospect who is in on them and Wisconsin-Green Bay is at the tip of their tongue. The end results may not be there yet, but it's been no fault of Wardle.

The Next Five
Rob Judson, Illinois State
Rick Ray, Purdue
Howard Moore, Wisconsin
Derek Thomas, Detroit
Lance Irvin, Southern Illinois

Honorable Mention: Tim Buckley, Indiana; Chad Altadonna, Eastern Illinois; Tracy Dildy, UIC, Nate Pomeday, Oregon State; Isaac Chew, Murray State; Rodell Davis, Providence; Billy Garrett, Texas A&M Corpus-Christi

To contact or subscribe to the City/Suburban Hoops Report, beginning its 14th year of publication, email or call (630)-408-6709.

Talent emerges at Spot-Lite Shootout

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By Joe Henricksen

Larry Butler's Illinois Spot-Lite Fall Exposure Shootout showcased a number of players, ranging from big names to no-namers, from young to old. But it was a host of young players that impressed the Hoops Report.

A trio of sophomores impressed during the day. And a pair of them will be playing for coach Robert Smith at Simeon this winter. Tywon Pinckney is a pretty complete point guard for such a young player. Although a bit on the small side at 5-10, he's every bit as good as the more talked about George Marshall, the tiny sophomore point guard for Brooks. Sondale Connor, a long, lanky and athletic 6-4 wing, has showed flashes early in his career. Connor has transferred from Brooks to Simeon and will surely be an impact player down the road for Smith's Wolverines.

The sophomore, though, that really opened the eyes of the Hoops Report was Mycheal Henry of Morgan Park, an unknown 6-4 wing. Like any young player his age he has a ways to go, but his athleticism and upside is undeniable. He is already an outstanding finisher around the basket.

Next Peoria star
There have been some very talented guards produced in Peoria over the past three or four decades. Another one is on the way. The Hoops Report talked about the play of Peoria's Bobo Drummond following the Chicago Summer Classic back in July, where he shined after just graduating from 8th grade. He is without question the next great player out of Peoria. He's a composed point guard who already has a nice little mid-range game. It would have been fun watching Drummond play with D.J. Richardson this season at Peoria Central, which would have taken a little pressure off the young freshman.

The Peoria area, which has been a bit down the last few years compared to what it has been, is on its way back in a big way. There are a lot of talented young players coming up through the pipeline.

Other thoughts and observations
Maybe some will say the Hoops Report is off its rocker, but is there anyone else out there that likes the game and upside of junior guard Mike McCall more than his more heralded teammate and classmate Lavonte Dority? While Dority has received much more national attention and has been a more highly-acclaimed player, McCall is clearly a better shooter and sees the floor better.... Crete-Monee's Mario Redmond, a 6-6 big-time athlete, continues to be prospect of intrigue. While the junior needs a lot of work on his perimeter skills and has to begin to play with more of a sense of urgency, he has a terrific body, length and will wow you with his athleticism and ability to run the floor. What an athletic tandem Redmond and 6-4 sophomore Jamie Crockett will be for coach Rocky Hill this season at Crete-Monee.... Keep an eye on Rock Falls 6-3 junior Tevin Rumley.

A Golden Flash?
On a recruiting note, don't be surprised to see Seton Academy's D.J. Cooper, one of the top point guards in the Class of 2009, commit to Kent State this week. Cooper had a terrific visit this past weekend and would be a great fit for a program that won 28 games last season, won the Mid-American Conference and reached the NCAA Tournament.

Crawford, Starks a refreshing pair in prep hoops

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By Joe Henricksen

In the 14 years of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, there have been dozens and dozens of academic casualties in the world of Illinois prep basketball. We see them every year. The NCAA's emphasis on core classes has spawned a bevy of prep schools that, depending on which one you are talking about, have become eligibility factories for college prospects. We continue to see top-caliber players forced to go the junior college or prep school route in order to be eligible to play Division I basketball. Some never do make it.

There are those players out there, however, that go above and beyond both on the court and in the classroom. We often don't recognize or appreciate them enough. There are still those players out there that set the perfect example. And two of those are Naperville Central's Drew Crawford and Whitney Young's Ahmad Starks. Both of their stories from a student-athlete perspective are refreshing.

Starks is an absolutely refreshing story. Here is a top high school player that fans gravitate to and pull for because of his diminutive size and the way he plays the game. Then you get a little deeper into the person and realize he's the total package. Though a bit reserved outside his inner circle, Starks is articulate, distinguishes himself with leadership characteristics, carries a 3.4 grade-point average and speaks three languages - English, Spanish and French. He's entering his junior year, yet he's still only 15 years old as he was able to skip a grade. He has committed to a high-major school in Oregon State, yet maintains his priorities - right now he's taking ACT preparatory classes as he begins his junior year.

Job well done, Mr. and Mrs. Starks. Those two have made it a point to put education at the top. There are Master's degrees up and down the two family trees, with Don Starks a graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology and his wife, Alisa, a Northwestern graduate.

"It's about balance of life," says Don Starks of what he and his wife have preached to their son. "We have told him you have to be you, but you also have to be versatile. We have been educating him on academics and the importance of it since he was a 3-year-old."

Ahmad, who had straight A's throughout grammar school, has known that if his grade-point average ever fell below 3.0 he wouldn't be playing basketball. Those are his parents' orders. He hasn't slipped a bit, even when his peers don't view A's and B's to be as cool as AAU.

"It's an incredible luxury as a basketball coach to have a kid like Ahmad," says Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "He's as selfless of a player as you will find. His objective is to win. And his basketball I.Q. is so incredibly high that it minimizes the whole height thing. He's a mentor for our younger players."

Starks, whose I.Q. shines on the floor with the ball in his hands, committed to Oregon State this past summer. The educational background of Oregon State coach Craig Robinson played a big part in the decision, along with the opportunity to play in the Pac-10.

"You just trust this guy," Starks says of Robinson. "And he [Robinson] has such a great academic background."

Just like it was for Starks, the academic foundation was there for Crawford. His parents instilled the "academics first" early on. But Crawford, whose father is veteran NBA referee Danny Crawford, says that since junior high, striving for academic excellence has been self-motivated. Refreshing? You bet it is. As a result he sports a 4.2 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) and scored a 31 on his ACT.

In the last decade and a half the Hoops Report hasn't come across many players like Crawford. He's wise beyond his years and carries himself with such poise. He respects the game, himself and others. He's remarkably articulate and mature for his age. When talking with him you forget you're talking to a teen. He just gets it.

"It's unfortunate and I feel for them," Crawford says of the many talented players that struggle academically. "You can see the talent and the bright future they can have, but they aren't able to maximize that opportunity. I think there are some that love the game so much they definitely devote too much time to basketball."

Crawford has found the perfect mix of basketball, academics and outside interests. Despite being completely under the radar, Crawford enjoyed a terrific junior year for Naperville Central. Crawford was featured in the January issue of the Hoops Report, noting the four buzzer-beaters the smooth 6-5 guard hit in a two-month span. He then came into his own over the course of the summer playing for Larry Butler's Illinois Warriors, which opened the eyes of college coaches.

With Crawford's priority in academics and a clear vision of his future off the court, it's no wonder Northwestern is at the top of his list. He's still sorting things out but admits the Wildcats are a slight favorite. Wake Forest is right there as well, with Loyola and Oklahoma State among his top four. He hopes to set up a visit to Wake Forest in the coming weeks.

For all those players that have not taken care of business in the classroom and with all the negativity that comes with it, it's hard not to outwardly pull for class acts like Starks and Crawford.

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