Chicago Sun-Times
By Joe Henricksen

April 2011 Archives

Simeon -De La Salle highlights 2012 Showdown

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By Joe Henricksen

The 17th annual McDonald's City-Suburban Showdown, which will be held at the UIC Pavilion in February of 2012, will be highlighted by a Simeon-De La Salle battle. Simeon, the two-time defending 4A state champs, will be the consensus preseason No. 1 team next November, while De La Salle figures to be a preseason top five team.

The first of three games Feb. 18 will feature St. Rita, led by junior A.J. Avery, and New Trier. Warren, fresh off a school record 31 wins last season, will take on perennial power Proviso East in the second game. Both Warren and Proviso East could also be preseason top five teams when the season begins next winter.

In this past year's City-Suburban Showdown, Benet Academy edged Simeon in the regular-season game of the year before a sold out crowd at the Pavilion.

Jabari Parker joins loaded Mac Irvin Fire 17s

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By Joe Henricksen

A combination of circumstances and events has led Simeon star Jabari Parker back to the Mac Irvin Fire program. The super sophomore, who had been playing with Ferrari's 17s, was a member of the Fire program last spring and summer and will be joining the loaded 17-and-under team for this weekend's Nike EYBL Tournament in Dallas.

For starters, Parker, a talented 6-8 do-it-all forward, wanted a chance to play against the nation's best. And the NIKE EYBL schedule, which has been a huge hit and success across the country, brings the top national players and club programs together for four different events. Parker will potentially have a chance to go up against the top player in the class, 6-9 Julius Randle out of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Texas.

"He wants competition, the top competition," says Jabari's father, Sonny Parker. "He wants to play against the best. One of Jabari's individual goals is to be the best. And they say Julius Randle is the No. 1 player, so this gives him a chance to play against him and other top players at events like the EYBL and get better as a player."

The opportunity to face the nation's elite was one of the factors that went into Parker's decision to return to the Mac Irvin Fire. In addition, several of Parker's good friends, including Whitney Young's Tommy Hamilton, currently play with the Fire. He spoke with his parents and told them what he wanted.

"This was Jabari's decision," says Sonny. "There was no pressure from anyone. Plus, with his friends there with the Fire, he was looking ahead to next year as well."

Former Marshall star Darius Smith signs with EIU

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By Joe Henricksen

Former Marshall star Darius Smith, who signed with Connecticut out of high school and played this past season at College of Southern Idaho Junior College, is heading back home. The 6-2 combo guard signed with coach Mike Miller and Eastern Illinois on Tuesday.

Smith, who was an all-stater and among the top five prospects in Illinois in the Class of 2009, filled a stat sheet at CSI this past season, averaging 8.5 points, 5.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds and nearly 4 steals a game. In addition, Smith continued to build on his reputation as a winner as he helped lead College of Southern Idaho to the NJCAA National Championship this past season.

While at Marshall, Smith was part of an impressive four-year run, which included a 31-win state championship season his junior year. As a four-year varsity starter, Smith helped lead the Commandos to 103 victories. A first-team Hoops Report All-Stater in 2009, Smith averaged 23 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds and 6 steals a game his senior year.

"He has a will to win and has been a winner throughout his career," said Eastern Illinois coach Barron Thelmon, who was the lead recruiter for Smith. "Darius is a leader, will go extremely hard for you and has a chance to do some great things for us."

While Smith isn't a pure point guard or a sweet-shooting 2-guard, he's a basketball player who has always found a way to make an impact in a variety of ways.

Smith joins a spring recruiting class that added Champaign Centennial's Josh Piper a week ago. The 6-8 Piper, who helped lead Centennial to a state title as a sophomore and a fourth-place finish as a junior, averaged 19 points and 10.4 rebounds a game as a senior.

No AD this year but Spring Showdown a hit

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By Joe Henricksen

A year ago the Nike Spring Showdown in Merrillville was the official unveiling of what would ultimately be the biggest individual story of the next 12 months -- Anthony Davis of Chicago Perspectives.

By now everyone knows how the story played out. Davis wowed everyone in attendance in his coming-out party in Merrillville last April, high-majors immediately came calling, he vaulted to the top of the national rankings, signed with Kentucky and became an All-American. Now he's projected to be a NBA Lottery Pick 14 months from now.

While there was no Anthony Davis story coming out of Merrillville this past weekend, the event again featured nearly all the top club programs and dozens of the top prospects in the state in every age group. And with the amount of talent on display, there were certainly some individuals who made the most of it.

Simpson stepping up
Maybe all the talk about Simeon's Steve Taylor as the state's No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2012 invigorated Champaign Central's Jay Simpson. Maybe it's just the natural progression of a big man, which typically always takes time. But how Simpson played in Merrillville with his Illinois Wolves team, particularly in a Saturday matchup with the Illinois Warriors, was as impressive as Simpson has looked. Simpson's performance in Merrillville was certainly one of the top three or four individual storylines the Hoops Report took from the weekend.

Yes, we know. The Class of 2012 is lacking in Illinois. But simply put, Simpson does things that no other player in the class can do with his combination of size and skill. While he's all of 6-8 and 235 pounds, Simpson has such a great touch for a player his age and size. Simpson certainly has had his moments in each of the previous two weekends at the Hall of Fame Classic in Chicago and the Battle for the Arch in St. Louis. But in Merrillville, in a tough one-point loss to the Warriors, Simpson showed why Purdue locked him up early and why he remains one of the top prospects in the state of Illinois in the junior class.

In each of the last three weeks, Simpson has showed the ability to step out and knock down the 18-20 foot jumper. That continued in Merrillville, but he scored in such a variety of ways -- a turnaround 15-foot baseline jumper here, a baby jump-hook in the lane there. He posted up on the block, he finished around the rim with both hands, took contact, got to the line and, maybe most importantly, was very active. He rebounded better and kept balls alive on the offensive glass with second and third-chance opportunities.

The knock on Simpson has been conditioning and fatigue, part of which has been corrected since correctly dealing with an asthma issue, along with just playing hard, being consistent and productive for long stretches. Those issues have often led to some moments where Simpson does disappear and become a non-factor. While those are areas he is still dealing with, there is no doubt the size and skill he possesses are unique and very intriguing.

Wilbut putting it together
There has never been an issue when it comes to the pure talent and athleticism of Downers Grove South's Jerron Wilbut. That talent was often of the untapped variety, especially 12 months ago, but the 6-3 guard has come a long way and shined for the Wolves in Merrillville.

After playing limited time in St. Louis last weekend, Wilbut was at his absolute best in Merrillville as far as showcasing his greatest qualities. He shot the ball well and with range, showed his underrated strength in passing the ball and played at a high level athletically on both ends of the floor. Plus, he played within himself and in the flow of the game.

While Wilbut has been a fixture in the Hoops Report's top 10 prospects in the Class of 2012 for the past year, he's without question one of the top five heading into the summer.

State's most underrated?
There are varying degrees of underrated. And when it comes to individual players there are always a number of them who can be tagged with the "underrated" label. But through the April events the two players in the Class of 2012 who have really been consistent forces for their respective teams and impressed the Hoops Report -- but with little fanfare and far too little college attention -- are Winnebago's Marcus Posely and Peoria Manual's Jeff "Keke" White.

These two seniors-to-be are actually very similar in many ways. Posely and White both play with an extremely high motor, get after it nearly every time you watch them play, are tough and play to win. It's impossible not to love how both these kids play and carry themselves on the floor.

Posely, a bit of an undersized 2-guard, plays bigger than he is and is sneaky athletic with a first step that allows him to get by people. Before you know it he's blown by the defender and is at the rim finishing with his strong body. He's relentless and persistent when taking it to the basket. What he has also shown is an improved ability to knock down perimeter shots. While he will need to get his shot off a little more quickly, his release and mechanics look cleaner than a year ago and he's certainly more efficient with it. We're talking an ideal mid-major prospect who has moved himself into the Hoops Report's top 20 players in the Class of 2012.

The fact White has just one offer -- from Southern Illinois a while back -- says two things: White is clearly the most overlooked player in Illinois right now and kudos to SIU. There is plenty of college interest percolating around White, with offers surely to start flowing in sooner than later, but the Hoops Report can't say enough about all that White brings to the table as a player for his team and as a prospect.

The 6-0 combo guard's shiftiness and change of speeds allows him to get where he needs to with the ball. While his three-point shot is a work in progress, he now has a nicely developed mid-range game to go with his ability to find his way to the basket and finish. White anticipates so well, both defensively and what the defense gives him on the offensive end. Like Posely, White is a classic mid-major guard who is also now among the top 20 prospects in the class.

And 2013's most underrated?
Again, the underrated list could include many as several players in this class are just beginning to be noticed and get their names out there. While the Hoops Report loved what it saw from Hyde Park's Kyle Davis last summer and this past season, he's worth mentioning again as he continues to show he's a top-level prospect in the Class of 2013 and better than some of the more ballyhooed, more-talked-about players in the class.

Davis, who helped lead the Mac Irvin Fire 16s to a tournament title, is an extremely quick and explosive player. The 6-0 guard is a blur in the open court and a big-time finisher, especially for his size. He's quick and a pest on the defensive end who looks like he enjoys pressuring opposing ballhandlers. Another couple of years with Lamont Bryant at Hyde Park, whose system certainly won't tame his strengths, and it's easy to see how Davis will put up some staggering numbers and gain a whole lot of attention.

Mac Irvin Fire 16s win title
The aforementioned Kyle Davis of Hyde Park played a key role in the Mac Irvin Fire's run to the 16-and-under tournament title, but the focal point remains 6-9 Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young. By now everyone forgets the big, talented kid is playing up an age group and still impacting each game he plays with his talent and presence. There is nothing more to say other than Okafor is a special prospect when you consider his overall talent, age and size. In addition, Proviso East's Sterling Brown, a 6-4 wiry wing, gets better and better and is one of those players with an enormous upside. He's quietly putting together a terrific spring. Brown, Davis and Bogan's 6-7 Moshawn Thomas are a trio of Fire 16s who are all among the top dozen players in the impressive Class of 2013.

Shout out to D-Rose All-Stars
In what was perhaps the best and most intense game of the day on Saturday, the D-Rose All-Stars pulled off a shocker in knocking off the highly-regarded Meanstreets 16-and-under team. Meanstreets has been one of the premier teams this spring, with Simeon's Kendrick Nunn and the De La Salle trio of Alex Foster, Jaylon Tate and Alvin Ellis leading them to a pair of tournament titles.

But the D-Rose All-Stars played fearless and just got after it in an overtime win, highlighted by Kendall Pollard's driving layup in the closing seconds for a dramatic one-point victory. The 6-4 Pollard, by the way, will certainly add to coach Rob Smith's depth at Simeon next year. Marist guard L.J. McIntosh, who was huge for D-Rose in the win over Meanstreets with his shooting and scoring, was another sophomore who impressed this weekend in Merrillville.

Hoops Report's Tournament (Illinois) MVP
While there were many out-of-state standouts in Merrillville who probably showed they were the best prospects and most productive players in the event, from an Illinois perspective there was no player who was more impressive or did more for his team than Fred Van Vleet of Rockford Auburn. There were higher level prospects in the gym from Illinois, but Van Fleet, who led Pryme Tyme to surprising upsets and a 17-and-under title game appearance, was the Hoops Report's tournament MVP.

The 5-11 junior is as savvy and as pure of a point guard as there is in the Class of 2012. His vision and passing, along with his feel and basketball I.Q., are off the charts. But those are the attributes anyone and everyone has come away with after watching the extremely skilled lead guard.

More importantly, Van Vleet shot the ball better than any other time the Hoops Report has watched him over the past few years and played with consistent energy. If Van Vleet can kick those two particular knocks to the curb, then the lack of ideal quickness and athleticism won't be nearly as big of an issue as high-major schools try to determine if he can truly play at that level. As of now, he's a no-brainer mid-major/mid-major plus talent as a pure point guard.

A quick thank you to Brian Stinnette and the Nike Spring Showdown staff as the 3rd Annual event brought an enormous amount of talent together and kept them local.

Top young talent visiting Illinois

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By Joe Henricksen

The University of Illinois basketball program will open its doors to one of the nation's best young talents on Saturday when Johnnie Vassar visits campus.

Vassar, a 6-0 freshman point guard and Chicago native who attends highly-regarded Lawrence Academy in Groton (Mass.), is considered by many to be one of the top players nationally in the Class of 2014. Superlatives like "special" and "unique" have been thrown around when it comes to describing Vassar's talents by those who have watched him play and character by those who know him. Vassar is considered to be an explosive lefty point guard with great athleticism and tools that give him star potential. 

"People talk about my defense a lot too," Vassar was quick to tell the Hoops Report, which is something that doesn't come out of the mouth of too many young players today.

What is also "special" and "unique" about Vassar is that when talking with him it's easy to think you're having a conversation with a freshman in college rather than a freshman in high school. He's extremely sharp, respectful, goal-driven and mature for his age, qualities that shine through pretty easily and show the job his mother, Cherise Vassar, has done in raising him.

The idea of a prospect like Vassar on campus, with his talent, coming-of-age and character, will certainly excite coach Bruce Weber and the Illinois coaching staff. Vassar will be a huge recruiting priority for the Illinois staff going forward. With assistant coach Jerrance Howard leading the charge, Illinois was one of the first high-major programs on Vassar and will be the first to get a visit. Again, the recruiting aggressiveness by Illinois continues as Howard spent time at Lawrence Academy earlier this week and has placed an importance on building a relationship with Vassar and his family.

"This will be my first visit," says Vassar, whose family has also gotten to know Simeon sophomore Jabari Parker and his family in recent years. "I'm looking forward to the visit, seeing the school, visiting with the coaches. Coach Howard has been great. It should be fun. I'm familiar with Illinois. I followed their program and watched them a lot when Dee Brown and Deron Williams played there, and I really like Deron Williams as a player. I've also learned how strong Illinois is academically from my cousin who goes to school at Illinois right now."

Vassar and his family are originally from Chicago and his mother and family still reside there. 

"We live in Chicago, but I have been going to school at Lawrence Academy," says Vassar, who is home visiting for the weekend and has been attending a respected, high-academic boarding school for several years. "This gives me a chance to check out Illinois."

Vassar has Team USA Development Team experience and plays on the club circuit with BABC, which recently won the Hall of Fame New England Championship and reached the title game of the Nike Boo Williams Invitational earlier this spring. Vassar opened eyes at Boo Williams while playing with BABC's 15-and-under team.

Crete-Monee's Orris receives Illini offer

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By Joe Henricksen

The rise of Crete-Monee's Michael Orris continues. After leading the Warriors to the school's first sectional championship in March, the recruitment of the 6-3 point guard picked up steam and hasn't stopped.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber offered Orris on Thursday as the Fighting Illini look to add a point guard to the mix in the Class of 2012. Senior-to-be Sam Maniscalco, a transfer from Bradley, and incoming freshman Tracy Abrams of Mt. Carmel figure to share the 40 minutes next season, while incoming recruit Devin Langford out of Alabama could also figure into the point guard spot down the road.

Orris first received heavy interest and an offer from UIC as first-year coach Howard Moore has made Orris a recruiting priority. Creighton, Butler, William & Mary, Drake and Wisconsin-Green Bay have all shown heavy interest or have already offered Orris, who averaged 9.7 points and 6 assists a game in helping Crete-Monee to a 25-4 record.

If basketball I.Q. were a measurable statistic, then Orris may have led the state this past season. Orris is a winner and leader, the consummate point guard and a player who is extremely coachable and understands his job and role. He brings size and a competitive spirit to the lead guard position.

While he may not put up gaudy numbers, have the ideal explosiveness or dead-eye shooting range, Orris always shows patience, constantly has his head up and surveys the floor, which translates into the ideal vision you seek in a point guard. He's strong -- physical and mentally -- and continues to improve in all facets of his game.

Orris raised his stock this past season as much as anyone in the junior class. While the Hoops Report has Orris, the No. 9 ranked player in the Hoops Report's Class of 2012 player rankings, projected as a mid-major/mid-major plus prospect, he has intangibles that any coach at any level would covet.

"He makes us go," Crete-Monee coach Matt Ryndak said of Orris last month. "He is an extension of the coach out there on the floor. He's everything you ask for in a point guard and is such a presence."

Simeon's Taylor becoming 'the guy' in 2012

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By Joe Henricksen

When it comes to individual talent, the Class of 2012 in Illinois has been a little maligned as both fans and college coaches have patiently waited for the emergence of a coveted prospect in the class. Simeon's Steve Taylor appears ready to be that player.

Taylor, the 6-7 junior who helped lead Simeon to a second straight state championship this past March, evolved into the state's top prospect in the Class of 2012 over the past six months. Typically, being the top-rated prospect in any class from the state of Illinois means big-time attention and a national reputation. But there has been a lack of buzz surrounding Taylor when it comes to being the state's No. 1 junior.

"I don't pay attention to the rankings," Taylor told the Hoops Report. "I just try to stay humble and try to get better. My biggest thing is making it to the next level and preparing myself for that next step."

Taylor does stay humble when talking about himself. He has a good-natured attitude, big smile and is just an overall respectful kid who is easy to talk to. And he likes having a target on his back, which comes pretty easily when you play at Simeon.

"I don't like being the underdog, never want to be an underdog," Taylor says with a laugh. "I don't feel pressure, so it's nice to have that big target on your back. That means you're the best. We're the two-time defending state champs and we want to stay the best."

The lack of attention is all about to change when it comes to Taylor's reputation and recruitment. Look for Taylor to become a consensus top 100 player nationally by the time the club circuit plays out this spring and July. And college coaches are certainly taking notice in the new and improved Taylor, who shined at the Nike Boo Williams Tournament and has impressed college coaches in open gyms this spring. Taylor sports several high-major offers, with Memphis being the latest as coach Josh Pastner offered on Wednesday.

"The class is certainly not what you would expect from the state of Illinois," said one high-major coach who recruits the state of Illinois regularly. "But Steve Taylor is the guy."

This past Monday, there were two dozen coaches at Simeon's open gym. When you consider that Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn weren't in the gym on Monday, it's easy to see the interest in Taylor. Another dozen coaches showed up Wednesday afternoon. In all, nearly 25 coaches from around the country checked in on Taylor this week alone.

"At one point, Steve didn't think he was playing very well if he wasn't scoring," says Simeon coach Robert Smith of Taylor, who averaged 9.7 points a game as a junior . "It took him some time to realize that he can impact a game in other ways and play well without necessarily scoring."

Taylor led Simeon in rebounding down the stretch this past season, averaging over 9 boards a game in the seven March victories. But what gets college coaches excited is a 6-7 face-up player who can knock down shots out to 22 feet and really run the floor.

"He is always in the gym," says Smith. "He loves it. He's improved his ballhandling and his decision-making is getting better and better. I think the sky is the limit for him."

Taylor's recruitment is truly wide open as he, his family and Smith are just beginning to get to know the high-major programs that are recruiting him.

"I haven't really even started to sort things out," says Taylor.

There will be plenty to sort out between now and signing day in November for the state's No. 1 junior.

Lewis continues recruiting roll

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By Joe Henricksen

Lewis University has been active recruiting the Class of 2011. And coach Scott Trost added another impressive piece to his recruiting haul, landing Homewood-Flossmoor standout Julian Lewis Thursday morning.

Lewis, who had received Division I interest and a couple of offers, chose to stay close to home and joins an impressive recruiting class with a strong local flavor. Lewis joins Riverside-Brookfield guard Ryan Jackson, Naperville Central's 6-6 David Niggins and Morton point guard Jeff Jarosz.

Trost will welcome a player in Lewis who will offer plenty of versatility. At 6-5 with strength and athleticism, Lewis can defend multiple positions at the Division II level and, in time, may be able to play three different spots on the floor. Lewis has been a fixture for coach Jim McLaughlin at H-F as a player who defends, rebounds and added to his offensive repertoire this past season.

In two big wins at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament over Proviso West and Proviso East, Lewis was at his best. He scored 59 points (on an impressive 21 of 30 from the field) in the two victories, with 17 rebounds, 8 assists and 7 steals in helping the Vikings to the Proviso West Holiday Tournament title game, where it eventually fell to Benet Academy.

Trost now has the ultimate underrated recruiting class with underappreciated players who bring so much value to a basketball program. (For more on Jarosz and Niggins from a Hoops Report blog in January go to Give'em Some Love.)

Illinois preps shine under the Arch

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By Joe Henricksen

After taking in three days of action in St. Louis in a highly-competitive, Illinois loaded, well run Battle for the Arch Tournament, a few quick--and what is becoming obvious--observations:

Meanstreets 16s most impressive
Meanstreets was arguably the most impressive team this past weekend in St. Louis, beating Spiece Indy Heat to win the Battle for the Arch Tournament 16-and-under tournament. In addition, Meanstreets knocked off another Illinois powerhouse, the Illinois Wolves, in the semifinals. This is the second high-profile tournament title for Meanstreets 16s this spring, who are blessed with length, athleticism and put pressure on opposing teams with an attacking style on both ends of the floor.

Simeon sophomore standout Kendrick Nunn, along with the De La Salle trio of 6-7 Alex Foster, point guard Jaylon Tate and athletic wing Alvin Ellis, led the way for Meanstreets. Andrew's Jubril Adekoye, a 6-5 sophomore, also provided some valuable production.

The 6-1 Nunn, one of the top five sophomores in the state of Illinois, continues to impress. Nunn's overall game is evolving. He is already a high-major athlete and shooter with range and a quick release, but look for the rest of his game to flourish and make major strides over the spring, summer and into his junior year. Nunn looked even more comfortable with the ball in his hands than he did just a couple of months ago with his high school team. The trio of Nunn, Jabari Parker and Steve Taylor is one scary trio when thinking about Simeon for the 2011-2012 season.

Foster also played at a high level in St. Louis. He battled, competed and finished consistently around the basket. Foster was highly productive, beating other big men down the floor and a major factor on the glass.

Illinois Wolves best from top to bottom
The Meanstreets 16s and the Mac Irvin Fire 17s, who were not in St. Louis, are two of the elite individual club teams in the state of Illinois. These two teams have been the most impressive of the Illinois teams in their respective age groups this spring. But when it comes to the club program with the combination of overall talent and team success up and down the top three age groups, the Illinois Wolves get the edge in the early going.

The Wolves 17s, which won the Hall of Fame Classic two weeks ago with a win over All-Illinois Ferrari, won its pool in the Battle for the Arch. The Wolves then made a run in St. Louis before falling in the title game to the Kansas City 76ers to finish 5-1 in tournament play. The Wolves will head to the Nike Spring Showdown this weekend with a 10-1 record.

In 16-and-under action, the Wolves reached the semifinals in gold tournament play after winning their pool and are now 9-1 on the season. The Wolves 15s are now 8-2 overall.

A few Wolves who opened the Hoops Report's eyes ...
Jeff "Keke" Stokes, 6-1, Jr., Peoria (Manual) ... He may not be a true point guard. He may not be the ideal shooting guard. But White is just a flat-out basketball player. He will knock down a shot, defend, compete at a high level and just find ways to make plays. Stokes has certainly taken his game to another level.
Bobo Drummond, 5-10, Jr., LaPorte, Ind. (La Lumiere) ... When it comes to the former Peoria Central standout, it's not necessarily about the numbers. Drummond is the quintessential point guard who has a way of controlling a team and impacting a game. Southern Illinois has the ideal Missouri Valley point guard in Drummond, who committed to the Salukis last year.
Kendall Stephens, 6-4, So., St. Charles (East) ... The silky smooth Stephens is already among the Hoops Report's top six prospects in the state regardless of class. He just has that touch, range and release you covet to go along with the length and look of a player.
David Cohn, 6-2, So., Elmhurst (York) ... As he matures physically and gets stronger, Cohn will be a ton. He's a skilled point guard with a feel, an ability to put the ball in the hole and better quickness than people realize.
Peyton Allen, 6-4, Fr., Chatham-Glenwood ... Although Allen suffered a concussion on Sunday morning, prior to the injury he showed he's a rising prospect in the loaded Class of 2014. Allen offers so much versatility for a young player.

Super Sleeper
Nathan Taphorn, 6-6, So., Pekin ... This is another Wolves player who isn't quite yet on the radar but will be soon, due to his size on the perimeter and as a player who will ultimately be one of the better shooters in the class. Long and lanky, yet not anywhere near physically developed, the kid can flat-out shoot it and has a solid basketball I.Q.

Class of 2014 is pretty special
The number of legitimate high-major prospects in the Class of 2012 (this year's junior class) can be counted on one hand. The Class of 2013, featuring one of the nation's top five players in Simeon's Jabari Parker, is blessed with some tremendous individual talent. But the Class of 2014 in Illinois is poised to be a special one as more and more talent surfaces. For a class to have this much legitimate high-major potential this early in the process is rare. Time will tell how the individuals in this class mature and develop as players over the next three years.

Whitney Young's 6-9 Jahlil Okafor is clearly at the top of the class and his Dolphin teammate, 6-6 Paul White, is right behind him as a top-level prospect. Those two are elite prospects, but the Hoops Report believes Zion-Benton's Milik Yarbrough is also in that "elite young prospect" conversation. Yarbrough may not be an over-the-top athlete, but he's 6-4 and growing with super long arms. He's just a bundle of talent. Yarbrough is a versatile scorer and player who creates mismatches for opposing teams and is dominating against players his own age.

Chatham Glenwood's 6-4 Peyton Allen and Providence St. Mel guard Tevin King are two others in the Class of 2014 who impressed this past weekend and are among the top dozen prospects in the class. But the Hoops Report believes the biggest sleeper -- or no-namer right now -- is Neuqua Valley's 6-4 Elijah Robertson. While Robertson is still developing and may not be at the current level as some of the more familiar names in the class, the potential is there to ultimately be that player in time.

Other random thoughts from St. Louis
•The NLP backcourt of Keith Carter of Proviso East and North Chicago's Aaron Simpson both shined at different moments in St. Louis. Simpson did what he does best. When it comes to the current crop of juniors in Illinois, Simpson may dominate the ball as much as anyone but he also has perhaps the strongest ability to put the ball in the hole. Carter, meanwhile, often goes unappreciated, but the 6-0 junior has a long list of on-court tangibles that you appreciate the more you watch him.

• If Malcolm Hill of Belleville East were playing in the Chicago area, he would have been talked about this past winter as one of the young breakout stars in the sophomore class. After putting himself on the map with a stellar sophomore year, Hill bumped his way into the Hoops Report's top dozen prospects in the Class of 2013. He will stay there and continue to climb as he polishes up his game, adds strength to his 6-4 and growing frame and his perimeter shot improves.

Champaign Centennial's Corvon Butler is one of the real underrated and lesser-known prospects in the state. Butler, who transferred in from Indiana last year, is powerfully built and extremely strong. At 6-4 he's still a bit of a tweener, but he gobbles up rebounds and is a high-level athlete with some eye-popping finishes at the rim.

• A lot of people and even some college programs are missing the boat right now on Thornwood's Darrell Combs. The smooth 6-1 combo guard just scores it easily and did it again for the Meanstreets 17s in opening night action Friday night.

• The Hoops Report loves Winnebago's Marcus Posley, a 6-1 junior who plays with Rockford Auburn's highly-regarded point guard Fred Van Fleet on Pryme Tyme's 17s. Posley plays with a motor nearly every time he steps on the floor and he's starting to knock down perimeter shots consistently.

Lincoln-Way Central's Brad Foster, who is playing with the Illinois Warriors, is a mobile 6-8 mid-major prospect. Like all big men, Foster is a work in progress. But he's agile, runs the floor and has a skill level for a player his size that will grab the attention of plenty of mid-major college programs.

Small college programs hit it big locally

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By Joe Henricksen

While Division I schools are trying to land and sign the final pieces to their Class of 2011 recruiting hauls, small college recruiting is reaching a climax. And Washington University landed a good one as Maine South's Matt Palucki gave a commitment to the St. Louis Division III power.

Palucki is one of the premier small college prospects in the state of Illinois and is arguably the Division III recruiting steal in the Class of 2011. The 6-7 senior had a stellar career for coach Tony Lavorato as a four-year starter and captain. He was a two-time All-Central Suburban League South player and an IBCA fourth-team all-stater this past season after averaging 19.6 points and 9 rebounds a game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He is the single game, season and career leader in rebounds at Maine South.

In addition to leading Maine South to 49 wins the past two seasons, Palucki's game grew as he became one of the more versatile players in the Chicago area. A tough, hard-nosed jack-of-all trades player who is capable of playing three different positions. Palucki showed he's capable of playing on the perimeter with his improved ballhandling and perimeter shooting over the past year, while also still being such a factor around the basket with his good feel and battle-tested will and desire inside.

Wash U. coach Mark Edwards, who has built his program into a Division III national power, already secured Glenbrook North big man Peter Szostak.

Other small college recruiting notes ...
Roosevelt University has certainly made a presence recruiting the Chicago area and the state of Illinois. Head coach Joe Griffin has landed 6-6 Elliott Vaughn of Batavia and Glenbard East guard Tyree York, a defensive whiz who played a key role for the state's Class 4A third-place team.

A Hoops Report favorite, Morton point guard Jeff Jarosz, will be headed to Division II Lewis. The kid competes at a high level, shows no fear and has an uncanny ability in finding ways to get things done and produce.

Coach John Baines picked up two very solid players at NAIA St. Francis earlier this month, landing both guard Chris Miller of Rockford Boylan and 6-5 wing Darius Draper of Stagg.

Downers Grove South big man Ziggy Riauka, who evolved from a role-playing junior to a difference-making senior this past season, will be headed to Division II Wisconsin-Parkside. Riauka has a nice upside with his combination of size and skill and should develop into a solid Division II player for coach Luke Reigel.

Another Wisconsin school, Wisconsin-Whitewater, has hit Illinois hard. The Warhawks landed Glenbard East's Kevin Priebe, who had a big state tournament run for the Rams, and are heavily involved with both 6-7 Justin Scanlan of Plainfield Central and scoring guard Sam Sutter of South Elgin.

Glenbrook South standout Jack Ryan will be a walk-on at Stanford, while Glenbrook North shooter Tommy Hanrahan will be headed to DePauw.

Hoops Report's player power rankings

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By Joe Henricksen

The high school basketball season is over. The club circuit is upon us. And if anyone wants to argue and debate that the "offseason" isn't about the individual player, line up at my door.

With that being said, the Hoops Report takes a look at the top individual college prospects in the state of Illinois in this player power ranking (top six players are listed in this blog with another blog coming to add to the list).

Unfortunately, the list of the top six prospects doesn't include a single player from the Class of 2012. With Simeon sophomore Jabari Parker and Whitney Young freshman Jahlil Okafor clearly at the top and at a different level than their peers, here are the top 10 college prospects in the state of Illinois -- regardless of class.

1. JABARI PARKER, 6-8, WF, Chicago (Simeon)
Year: Class of 2013
What's to like: A one-of-a-kind talent. No one playing in the state of Illinois today (well, except Derrick Rose) is wired like Jabari Parker. Parker's will to win, team-first attitude and desire to get better as a player separates him from everyone else. Plus, he's already shown the "I get better when it matters most" gene. And, oh, he's 6-8, skilled, extremely versatile and people are finally beginning to understand he's way more athletic and explosive than given credit for.
So far: Parker has accomplished what we expect great players to do. He has been a part of two state championships for the South Side power Wolverines. He's ranked among the top five players in his class nationally. And he will be a team U.S.A. basketball fixture going forward.
Needs to: Stay grounded and humble. This shouldn't be a problem as this is one of his real strengths. Parker has rare abilities for a player with his size at his age, but maybe even more rare, is how self-effacing and truly modest this kid is, which is a credit to the loved ones around him and a true plus in his favor in his development as a player.

2. Jahlil Okafor, 6-9, C, Chicago (Whitney Young)
Year: Class of 2014
What's to like: Oh, mercy! The quintessential big man doesn't come around very often, but Okafor is the type of player we haven't seen around here in a long time -- an imposing physical presence who will overwhelm high school players in time. He's huge, light on his feet, has an emerging back-to-the-basket game, soft touch around the rim and very great hands. And when you consider his age and the time he still has to develop, the future is a very similar to Parker's: unlimited.
So far: He's only played one varsity season for a loaded Whitney Young program, but he proved his worth in the small role he played as a freshman. Like Parker, Okafor is one of the top players nationally in his class and will be one of the most coveted prospects in the country over the next three years.
Needs to: With great size and good agility, Okafor is not an overwhelming athlete. We're not talking Dwight Howard here; think Brook Lopez. Going forward, he must continue to add to his game. While he will be a dominating figure on the block with his size and feel, if Okafor develops a consistent 12-15 foot jumper? ... It's over.

3. Cliff Alexander, 6-8, C, Chicago (Curie)
Year: Class of 2014
What's to like: He's huge. A true big man with legit size, girth and he moves well for his size. With an ability to finish around the basket with authority on dunks and block and alter shots defensively, Alexander is a coveted big man prospect. The state has produced very few true big men in recent years, but Alexander has a chance to be one of the best that have come through the state. Big Cliff has a chance to be a real force in the paint and a big-time prospect.
So far: A slow start for Alexander as a freshman on varsity, even missing time in December. But Alexander certainly had his moments late in the year, including a 23-point, 8 dunk performance in a Public League playoff win over Marshall. He also had 12 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in a regional win over Richards and 9 points, 13 rebounds in the season-ending loss to Lyons.
Needs to: The big Condor will need to continue to define and shape his body and endurance. When that happens, Alexander will offer game-changing plays on a consistent basis. The development of big men typically takes time, but Alexander is already ahead of the curve.

4. Paul White, 6-6, WF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
Year: Class of 2014
What's to like: Remember not too long ago when the "point forward" was at the tip of the tongue in the basketball lexicon? (Thank you, Scottie Pippen!). While that terminology has cooled in recent years, point forward certainly comes to mind when watching the versatile and smooth game the long and skilled White brings to the floor. He's a player with size on the perimeter who can handle it, see the floor and make plays.
So far: White was another one of those early middle school hot shot names that pops up way too early in this day of hyping young kids. But he is also one that has grabbed the attention of high-major college coaches and even been offered before he played a varsity minute of high school basketball. His role, both on the club circuit and high school team next winter, will expand greatly.
Needs to: Like so many of those great "point forwards" who have been talked about in the past, White needs to continue tightening up his perimeter jumper and become consistent with his shot. That alone will make all other parts of his game better and elevate his stock and ceiling.

5. Tommy Hamilton, 6-9, PF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
Year: Class of 2013
What's to like: Since a very young age it's been impossible not to be intrigued by Hamilton's combination of tremendous size and skill. The big-bodied "Big Ham" has the capability of dropping in three-pointers and look good doing it, while also having a nice feel for the game with his footwork and a no-look pass here and there. While he's not your typical big man on the block, his face-up ability for a player his age and size is impressive. He's just so big and skilled.
So far: A bit of an up-and-down first two years of high school and summer play but with some very high peaks. But that is to be expected from a player with size and who is so young. He's been a valuable figure, though not yet dominating one, for one of the most talent-filled high school programs in the state.
Needs to: Keep with the renaissance. It sounds simple, but he must keep playing, work hard, stay in shape and remain focused. If all of those fall into place, Hamilton will live up to the absurd expectations placed on the kid when he was in 7th and 8th grade.

6. Kendall Stephens, 6-4, 2G, St. Charles (East)
Year: Class of 2013
What's to like: The Hoops Report admits to having a thing for Stephens as a player early on and hasn't let up. The Hoops Report hype, however, is warranted. The Purdue commit is the Illinois high school version of UConn's Jeremy Lamb. He possessed a high-major quality at a young age: a silky smooth perimeter jumper with a feathery touch and range. He has that ideal height, length and wingspan of a big-time 2-guard. Plus, he's grounded, works hard on his game, has great bloodlines and is barely scratching the surface as a player.
So far: After showing flashes and promise late in his freshman year, Stephens blossomed this past season as a sophomore. He averaged 17 points a game and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Several high-majors took notice and he committed to Purdue, where his father Everette Stephens starred in the 1980s.
Needs to: Physical development and maturity will take care of any lingering issues of how big of an impact he can make at the high-major level. He will add weight and strength in time. When he does that, along with improving his overall ballhanding, Stephens will reach the level the Hoops Report envisions down the road.

Fire, Wolves off to fast starts

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By Joe Henricksen

The club basketball season is just starting, with a couple of weekends in the books and some big events on the horizon. While there are dozens of club basketball programs throughout the Chicago area and around the state, there are three that have set themselves up nicely for the spring and summer.

All eyes will be on the Mac Irvin Fire, Illinois Wolves and All-Illinois Ferrari. These three programs are loaded with individual talent up and down the different age groups. But the Illinois Wolves and the Mac Irvin Fire have jumped out of the gate quickly.

The Wolves, who may have the deepest and most balanced collection of talent of any club program in the state when you include the top three age groups, ran the table at the Hall of Fame Classic this past weekend in Chicago. All three of the Wolves teams--17s, 16s and 15s--went unbeaten in claiming titles.

The Mac Irvin Fire, one of the oldest programs in the state, has started the spring with a bang. The naysayers will claim a lack of overall team success the past two years with so many high-profile stars--albeit against tough competition. But the Fire already have captured two tournament titles this year, winning the Spring Tip-Off Classic in late March and the Swish & Dish in Milwaukee last weekend. And this past weekend at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational, the Fire 17s went 5-0 and the Fire 16s also went 5-0.

When looking at this year's Fire, coach Mike Irvin may have better balance and individual fits than the Fire have had the past couple of years. And that can often lead to players understanding their role and better chemistry.

"I took advice from my dad and started getting players by position and looking for real Chicago defensive kids," says Irvin, regarding conversations with his father Mac Irvin, the original grassroots basketball legend.

A clear advantage the Fire could have going forward is the unique size it possesses. There is good size and terrific versatility in the frontcourt with 6-9 Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young, 6-7 Steve Taylor of Simeon, 6-7 Russell Woods of Leo and 6-7 Jermaine Morgan of Whitney Young. These four big kids offer a wide range of skills, strengths and attributes that complement one another and pose tough matchups for opponents.

There is length and athleticism on the wing in the Hales combo of Eddie Alcantera and Aaric Armstead. Plus, the tandem is a pair of winners that are coming off a state championship season this past winter.

And the point guard position, which has been one area of concern over the past couple of years in the Fire program, is solidified with Whitney Young's Derrick Randolph. Forget about Randolph's size. The 5-6 fireplug is a difference-maker when he's playing his best basketball. And Morgan Park's Billy Garrett has the ability to play both guard positions, while Simeon's Jelani Neely is a lead guard with championship experience.

"Derrick, Jelani and Billy have been huge for this team," Irvin points out.

The Hoops Report's top 10 club teams to watch this spring and summer
(listed in alphabetical order)

All-Illinois Ferrari 17s
All-Illinois Ferrari 15s
Illinois Wolves 17s
Illinois Wolves 16s
Illinois Wolves 15s
Mac Irvin Fire 17s
Mac Irvin Fire 16s
Mac Irvin Fire 15s
Meanstreets 16s
Meanstreets 15s

On a sad note
The City/Suburban Hoops Report sends out its thoughts and prayers to Simeon coach Robert Smith and his family. Smith's mother, Sharon Smith, passed away late Saturday night. As noted in an earlier blog, Sharon Smith was hospitalized Mar. 15 and was awaiting a heart donor.

NIU lands Gray twins

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By Joe Henricksen

Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery, who has been on the job for just a few weeks, locked up his first Chicago area commitment as Keith and Kevin Gray of Brooks committed to the Huskies.

The 6-7 athletic twins, who helped lead Brooks to a city championship and a third-place finish in Class 3A, are bouncy and active inside players. Keith Gray, among the top 35 prospects in the loaded Class of 2011, averaged 15.7 points and 11 rebounds a game this past season, while Kevin Gray averaged 11 points and 9.7 rebounds.

Keith Gray had a knack for playing his best in big games, including his 22 point, 18-rebound performance against Simeon and 23 points and 14 rebounds against Morgan Park. The Gray twins are bouncy, active and became much more assertive and productive over the course of their senior year.

Over the weekend, Montgomery dipped into his Michigan ties and secured a commitment from a highly-regarded guard out of Saginaw. Marquavis Ford, a 6-2 guard, will sign this week and be a part of the NIU Class of 2011 recruiting class.

NIU is also in hot pursuit of De La Salle's Dre Henley, one of the top uncommitted players in the state.

A whole new feel with NIU hoops

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By Joe Henricksen

Mark Montgomery gets it. The new head coach at Northern Illinois has endured a flurry of activity any new coach on the job experiences, but he's already cognizant of what needs to be done to make NIU basketball relevant. And he's anxious to get started on fulfilling that vision.

The introductory press conferences are over. The short and quick media attention given to the Mid-American Conference school has come and gone. The brief honeymoon period any new coach receives has started. And Montgomery has stressed the goal for the program is for all their student-athletes to "reach their full potential academically, athletically and socially."

Yes, attaining those goals are essential and vitally important. But what has recently held NIU basketball back and what has been lacking is any type of presence, particularly when it comes to recruiting the Chicago area. And a visible head coach is imperative in creating that presence. Ask a majority of local basketball observers and "it" people in Chicago hoops, and that's a big part of why a coaching change was needed after the Huskies finished 19-41 over the past two seasons.

While hiring a coach who comes from the highly-successful Tom Izzo coaching tree is a terrific start, that splash will only go so far and last so long.

Recruiting power and success, especially in a place like Northern Illinois that is a stones throw away from its recruiting base, comes by building relationships and being seen and heard. As a whole, from top to bottom, that just didn't materialize in recent years under the old staff.

Montgomery and his partially assembled staff--a third assistant still needs to be hired--have already made a conscious effort to reach out. By all accounts, Montgomery made a solid hire by bringing on Dayton assistant Jon Borovich, who is a sharp, easy-to-talk-to assistant who brings a lot to the table from his years under coach Brian Gregory. Montgomery also kept a true bright spot from the old regime, Todd Townsend, who has certainly made recruiting inroads and connections in his short time in DeKalb.

Together, the three of them have been doing all they can, even in a relatively short period of time, to connect with as many people--the right people--as possible. The getting-to-know-you process will continue, but Montgomery realizing the importance of that process is a huge step in the right direction.

"Without relationships we have nothing," Montgomery points out. "You have to establish relationships. It's the backbone to everything--from recruiting to the overall advancement of the basketball program."

Like all coaches at their respective schools, Montgomery wants to get kids excited about NIU basketball. Every coach wants kids excited to be around the program and around the coaching staff, including Montgomery. He wants kids on campus. He wants them visiting with their families and seeing up close what the program and staff is all about. But none of that happens on its own. That's where Montgomery and his staff understand and believe hard work will get it done.

"I can guarantee visibility will not be an issue," says Montgomery.

And at Northern Illinois it should never be an issue, certainly not when a quick 45 to 90 minute car ride can get a coach to any gym in the city and suburbs.

"It's essential that we as a staff are visible," Montgomery reiterates. "Building those relationships are what helps you connect with players and their families, with both high school coaches and AAU coaches. We have to have those connections and build those relationships."

While it will take time, those connections and relationships are what will rejuvenate NIU hoops. And when it comes to first impressions in that regard, Montgomery is off to the right start.

Addressing state tournament attendance

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By Joe Henricksen
The attendance at the state tournament is in decline. That is a fact. There are debates as to what is the major reason. The poor economy and the four-class system hit simultaneously, so those are the factors many throw around in recent years.
The tournament moved to Peoria in 1996, with the big school tournament drawing solid numbers. As noted in a previous blog, those first few years in Peoria included the great and memorable Peoria Manual-Thornton battles in 1996 and 1997, with a surplus of big-time individual talent flooding the Elite Eight field in Peoria in 1998.
The overall attendance numbers for Class AA remained steady from 1996-2007, averaging 42,755 over the first 12 years playing in Peoria. Then the four-class system started in 2008.

In the first three years of four class basketball (2008-2010), the big school tournament (Class 4A and 3A) averaged an all-time low of 32,854 in that three-year period. That's a decline of just under 10,000 fans a year. If you take the middle ticket price for this year's state tournament, which was $8.50, and multiply by the empty seats in comparison to the attendance for the two-class system, we're talking roughly an $85,000 loss per year.
Those are certainly some significant numbers--and losses. The drop in attendance, however, has been ongoing for decades, before the economy tanked and before four classes sucked the life out of the average high school basketball fan. We have seen total attendance figures for the state tournament weekend plummet over time, from 60,000-plus in its heyday to the 50,000 and 40,000-plus range to 30,000-plus to the paltry 27,184 total fans that watched the Class 4A/3A state tournament in 2010.
Is there anything that can help change the tide?
Time to change the calendar
You know what played a big part in the demise of state tournament attendance in Champaign? The NCAA Tournament.
When the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and added a weekend to its Big Dance in 1985, it interfered with the IHSA's state tournament being played in Champaign. The first two rounds of NCAA Tournament play was now the same weekend as the Class AA state tournament. 
And about the same time, the University of Illinois basketball program became regulars in the NCAA Tournament. What do you think a lot of the locals in Champaign, surrounding communities and even those around the state cared about in the 1980s? The interest and importance on Fighting Illini basketball was felt during state tournament time, with the IHSA state basketball tournament taking a back seat and many fans lost as a result.
Want proof? In the years leading up to the NCAA Tournament expansion in 1985, the Class A Elite Eight and Class AA Elite Eight drew comparative numbers when it came to attendance. But looking at closely, from 1972, which was the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of the 14 years
Here are some of those numbers:
• In 1980 Class AA drew 52,516 fans, while Class A drew 45,632.
• In 1981 it was similar, with Class AA drawing 51,133 and Class A drawing 44,743.
• In 1983 and 1984, Class A had a slight advantage over Class AA in attendance.
• And in 1985, Class AA regained a slight bump over Class A -- 46,282 to 43,767.
The following year, however, with the state tournament bumping heads with the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, Class A attendance remained steady in 1986 with 51,462. But the Class AA tournament, which was a week later and directly up against the NCAA Tournament, saw attendance drop significantly to 38,000. 
The trend continued. In each of the next two years, the Class A Elite Eight attracted more fans than the Class AA Elite Eight. And in 1989, the year of the great "Flying Illini" team that eventually reached the Final Four, the Class A tournament drew 48,523 fans to Assembly Hall, while the Class AA tournament, played during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, drew a paltry 36,805. 
So from 1972, the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA state tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of those 14 years. And in the years Class AA didn't draw as many fans, the attendance figures were at least very close.

But as indicated, college hoops had its impact. Soon enough the NCAA Tournament became a sports spectacle, capturing the hearts of America, especially during the first four days of play while the big school state tournament in Illinois was being played. As that interest built up in the 1990s and filling out a bracket sheet became a must, the NCAA Tournament became a prominent part of the nation's sporting landscape.

Which leads us to this suggestion: what about a change in the IHSA basketball calendar? Why not move the season up one week to avoid the biggest sporting event this side of the Super Bowl?

To read the Hoops Report's previous blogs on the state of the IHSA basketball tournament, go to ...

Opportunity and competitive balance myth

State tournament demise continues

Sharpshooter Nelson heading to Evansville

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By Joe Henricksen

Lincoln's Jordan Nelson, arguably the best shooter in the senior class, has committed to Evansville.

Nelson, who recently took an official visit to Evansville, heads to the Missouri Valley Conference school as one of the premier three-point shooters in state history. The 6-1 guard had a terrific senior year, which included a 48-point performance against Springfield Lanphier and being named the Central State 8 Player of the Year. He finished the season averaging 22 points a game and knocked down 112 three-pointers on the season and a whopping 347 in his career.

For more on Nelson read Hoops Report past blog ... Forget the Eye Test

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