By Joe Henricksen

Player toughness immeasurable and undervalued

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By Joe Henricksen

Maybe college coaches are learning their lesson. A year after many coaches said De La Salle's Derek Needham couldn't do this or couldn't do that, they are warming up quite nicely to Hyde Park's Fabyon Harris, the Hoops Report's breakout senior who previously was vastly overlooked but whose recruiting stock has shot through the roof. Now he's a hot player with a hot name and game. The same can be said for Hales Franciscan's Pat Miller, the talented but often overlooked Tennessee State recruit who is finally getting his due.

But first, we digress back to Needham. There were a few (but far too few) college coaches who loved Needham. However, throughout Needham's prep career many college coaches, particularly those at the mid-major level, stated during the evaluation process all different types of quirks they had with the 5-10 guard. I heard from them he couldn't shoot it well enough. I heard from them he wasn't a true playmaker. I heard from them he was too small. I heard he was ... well, you get the point.

In some regard he may have been many of those things, but he still did all of them just enough. And then there were his qualities, which was a burst off the bounce and his physical strength that allowed him to get into the lane and where he wanted to on the floor. But there was an ingredient that wasn't measured and is often difficult to quantify from the outside: toughness. Needham was blessed with both physical and mental toughness, something so needed when players try to make that adjustment to the college game and college coaching.

Fairfield coach Ed Cooley raves about Needham, who is in the midst of putting together a terrific freshman season. Siena and Niagara were all the talk in the MAAC, a league that has been on the rise and is starting to get the notoriety. But with the quick emergence of Needham, Fairfield (10-3) will be in the hunt as well. Needham is playing 34 minutes a game and averaging 16 points, 5.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and over 2 steals a game.

Which brings us back to players like Miller, the MVP of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament, and Harris, the diminutive point guard for Hyde Park. Harris has made the same impression on the Hoops Report as Needham did -- and maybe more. While the Hoops Report had Needham ranked No. 19 and ahead of several of the bigger-named players in the Class of 2009 (two of which have already left and transferred from the schools they originally signed with), Harris has also climbed into the Hoops Report's top 20 in his class. Little, tiny guards are a dime a dozen and typically I get scared off by them, probably because there are so many that don't make it at the next level. And Harris is certainly smaller than even Needham, both in height and weight. But the toughness intangible in Harris, who has maybe more mojo than any player in the class, helps overcome the size deficiencies. He's certainly special in his own way.

Miller, too, brings immeasurable toughness. Ironically, many of the same exact questions I heard in regard to Needham I heard again with Miller this past summer and fall from college coaches. But Miller was even more overlooked than Needham. He mirrors Needham in many ways, from his weaknesses to his strengths, as well as the fact he is compact and physically as strong as any guard in the state.

More and more toughness is becoming a key, especially with so many players being babied and coddled at a young age in getting wooed to their respective AAU programs and even high school. Throw in all the hype and superlatives young players now receive, and it's easy to lose the edge and become a little soft.

College coaches will quickly brand and label a kid soft, which scares them off that particular player's recruiting trail. And now more than ever, college coaches can't be sure of how a player will react to adversity once they get them on campus as freshmen. College coaches now need to fully appreciate the toughness as much as they run scared of the softness.

Ultimate Warriors
These are the players in Illinois who, regardless of where they signed or where they project as college prospects, bring the ultimate toughness and competitiveness needed. The list is mostly made up of unyielding seniors who have proven their mettle; underclassmen have to prove it, though some of them have.

Fabyon Harris, 5-8, PG, Sr., Chicago (Hyde Park)
• see above
Pat Miller, 5-10, PG, Sr., Chicago (Hales Franciscan)
• see above
Jermaine Winfield, 6-4, PF, Sr., Chicago (North Lawndale)
• No player is willing to do whatever it takes more for his team; rugged, physical, old-school player who is about getting as much done in any way he can.
Tommy Woolridge, 6-1, 2G, Sr., Chicago (Foreman)
• The Eastern Illinois recruit brings it every time he steps on the floor and is willing to showcase that toughness on the defensive end.
Reggie Smith, 6-0, 2G, Sr., Harvey (Thornton)
• There is a reason a player who may lack the ideal skills necessary signed with a Big East school: jaw-dropping athleticism, an inner-desire and willingness to play hard.
Tracy Abrams, 6-0, PG, Jr., Chicago (Mt. Carmel)
• As far as high-profile players go, he may be the toughest of the bunch in the Class of 2011, which is one reason he excelled at such a high level as a freshman. Plus, he plays through pain. A great, classy kid who will rip your heart out to get a win.
Derrick Randolph, 5-6, PG, So., Chicago (Whitney Young)
• Is there a player with a bigger heart? Tough-as-nails point guard overcomes his lack of size with the heart of a lion.
Roosevelt Jones, 6-3, WF, Jr., O'Fallon
• Hoops Report hasn't seen a lot of Jones but has loved the tenacity he brings to the floor and his robust game when it has watched him. Just a hard-nosed get-it-done type.
James Siakam, 6-6, PF, Jr., Carbondale (Brehm Prep)
• This is about all you need to know: The rugged and ruthless power forward played nearly an entire game with six fractures in his face last month. He had a five-hour facial reconstruction surgery the next week. He gets after it, takes a hit and his motor never seems to stop.

For more information or to subscribe to the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now in its 15th year of publication, email or call (630)-408-6709

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Hit it on the head again Joe. Great work. Really enjoy reading.

Joe, totally agree with you on Needham...back when he signed, as well as Colin Nickerson, I told folks that they would help propel Fairfield to the list of "power" mid-majors. BTW, I told a Fairfield alum friend of mine that they should be called the Chicago Stags...nice can use that. :)
I've been told by several major D-1 athletes that in today's day of exposure, the only difference between a BCS school player and a mid-major is about two inches at every position (goes for football and hoops). Major schools will use the "measurables" you note to eliminate a guy from consideration easily, but you can't measure heart. A coach who can accurately measure this intangible will have success, and it's the reason why a George Mason can crash a Final Four, or a Boise State should be playing in a BCS championship game (for argument's sake...).

I guess all the playres in the suburbs are soft?

What about Kortney Darby of St. Pats? He's a 6'5 big man and plays with a lot of heart. I haven't heard of any colleges offering him. Do you know if he has offers?

great article. I agree 100%. Toughness is very important in basketball. That quality is also important in many aspects of life in general. Kids who have that "toughness" will suceed in accomplishing whatever they want in life. No one can tell them otherwise!

By the way, although Derek Needham would be a tough kid no matter where he went to high school, De La Salle is a place that helps build that "toughness".

The perfect example happened about three or four years ago when a De La Salle Meteor got hit by random gunfire at 95th and State, but did not realize he was shot until someone at 35th and Michigan told him!

Joe, have you read the Jay Bilas article on toughness? If you haven't please do. I think you will enjoy it.

I agree about Darby. He plays hard. I would also mention his teammate Julian Reed. Maybe not a D1 but a good player. And the star of the team Jacob Williams plays hard. Do you think he might follow Maniscalco and go to Bradley?

Joe, I notice in your article today that Abrams won the MVP in Pekin, someone told me that Filer was MVP.

Just love players no matter what level (NBA, college, high school and my kids' little traveling team) that play with that chip on their shoulder, with something to prove every time out. Thanks for pointing these type of players and the need for them out to people. It's a unique talent. Love your blog.

How can you leave Rayvonte Rice of Champaign Centennial off this list? Did you not see any of the state finals last March? I'm sure the players from North Lawndale and Oswego would put him on this list.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on January 6, 2010 5:44 PM.

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