By Joe Henricksen
While Wayne Blackshear was the best, most consistent performer of Illinois players in Las Vegas (see the previous Hoops Report blog on Blackshear), the City/Suburban Hoops Report took in the action out west and came away with several other observations. Here is a quick rundown of the Mac Irvin Fire and other Chicago area teams and players.
• After a slow start in the first couple of games, Whitney Young's Ahmad Starks turned in a couple of sterling individual performances. In Las Vegas Starks was much more of a scoring point guard, even taking over the offensive load and making big shots for the Fire in some critical situations.
• The Hoops Report really liked the effort Mike Shaw of De La Salle gave. He will stick his nose in there and battle, but the results and productivity weren't always there. But he played hard and carries himself well. It will be interesting to see if the Shaw-Blackshear package deal will materialize as the two have indicated they would like to play together in college. However, Blackshear is clearly at a different level right now than Shaw. Thus, will a high-major power such as Louisville take both of them?
• Big man Phillip Jackson of Providence St. Mel, who had recently dropped a bit in the most recent Hoops Report player rankings, played his best basketball in quite some time. The 6-8 senior was very active, especially on the defensive end. He made his presence felt, went nose-to-nose and competed with some bigger, stronger players and made an impact blocking shots and rebounding against big-time talent and athletes. He was the Fire's most productive big man. His offensive game is still a work in progress, but when he's committed defensively and running the floor with his speed and athleticism, he opens eyes and looks the part. There are several mid-major/mid-major plus type schools hoping he didn't show too much of his potential in Las Vegas. He can be an impact type of player in time at that mid-major/mid-major plus level.
• While Jackson was probably the most productive big man for the Fire, Robinson's Meyers Leonard clearly remains the best big man prospect in Illinois. There were times he disappeared and struggled against some of the more physical players he went up against and didn't play quite at the level he has shown at other times this summer. Leonard's upside, though, is just so huge, yet he still has so much to learn on both ends of the floor. That is what makes him such a special talent and prospect. He has all the tools in the world to go along with the size, length and an emerging toughness. All he needs is some college coaching, added strength and more experience playing top-level competition.
• After showing very little interest and having little impact in the first couple of days in Las Vegas, the state's top player, Waukegan's Jereme Richmond, again showed why he's among the country's best players with a big effort in the Mac Irvin Fire's opening-round playoff win. However, his lack of motivation, body language and willingness to make an impact continues to be a bit puzzling at this stage. He seems too bored too often. If Richmond's motor was the equal to his talent or at the level of some of the past great names the state has produced (i.e. Quentin Richardson, Sergio McClain, Dwyane Wade, etc.), we would be talking about one of the greats.
• Thornton's Reggie Smith, one of the top unsigned players in the state of Illinois in the Class of 2010, showed again what his strengths are and what he does best in Las Vegas. He brought energy and aggressiveness off the bench and used his off-the-charts athleticism defensively and in getting to the basket and finishing at the rim. While he has improved in the skill areas, shooting, ballhandling and decision-making in the halfcourt are not his strong points. His skill limitations -- and lack of size for a non-point guard -- are still what keep Smith fr. USC had coaches watching him in each and every game.
Fire 16s cruise, then stunned
The Mac Irvin Fire 16s, led by Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, Rich South's Macari Brooks, Brehm Prep's Dre Henley and a host of other talented juniors, were dominant in early action in Las Vegas. The Fire 16s rolled, winning games by the scores of 82-65 and 74-44 in pool play and beating Mo Flight in the opening round of tournament play. The Fire, though, were upset Sunday morning in the quarterfinals by the West Virginia Wildcats who went on to win the 16-and-under Main Event title.
Thompson's potential is always being raved about, but he's starting to find his way and become the talent everyone expects he will be. He's still not physically ready right now, but he's just a pup. At this point Mt. Carmel's Tracy Abrams, Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear and Whitney Young's Sam Thompson are the top three prospects in the Class of 2011, with Hoops Report favorite James Siakam of Brehm Prep rising and making a push. There has been so much made of late about Thompson being a done deal to Oregon State, but his recruitment may be a bit more open than people realize.
The young ones so impressive
The loaded Mac Irvin Fire 15 team, which could evolve into the best and most successful group the Fire have ever had, cruised to its tournament title while in Las Vegas. There has been so much made of the Class of 2013 already, which features the three-headed talent of Whitney Young's Tommy Hamilton, Simeon's Jabari Parker and De La Salle's Alex Foster. However, there is talent and depth behind the Big Three in this class and many players that will be making their presence felt at the varsity level sooner than later. But it was awfully impressive -- really kind of embarrassing and a bit of a joke -- watching Hamilton and Parker basically toy with players their own age while playing with the Mac Irvin Fire and leading them to a tournament title.
While they are certainly young, the recruiting for these two will be at a feverish pitch in coming years. Interestingly, there was just one high-major head coach in the gym to see Hamilton, Parker and the rest of the talented Fire 15s in Sunday's championship game -- Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. In fact, there were only three coaches to catch the game: Weber, Purdue assistant Rick Ray and Illinois State assistant Paris Parham.
Making the most of the opportunity
After missing a big chunk of the "live" period, Glenbrook North's Alex Dragicevich took advantage of his opportunity in Las Vegas while playing with Full Package. While the Hoops Report may not value Dragicevich quite as much as some do, he played himself up in the eyes of a few college programs, with the biggest offer coming from Notre Dame. Dragicevich is a player who finds ways to put the ball in the hole and scores in different ways. He's a versatile offensive threat with a little size. The question is just who does he guard at the highest level and will he be able to get by the athletic-type players on the wing? There may not be a bigger difference of opinion on a player among college coaches than Dragicevich.
Deerfield's Duje Dukan, a skilled 6-8 shooter, continues to remain the most overlooked player in the Class of 2011 from Illinois. Dukan, who plays with Chicago Elite and will be in action this week in Merrillville to close out the evaluation period, has the size, upside and shooting ability that should be attracting more college interest. He played well in the Chicago Summer Classic, was very impressive in Milwaukee's Summer Jam and was again solid in Las Vegas. There might not be a player that has made bigger strides in the last 12 months than Dukan.
First Step review ...
The Hoops Report caught a little of First Step action and the Seton Academy duo of Khameron Harper and 6-7 Chris Olivier both showed flashes. Harper, who is a similar version of Hyde Park's Malcolm Griffin (Toledo recruit) from last year, is a big-bodied guard who can really put the ball in the hole. Olivier is getting in much better shape and is a viable low-Division I post player.... Sandburg's D.J. Bennett remains a prospect of intrigue. He doesn't have a lot of basketball experience and his skill level is really lacking, but he's 6-8 and runs and jumps as well as anyone. Bennett is a prospect small college programs should be taking a look at.