By Joe Henricksen
Ever heard of Kim Ung-Yong? He's a child prodigy on Chicago's North Side who, at the age of 9, is already receiving looks from UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina. There were three Big Ten assistant coaches who recently attended his end-of-the-school-year 3rd Grade Field Day at his North Side elementary school. Ung-Yong, who is a little older for his age group, is as smart as they come on the floor, loves ice cream cake and politely asks his mom for extra syrup on his pancakes. And he now has the premier college programs in the country looking at him as their future point guard.
Oh, I kid you. But if I had left this opening paragraph without the "Oh, I kid you," I am banking on you googling Kim Ung-Yong. ... "Hoops Report touts young Ung-Yong! Who has seen him play?" The hype would soon begin for the next (but fictitious) "Big Thing" in the youth basketball world.
Basketball isn't Kim's thing. He's this genius Korean cat (I.Q. over 210 that Guinness says is the highest in the world) who attended physics classes at Hanyang University at the age of 4 and, by the age of 15, received a Ph.D. in physics from Colorado State University. That is all true.
What's funny is that the notion he's a basketball phenom playing on the North Side of Chicago would be more shocking to prep basketball junkies than the fact grown men were writing and talking about a 9-year-old! That's how accustomed we've become in ranting about and dissecting young prospects. We just keep getting younger and younger in the evaluation process, from college coaches to recruiting analysts to fans wanting to see the next college basketball hopeful.
We have 7th and 8th graders committing to high-major college programs. There are internet sites rankings the best 6th graders. A few months ago a major Chicago newspaper had a front page feature on Jaylin Fleming, the local 10-year-old basketball star from Steger. Come on, front page!?!?! Was it the slowest news day in a decade in the country's third largest city? And those that follow the game closely would have hardly batted an eye if the Ung-Yong hype were real.
To be honest, we are hardly talking child prodigies here, but each year, it seems, we see more and more incoming freshmen making the jump to varsity basketball and having a bigger impact than ever before. These kids are not to be confused with the real Kim Ung-Yong, who was as legitimate of a child prodigy as we have had on this Earth. No, these aren't Bobby Fischers or even Doogie Howsers, (Way off topic here but was Doogie Howser best in "Harold and Kumar" or "How I Met Your Mother?") but these players are talented enough at age 14 and 15 to provide a role on Friday nights and sometimes more. And they are talented enough to talk about because they have become a part of the prep basketball culture -- at a younger and younger age.
It was just 20 years ago when a sophomore being brought up to the varsity was a big deal. Now? Check out the rosters of teams in the gyms this winter and see how many have freshmen playing up. While the Hoops Report still believes it to be imperative to start identifying potential prospects early on -- mostly due to the fact that's how the recruiting game is played now -- it also still believes it to be highly dangerous to offer 14-year-olds, who have a tough enough time choosing what flavor of ice cream or which of the seven 8th grade girls they like. There are so many things that can go wrong in that four-year window. Still, there are some where coaches aren't exactly rolling the dice and simply have no choice to offer because everyone else is. You snooze, you lose.
A year ago all the talk was of Jabari Parker, Tommy Hamilton and Alex Foster, who all played significant roles as freshmen for top-ranked teams in Simeon, Whitney Young and De La Salle, respectively. All three sport high-major offers and are already nationally-ranked players in the Class of 2013, with Parker being tabbed as the No. 1 prospect in the country by one national ranking.
The Class of 2013 is certainly a talented one, with the "Big Three" at the top and several others who had solid freshmen seasons and are poised for their varsity breakout opportunities this summer and winter (i.e. Simeon's Kendrick Nunn).
Early indications are the Class of 2014 -- you know, those kids with the squeaky 14-year-old voices who are consumed with NBA 2K Live, are just finishing up 8th grade and were born in 1996 (Are you kidding me? 1996?) -- will be another strong class. We now start talking about classes in the future and the talent that is permeating in that particular class as if it's a fine wine. In fact, it's like the reversal of a fine wine. Instead of a wine connoisseur tracking down a vintage 1982 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, college coaches, similarly, are ordering up a 2014 combo guard. I can see a high-major coach rolling into Vegas during the July evaluation period and asking, "Might you have an atypical 2014 back-to-the-basket post, preferably one with a slight jump-hook already developed?"
The Hoops Report doesn't have junior high rankings, particularly because there is no way of seeing and knowing all the potential top junior high players at this point. With that being said, however, there typically are a few players that will jump out and put themselves at a higher level than the rest of their peers. Just a few years back East Aurora's Ryan Boatright was committing to USC, while Cully Payne, then of Burlington Central, had committed to DePaul -- just a week or two out of 8th grade. Then it's a matter of time before we see if they stay right there at the top over the next four years or drop like so many do.
After watching a number of the top 14-and-under teams and players, there are four incoming freshmen who have attracted early interest from college programs and could very well make an impact at the high school level beginning this summer. Here are those four potential impact freshmen (listed in alphabetical order).
Larry Austin, 5-11, PG, Springfield (Lanphier)
• While it's been far and few between, there have been some great ones to come out of the state capital, including Ed Horton, Kevin Gamble, Rennie Clemons and Andre Igoudala. The talented Austin, who will head to Springfield Lanphier in the fall after playing on the summer circuit with Mid-America Ballers, has the potential to be a special player down the road and one of the best to ever come out of Springfield.
While the Hoops Report has seen less of Austin than the other three Chicago area prospects in this list, it was enough to see how poised and how strong he is with the ball in his hands. He made plays. Austin's playmaking ability and composure are at a premium level for a player so young, while his jumper is a continued work in progress.
Jahlil Okafor, 6-8, PF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
• A big, strong presence who is advanced for his age in both size and with his play around the basket and rebounding the basketball. The distant cousin of Emeka Okafor doesn't appear to be done growing or maturing physically despite his early physical stature. That alone makes him a prospect of intrigue, but he's more than just a mammoth kid picking on fellow junior high kids on the block and in the paint. He moves well, has good hands and, yes, he's absolutely big. Okafor became a name in the media this past winter when DePaul and its former coaching staff offered Okafor a scholarship. There is a chance Okafor could be playing with his future teammates at Whitney Young this weekend at the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout.
Paul White, 6-6, 2G/WF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
• The skill level White possesses for a young player at 6-6 is pretty impressive. The smooth White, who opened eyes a year ago at an event in Merrillville, projects as the perfect point forward/big wing down the road as he matures as a player. He may just have the most upside of any player in this group. Unlike most players in his age group, the long, rangy White sees the floor very well and can score in multiple ways. The potential trio of 6-8 Tommy Hamilton, 6-8 Jahlil Okafor and 6-6 Paul White at Whitney Young is a scary proposition for opposing teams over the next three years.
Milik Yarbrough, 6-4, WF, Zion-Benton
• The younger brother of former Zee-Bee star Markus Yarbrough and the son of former North Chicago and Illinois State great Del Yarbrough. He possesses a terrific combination of size, strength, skill and versatility for a player so young. Yarbrough can handle it on the perimeter and is such an impressive finisher for his age. As his motor improves with age, Yarbrough could become not only an elite player statewide but on the national level as well. Plus, the incoming freshmen class at Zion-Benton is a good one so Yarbrough, who already overpowers defenders off the dribble and around the basket, should have talent around him.
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