By Joe Henricksen
Well, the Illinois Wolves program has plenty to look forward to next year. That's because the Wolves 16-and-under team finished July with a bang, winning the Hoop City Classic in Kansas City and then capturing the 17-and-under title at the inaugural ChicagoHoops.com End of Season Showdown in Merrillville.
The Wolves dominated in KC, easily beating Dallas Showtyme, Common Bond and All-Iowa Attack Red in the quarterfinals, semis and finals, respectively. In Merrillville, the Wolves knocked off Peoria Carver, the Eric Gordon All-Stars and Naptown Ballers in tournament play. While the Wolves have plenty of potential on its roster with high-major talent and Division I prospects, it was also about production with winning two tournaments in July.
"I think the best compliment to these kids that I heard was that no one looked at them as a 16-and-under team," says Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins. "And playing the schedule they did, against a lot of 17s, I think really helped them. They weren't afraid to play anyone."
Yes, there were some tired legs at the end of the evaluation period, but the Wolves played up an age group and came home with their second title in as many weeks. Chasson Randle of Rock Island and Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius were named co-MVPs of the End of Season Showdown.
Egwu, who struggled and showed a little of his inexperience a bit in the Chicago Summer Classic in early July, was much better in Merrillville. It's hard not to love Egwu when you watch him and realize his very limited basketball background and that he's just a shade under 6-10. But how often can you find a shot blocker with his kind of potential impact?
The Hoops Report has raved about the strides he's made as a player under St. Ignatius coach Rich Kehoe and Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins. There is no doubt he can sometimes struggle with the speed of the game and, at times, he will try to rush things on the offensive end. That is obviously due to having played basketball for just over two years. However, his offensive game continues to grow with his developing jump hook and effective 12-15 foot face-up jumper. He won't be a ready-made player right away at the high-major level, but there is little doubt he will be an impact player at the highest level at some point in his career.
Egwu's recruiting, which seems to have Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue and Northwestern front and center, will be put on hold for a bit as he heads to Nigeria for a few weeks with his family. Randle, who has had an extremely busy summer between playing with his high school, AAU and national team, will welcome August as a chance to rest and refresh.
Egwu's high school teammate at St. Ignatius, 6-4 Tyrone Staggers, has also shown improvement throughout the summer while playing with the Wolves. Staggers, who is just a junior, is an active athlete who is still finding his way in terms of solidifying a true position. However, he's bouncy, productive, getting better with his skill level and has been a little overlooked on a loaded Wolves team this summer.
In early action in Merrillville, Bobo Drummond of Peoria Central was impressive. The sophomore point guard provided a nice lift off the bench as he played two age groups up. Drummond has been recognized as a true point guard with a great feel and composure for his age. He was just that and more as he provided a little scoring as well, knocking down mid-range jumpers and getting to the basket. Drummond is capable of overcoming his physical limitations -- he's small at 5-10 and has very little lift athletically -- and playing at the high-major level. He just knows how to play and for his age and experience has an uncanny feel to make the correct decision with the basketball in his hands.
Simeon's Loaded Backcourt
Simeon coach Robert Smith will have the luxury of having more than a few capable ballhandling, playmaking guards next winter. Yes, freshman phenom Jabari Parker, the skilled 6-4 wing, will make his arrival felt at some point. But both sophomore Jelani Neely and junior Tywon Pinckney had their moments in the ChicagoHoops End of Season Showdown in Merrillville. They are two small but talented point guards who will be so valuable for Smith's Wolverines as they can be interchangeable in the backcourt. Pinckney, who the Hoops Report has had among the top 25 prospects in the Class of 2011, played his best basketball of the summer. Neely, meanwhile, has clearly established himself as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2012. While tiny, Neely is as pure of a point guard as you will find.
Another Talented 2012 Point Guard
The list of talented guards in the Class of 2012 continues to grow. We can add Rockford Auburn point guard Fred Van Fleet to the list, though he's another in this class that is a bit on the small side. The 5-10 point guard, who played a role on the Auburn varsity team this past year while his brother, Darnell, was among the team's leading scorers as a senior, is so smooth. He was impressive in Merrillville and one of the better prospects in the Class of 2012.
Jordan Making Big Strides
A couple of years ago Andrew Jordan out of Peoria was a hotshot prospect being mentioned in the same breath with some of the other big-named stars in the Class of 2011. However, an up-and-down year of basketball that was plagued with inconsistency took a little buzz off of Jordan last summer and during his sophomore season. After impressing in the Chicago Summer Classic and then playing well in the End of Season Showdown, the athletic 6-5 Jordan has shown he's made some big strides.
Jordan, who played with Peoria Carver in AAU ball this summer and has made the move to Peoria Manual, seems to be having fun again on the court and becoming more comfortable. His skill level, particularly his ballhandling and overall feel and playmaking ability, have improved since a year ago. He still has some work to do with his perimeter shot, but he is long, athletic and has a great body. After slipping a bit in the Hoops Report Class of 2011 rankings, a strong July has raised his stock once again as he will be among the top 15 prospects in the class.
The Peoria Carver team has some talent, with Jordan, Peoria Manual senior guard Lawrence Alexander, Peoria Manual junior big man Brandon Watson, Peoria Central's versatile junior Travis Kellum and hard-nosed junior David Molinari of Peoria Christian.
McCall and the Illinois Heat
Mike McCall of Foreman grabbed a lot of the attention and interest while playing for the Illinois Heat 17-and-under team this summer. McCall, a talented combo guard and among the top 10 prospects in the Class of 2010, has intrigued Cal and coach Mike Montgomery. California, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Detroit-Mercy and Indiana State have followed McCall the closest during the late July evaluation period and all remain in the mix.
Tommy Woolridge, a 6-1 guard, had a solid summer and remains a little under the radar. Woolridge, who teams up with McCall and Lavonte Dority at Foreman, would be a steal for any low-Division I school.
The young Illinois Heat play hard and get after it, led by Curie point guard Asante Smiter, wiry 6-3 Ryan Woods of Proviso West and improving Leavon Head of Mundelein.
Around the AAU world
• The most impressive win of the summer came down in Orlando when the Rising Stars, led by Mundelein's Ben Brust, New Trier's Alex Rossi, Zion-Benton's Lenzelle Smith, DeKalb's Jordan Threloff and Champaign Centennial's Rayvonte Rice, knocked off the loaded All-Ohio Red in Super Showcase tournament play. The Rising Stars advanced to the Super Showcase semifinals and the Sweet Sixteen of nationals, where it fell to Boo Williams in a controversial loss. Boo Williams and All-Ohio Red faced off with one another in the title game.
"That was the best game I think I have ever been a part of," said Rising Stars coach Mike Weinstein of his team's win over All-Ohio Red. "This was a really special group of players we had in our program."
Brust, who the Hoops Report tabbed in late spring as the projected national breakout player this summer, was terrific, according to those in attendance. Several college coaches stated how impressed they were with Brust and his play in Orlando.
Big man Jordan Threloff, a 6-9 center from DeKalb, will be narrowing things down as Illinois State, Drake, Western Michigan, Bradley, Northern Illinois and DePaul are all in the mix.
• The Illinois Kings wrapped up a stellar July with strong showings in both the Super Showcase and the AAU Nationals in Orlando. Coach Greg Ktistou's club went 28-7 in July, including capturing the Bronze Bracket championship in the Super Showcase.The Kings don't have a single high-major or an abundance of big-time Division I talent, but they have plenty of unsung players who, in the Hoops Report's mind, competed and evolved into the most overachieving team the state of Illinois has had in quite some time. The foursome of Riverside-Brookfield's Sean McGonagill, who has legitimized himself as a Division I prospect, Oak Park's Jeff Dirkin, Lyons Twp.'s Justin Phipps and Neuqua Valley's Kareem Amedu all opened eyes of schools ranging from Division II to Division I schools.
A quick shout out and thank you goes to Brian Stinnette of ChicagoHoops.com for keeping many of the top local teams right here in the area, with four terrific events this spring and summer in Deerfield and Merrillville. The state of Illinois, long known to have so much high school basketball talent and high-profile club programs, can now add top events as well in the area with such events as the Chicago Hoops End of Season Showdown, Chicago Summer Classic, Chicago Hoops Nike Spring Showdown and the Chicago Hoops Tip-Off Classic.