By Joe Henricksen
When it comes to Illinois AAU basketball this spring and summer, there are three programs loaded with the most talent. And all three -- the Illinois Wolves, Mac Irvin Fire and Mean Streets -- will be on display this weekend in a talent-filled Nike Spring Showdown in Merrillville.
Brian Stinnette has once again assembled a list of top-flight teams and individual talent in various age groups in Merrillville that has put the Nike Spring Showdown on the map. As far as spring events go in the midwest, the Nike Spring Showdown is arguably the best event all spring. In addition to the state heavyweights in Illinois AAU basketball, Team Unity out of Detroit, the Michigan Hurricanes and the Eric Gordon All-Stars will also be competing.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look at the three talented AAU teams that will be closely watched throughout the next three months.
Best Player(s): Tracy Abrams, Mount Carmel and Chasson Randle, Rock Island
While the Hoops Report gives the edge to Abrams with the higher ranking in the class, there are plenty of people out there who would call it a toss-up or even give the edge to Randle. In the end it doesn't matter as they both bring the talent and type of all-around intangibles you covet in players, particularly guards, on the AAU circuit. There is no selfishness in the Wolves backcourt.
Most to prove: Jacob Williams, St. Patrick
This is certainly a big summer for St. Patrick's Jacob Williams. The long 6-5 wing has had a topsy-turvy career up to this point, with leaving St. Patrick, sitting out an entire basketball season, returning to St. Patrick and just battling inconsistency. Williams is still in the process of putting it together and will have the type of guards playing along side of him to help showcase his abilities and make him better.
Overview: When you combine overall talent, including high-level talent, chemistry, teamwork and the ability to maximize a team's abilities, coach Mike Mullins' program is sitting pretty. The talent starts in the backcourt with the combination of Abrams and Randle. Abrams, after a tough summer a year ago finding an AAU home, has transitioned well and fits nicely with this Wolves team. A part of that transition is the personality of Abrams, who is willing to check his ego in at the door and blend in with an already tight-knit group. Plus, after talking with Abrams, you can just tell he's pleased and content with his new AAU team. Abrams wants to win and wants to get better as a player. Both Randle and Abrams, who is an Illinois commit, are bonafide top 100 talents in the country in the Class of 2011 and are interchangeable in the backcourt.
The big man inside, Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius, is a critical piece for the Wolves. The Illinois commitment continues to get better and better. However, if there is one weakness this Wolves team could encounter against top teams nationally, it's a lack of overall size and rebounding. Egwu gives them a legitimate big man who can impact a game. Benet Academy big man Frank Kaminsky is coming on, getting better and at 6-10 may end up playing a bigger role than anyone expects. In the never-ending search for size, Kaminsky has gathered a whole bunch of interest and offers in the last couple of weeks.
In addition to the Big Three of Abrams, Randle and Egwu, rising point guard David Sobolewski of Benet Academy fits in nicely with this group. Add York guard Will Sullivan and the hard-nosed combination of Mount Carmel's Adonis Filer and 6-4 Jon Crisman from Munster and the Wolves are deep and talented, especially on the perimeter.
MAC IRVIN FIRE
Best Player: Wayne Blackshear, Morgan Park
The 6-5 Blackshear elevated his game to a new level last July and hasn't looked back. He separated himself from the pack with his physical strengths, productivity and improved skills. He now needs to follow that up by taking another step this summer to solidify himself as an elite national talent and a consensus top 10 player.
Most to prove: Sam Thompson, Whitney Young
There are no questions about the talent and upside of the bouncy 6-6 wing, but his progress has been at a slower pace than many of the top players in the class. While he is getting older, he's still just a fawn in his development as a player, due partly to his physical maturation, battling injuries the last several months (he's out again with a nagging bone bruise) and playing for a loaded high school program that shares the wealth. Fans are getting antsy to see what all the fuss is about. In time he's going to be just fine, but there is certainly a point where the production needs to start kicking in and the climb towards that high ceiling starts to escalate. And that time should be this summer if he can take some time off right now and get 100 percent healthy.
Overview: When it comes to talent, the Fire match up with any program in the state of Illinois. For starters, the Fire boast the state's top player in Blackshear. The Louisville commitment is one of the top 20 players nationally and, with a big spring and summer, could solidify himself as a top 10 talent in the country.
The high-major talent also includes Orr's Mycheal Henry, De La Salle's Mike Shaw and Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, who is currently battling an injury right now. Throw in the athletic combination of Rich South's Macari Brooks and Crete-Monee's Jamie Crockett, two of the most explosive players in the class, and there is certainly no shortage of athleticism. And keep an eye on Morgan Park shooter Jerome Brown, a 6-5 wing who could fill a nice role for this loaded group by knocking down shots from beyond the arc and extending defenses.
A year ago the question that was never really answered for the Fire was the point guard position. While the Fire did everything it could to try and bring in different pieces at different times, the point guard position remained either unsettled or lacked the continuity and experience playing with the rest of the team. That doesn't appear to be nearly as big of an issue this spring and summer.
While everyone will have their eyes glued to the high-flying acts of the aforementioned stars, the unheralded point guard play of both George Marshall of Brooks and Keifer Sykes of Marshall could be the difference between success and underachieving. Marshall, who has committed to Wisconsin, and Sykes are the type of point guards who, because they began the season with the Fire, will have a better chance of making a positive impact on this team.
Best Player: Phil Greene, Julian
There has not been a lot written regarding Greene over the past year, but the 6-2 scorer has the feel, speed and scoring ability to open plenty of eyes this spring and summer. He's one of the top 15 prospects in the Class of 2011 and is looking to make a name for himself on the AAU circuit.
Most to prove: Jay Parker, Thornton
As a freshman the Thornton point guard was among the top dozen prospects in the Class of 2011. While his stock has fallen in terms of where he falls among the elite players in the class, he's still one to watch. Parker is out to show he can run and manage a team while still mixing in his scoring abilities.
Overview: Historically Mean Streets has often overachieved, getting after it, playing hard and, often times, playing with something to prove. While there is a considerable drop in talent from the likes of the Mac Irvin Fire and Illinois Wolves to Mean Streets, this is still the No. 3 team in Illinois in terms of talent and a good one. There are some hungry players on this team who are looking to make a name for themselves. If this group can channel that hunger, while remaining on the same page, a successful spring and summer awaits.
The backcourt trio of Greene, Parker and Hoops Report favorite Juice Brown of Hillcrest can hold its own against just about anyone. Those are three talented perimeter players who can handle the ball but also put the ball in the hole. Greene is a combo guard while both Brown and Parker are scoring point guards. Then there is a group of unheralded players set to make a name for themselves, including 6-5 DeShawn Delaney of Carver, who is just a player who gets things done despite some skill limitations, and unknown but rising 6-8 Anthony Davis of Chicago Perspectives. Julian's Jamari Traylor has the potential to be a physical and athletic monster inside, while twins Keith and Kevin Gray provide length and athleticism at 6-7.