By Joe Henricksen
With nearly all of the top AAU programs in Illinois competing in the Chicago Hoops Nike Spring Showdown in Merrillville from all different age groups this past weekend, one scene jumped out at the City/Suburban Hoops Report Saturday afternoon. And it showed how different the world of high school basketball is today.
On hand this past weekend were the many prep stars from the Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Warriors, Meanstreets, Full Package, Illinois Wolves and other loaded programs, including the Peoria Irish and Illinois Heat. But the game on Saturday that was the most anticipated and that drew the day's biggest crowds and interest was one that featured a bunch of 8th graders. The battle between the Mac Irvin Fire and Meanstreets 15-and-under teams had the bleachers jammed and the court lined with fans three or four deep. The game -- and young prospects -- didn't disappoint.
The Mac Irvin Fire, fueled by the play of freshman-to-be Tommy Hamilton, stormed back from a 20-point deficit but fell in a tight one to Meanstreets, 65-64. Maybe it's because so many top players commit early and the recruiting suspense is gone. Maybe it's just the fact this particular group of 8th graders have received more attention than your typical young players and there is plenty of intrigue following them. Whatever the reason, fans were into it and loved every minute of it, something you don't always see in AAU basketball.
On the court were a trio of fascinating prospects in 6-7 Hamilton, 6-7 Alex Foster and 6-4 Jabari Parker. All three continue to defy their ages with their size and incredible skill level. Again, hyping the youngsters is always a tricky and sometimes slippery slope, but it's hard to not marvel at the potential in these three. It's hard not to be drawn to this talented trio and several others in this class, including promising Lorenzo Dillard. The 5-11 point guard is another young talent to watch in the Class of 2013. Also on hand for the Meanstreets team in the matchup with the young Fire is talented sophomore T.J. Bell, a 6-5 freshman from Charleston.
Depending on the day you watch, any of the three could be labeled the best of the bunch. On this day, Hamilton was pretty special. When he's dropping in tough shots from beyond the arc pretty regularly with a beautiful release while also battling on the block, you can quickly forget how old he is.
So much can happen over the next three years in a player's development, so yes it's risky to forecast the future with such young players. However, these three are certainly different than past young hotshots who, whether warranted or not, received early hype -- mostly overhype from anyone and everyone. No, not everyone can be young phenoms. Unfortunately, we try to create more than there really are. That's why this is a little different. They are different.
In addition to their individual skill level that is off the charts for their age group, what they also bring are the physical attributes, namely size. Right now it would hardly be a surprise if all three were ranked in the top 25 nationally (maybe higher?) when it's all said and done following their senior year in 2013. Just a word of caution to these three young talents: don't believe the hype and keep working hard on your game and skills.
KEEP TABS ON THIS 2009 STAR
Attention college coaches, be sure to keep tabs on Class of 2009 star, T.F. North's Kyle Cain, over the next year or two. This is not the same player you -- or the Hoops Report -- may have watched last summer or even this past winter while playing with his high school team. While he was good all season for T.F. North, he's been great since.
While the youngsters stole the show on Saturday in Merrillville, it was the play of Cain that continues to impress the Hoops Report. The 6-7 Cain has been an absolute monster each and every time he's played this spring.
Cain, who had committed to Detroit last fall, will now be heading to either a junior college or prep school. He has been so impressive since the completion of his senior year that the Hoops Report believes there is no question he will be a coveted recruit next year and be an impact mid-major plus college player. And at this rate who knows, he could end up even higher.
He is so athletic with an impressive college-ready body and improving skills. Cain's aggression and explosiveness is better than ever. He has the power and strength to mix it up inside and clear space, while also having the willingness to run the floor effectively. He uses his length and athletic ability to block and alter shots. He rebounds and competes. He finishes with authority around the basket and is dunking everything.
If he does land at a prep school and has four years of eligibility as a 2010 recruit .... wow. With an extra year to mature and further develop his game, could he turn into another Joey Dorsey-type player? Dorsey was a raw, physical specimen who went to Laurinburg Prep before landing at Memphis and helping the Tigers to the Final Four.
DON'T FORGET THAT RISING STARS TEAM
While nearly all the top teams from Illinois were on hand at what turned out to be a loaded field of individual players from the state of Illinois in the Chicago Hoops Nike Spring Showdown, there was one AAU power missing. The Rising Stars program went to the King James Classic in Akron and fared quite well. The Rising Stars Gold 17-and-under team, however, has been flying under the radar locally due to not playing in some of the local events like this past weekend's Nike Spring Showdown and the Chicago Showdown a couple of weeks ago. It's not as if they have been forgotten, but maybe people have forgotten just how good they are.
The Rising Stars, however, had an impressive weekend in Akron. They also grabbed the attention of a couple of national recruiting analysts with their solid play, which included going 6-1 in Ohio. They knocked off both DC Assault and God's Glory, while also beating a red-hot, overachieving Illinois Kings team in convincing fashion for three of their six wins. Their only loss came to arguably the best AAU team in the country, All-Ohio, which is led by 6-8 Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), one of the three best players in the country.
Zion-Benton's Lenzelle Smith, New Trier's Alex Rossi and Mundelein's Ben Brust stood out, according to both coach Mike Weinstein and national recruiting analysts.
With the early struggles of some prominent AAU teams in Illinois, the Rising Stars may have the most complete 17-and-under team in the state. They have size inside with 6-10 Jordan Threloff of DeKalb and 6-9 Fred Heldring of New Trier. They have perimeter shooters and scorers in Rossi and Brust. They have versatile, athletic wings in 6-3 Lenzelle Smith of Zion-Benton and 6-3 Rayvonte Rice of Champaign Centennial. Plus, despite all the Division I talent on this roster, they play well together and minimize the egos. Throw in some point guard play from Waukegan's Mike Springs and a few nice role players (Fremd's Chris Klimek, Prospect's Joe LaTulip and Evanston's Eric Dortch) and this team should be poised for a big July.
Check back for more coverage on the Chicago Hoops Nike Spring Showdown later in the week.
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