By Joe Henricksen
Forget about the lack of star talent in the senior class. Eliminate individual performances during the first evaluation period of July. Over the course of this spring and summer, there are three names in Illinois high school basketball that have separated themselves from everyone else in the state, regardless of class.
Jabari Parker. Jahlil Okafor. Cliff Alexander.
We're talking three young talents with tremendous size -- all are 6-8 or taller -- who will be national recruits.
For starters, the much-talked about Parker, who is following in the footsteps of Derrick Rose at Simeon, is in a class by himself. Before it's all said and done, Parker will be one of the all-time greats that will have come through this state. What a fantastic five months the 6-8 Parker has put together. He's re-defined his body, improved and added to his game, won a state title and a gold medal and vaulted his status nationally with his play with the U.S. team and at the LeBron James Skills Academy.
It's no wonder Duke, Kansas, Illinois, Washington, Michigan State, Connecticut and others are following his every move this July. Parker is arguably the best American high school talent and prospect in the country regardless of class.
The Hoops Report took in the play of 6-5 Shabazz Muhammad of Las Vegas (Bishop Gorman), the No. 1 ranked prospect in the Class of 2012, in Milwaukee this past week. He's the real deal, physically mature and stronger than everyone else and plays with a motor. But projecting the two talented prospects, Parker brings a bit more size, upside and versatility than Muhammad when looking long term. In reality, the debate for best high school prospect in the country comes down to Parker and another junior, 6-9 Julius Randle of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Texas.
But then you get to Okafor and Alexander. They both will be entering their sophomore year this fall at Whitney Young and Curie, respectively. They both offer unique abilities. They both are huge. Combine those three elements -- youth, talent and size -- and Okafor and Alexander are as rare as an honest politician. And they will be recruited as such. Quality big men (they are both so big and promising for their age) are impossible to find.
Of the three, Alexander is clearly the least talked about. Although Illinois and DePaul were quick to offer the 6-8, 235-pound Alexander, and Michigan State, Florida State, Tennessee and Xavier are now all over the big fella, the national rep and attention is still building. While the monstrous and skilled Okafor has been a top 10 player in the Class of 2014 since the day he stepped into high school, Alexander has yet to be appreciated by the national folks who do the rankings. The Hoops Report can promise that will surely come.
"He's playing with so much more confidence," says Alexander's coach at Curie, Mike Oliver. "Plus, he's improved his conditioning. He's not a 6-8, 6-9 stiff. He's mobile and runs the floor. His knowledge is really coming."
Alexander is a big-time talent, capable of joining Okafor as a top 10, top 20-type player nationally in the Class of 2014. In fact, as a prospect going forward, there is very little separation. Okafor is more advanced with great hands and footwork for a player his age. He's a little more consistent and productive player at this stage due to his experience. Alexander, however, is just beginning to bloom and has more athleticism than Okafor. While his offensive game is a work in progress, he finishes with power around the basket, at times is a vacuum on the glass, runs the floor and impacts the game defensively with his size and altering shots.
There are other young players in Illinois who have helped their stock this July and continue to show why the underclass talent in the state is so strong. Here are a few of those players.
• Paul White, 6-8, Chicago (Whitney Young)
He may not fit this list. He doesn't fall into the "raising their stock" category because he's been out with an injury. However, after the "Big Three" of Parker, Okafor and Alexander, the versatile Paul White, who is 6-8 and pushing 6-9, checks in next in the state of Illinois.
• Kendrick Nunn, 6-1, Chicago (Simeon)
As expected, the explosive Nunn has showcased his combination of athleticism and scoring ability and added numerous high-major offers in the past month. Nunn, a clear top 50 talent, has a chance to be a top 30 player nationally and will be a national recruit as well.
• Kyle Davis, 6-0, Chicago (Hyde Park)
The undersized 2-guard isn't talked about with the others in the loaded Class of 2013, but he's a Hoops Report favorite (Davis has been ranked among the top 10 prospects in the class for awhile) due to his energy, explosiveness, pure scoring ability and pressure he puts on opponents. Davis has been under the radar nationally and among college coaches, but that's about to change.
• Larry Austin, 6-0, Springfield (Lanphier)
The Hoops Report did not get a chance to watch Austin during the first July evaluation period. However, a few high-major Division I coaches have stated how well Austin has played thus far in July.
• Keita Bates-Diop, 6-7, Normal (U-High)
Bates-Diop is just a sophomore and he's not as physically developed or advanced as others in the class, but he's emerged as a likely high-major prospect and a top 10 player in an impressive Class of 2014. He's extremely long with skill and, despite his lack of strength right now, finds ways to make plays. There are players his age who have been talked about early in their prep careers who will be passed up by Bates-Diop over the next 12 months.
• Vic Law, 6-5, Chicago (St. Rita)
His freshman year was certainly a learning process at St. Rita, but Law has started to really put things together and show his upside as a versatile and skilled wing this summer. (No worries, Vic, for completely taking out the Hoops Report with a dive out-of-bounds to save a ball in Milwaukee! The chair may have broke, but I'm still kicking.)