By Joe Henricksen
This basketball recruiting stuff is getting to be more and more like identifying tennis prodigies and Olympic gymnasts. Fortunately, the shelf life of the American basketball player will last a little longer.
With that being said, another fall introduces us to another batch of eye-popping, need-to-talk-about players in the state of Illinois. You know, the players that have yet to play a high school game but have had high-major offers thrown their way.
The spotting of early talent in a class as a whole is not always just unwarranted hype, though it often does appear that way. The dynamics of a class and the rise and fall of prospects can certainly change over four years. It's to be expected -- they are young teens still developing.
But think about the Class of 2011 when they were freshmen. The current crop of seniors had several players being mentioned early and often as high-major prospects. Heck, Ryan Boatright had already committed to USC before he had taken a class at East Aurora High School. We were also raving about Wayne Blackshear and Mike Shaw. Then came Tracy Abrams, who turned into a bonafide star over the second half of his freshman year at Mount Carmel. Now we look at present day Class of 2011 and the class has turned out as good as advertised, even better when you figure a prospect like Anthony Davis of Chicago Perspectives into the equation.
How many of the Class of 2012 prospects were we talking about as freshmen? North Chicago's Aaron Simpson popped up in some conversations as a freshman. The point, obviously, is there was very little fanfare then and the high-major programs haven't exactly been knocking down the doors of the junior class. The number of high-major offers extended to the players in the Class of 2012 can be counted on one hand.
This takes us to the sophomore group. The Class of 2013 features arguably the best prospect in the state of Illinois regardless of class -- Simeon's Jabari Parker. And big men Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young and Alex Foster of De La Salle, along with a half dozen or so blossoming guards, already make this group enticing. The fans in the state have been excited to watch this group and the college coaches have been coming in droves to get a look at them.
The Class of 2014, however, is looking as if it's even better at the same stage. The Class of 2014 is very special. Again, it's now a matter of these young hotshot prospects turning themselves into players by the time they are juniors and seniors. Right now it's a lot of promise and potential, but the promise and potential of these players is staggering. And their impact on the high school varsity level will be felt immediately.
Thus far the majority of the superlatives have been thrown the way of Jahlil Okafor and Paul White, the talented freshmen tandem at Whitney Young. Okafor and White were on hand at Flash Flanagan's Fall Showcase on Saturday in Morris and again showed why they are regarded as the top two prospects in the class. They have the size, skill and possess the things you just can't teach -- and they're freshmen. Zion-Benton's Malik Yarbrough, a rugged, strong, old school 6-4 wing was also on hand. Yarbrough will be a coveted high-major target sooner than later.
And the list of freshmen goes on.
There is Paul Turner of St. Joseph, who will be the next great one out of a storied high school program that has produced its share of college players. He's already physically strong and has size at 6-4 to go with a solid handle and developed mid-range game. Turner is a perimeter player who could end up playing a number of positions before his development is complete.
As is the case with any class of quality at a young age, there are a number of eye-opening guards. The much-talked about Larry Austin of Springfield Lanphier will be making his presence felt in central Illinois this winter. And there are a couple of guards in the city -- Tevin King of Providence St. Mel and Dominique Matthews of St. Rita -- who impressed the Hoops Report during the summer. Vic Law, a long and talented 6-5 wing, is another impressive looking freshman in coach Gary DeCesare's St. Rita program, while Curie has promising big man Clifton Alexander, a 6-7, 235-pounder.
The interest in these young players is already high. A little over a week ago Illinois and coach Bruce Weber extended offers to Okafor and White. Now Turner, who made an early unofficial visit to Illinois this past weekend, also has an offer from Weber and the Illini. And Yarbrough's offer from the big state school will likely be coming soon.
The local high-major program has done its homework and is doing what it should be, which is getting in on top in-state talent early. But there will be plenty of others from the Big Ten and around the country who will be flocking to Illinois in coming years to try and tap into what could be the best back-to-back classes the state has produced since .... (Now there's a good question and research project).
The list of players in the freshman class is as long as the Hoops Report can remember when it comes to prospects and talent at this stage.
For now maybe the biggest benefactor is the Ferrari club basketball program, which had so much success at the young levels this past summer. Ferrari won 10 tournaments last offseason and finished second at nationals. This will be the 14-and-under club team to follow as it already features Okafor, White and Turner, along with a few other up-and-coming freshmen in Marcus Smith of Mt. Carmel, Miles Reynolds of Whitney Young and 6-4 Elijah Robertson of Neuqua Valley.
Here is a look at the Hoops Report's Elite Eight prospects in the Class of 2014 heading into their freshman season. As is always the case, players will rise and fall. This group, however, appears to be special enough to stick.
1. Jahlil Okafor, 6-8, PF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
2. Paul White, 6-6, WF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
3. Malik Yarbrough, 6-4, WF, Zion-Benton
4. Paul Turner, 6-4, 2G/WF, Westchester (St. Joseph)
5. Tevin King, 6-1, PG/2G, Chicago (Providence St. Mel)
6. Dominique Matthews, 6-0, PG, Chicago (St. Rita)
7. Larry Austin, 5-11, PG, Springfield (Lanphier)
8. Vic Law, 6-5, WF, Chicago (St. Rita)
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