By Joe Henricksen
When it comes to taking stock into what transpires on the court in the months of September and October, it pales in comparison to what occurs throughout the winter months on the high school basketball scene -- or even the month of June with high school shootouts or in July on the club circuit.
Nevertheless, the Mac Irvin Back to School Jam at Riverside-Brookfield brought out some of the state's top talent and some intriguing matchups this past weekend. And on the opening day of action, all eyes and hopes were turned to a potential second-round matchup between the state's top two prospects in the Class of 2014 -- Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor and Curie's Cliff Alexander. And as hoped, that matchup materialized.
While both are terrific, high-major college prospects, at the end of the day it was clear: Okafor, at this point, is by far and away the top prospect in the Class of 2014. And Okafor didn't even have his best day.
But Okafor is just so much further along and more polished than Alexander. The 6-10 Okafor is bigger and stronger. Plus, he's more advanced and comfortable as an overall player, especially on the offensive end. Alexander, who didn't have a field goal in the game and finished 1-of-2 from the free-throw line, is certainly an impressive talent with upside. However, as many sing the praises of these young players, there is always so much room for growth and improvement as a player and a need to remind yourself they are just sophomores.
Big Ham sighting!
If there is one player many have been anxious to watch, it's 6-9 junior Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young. The talented big man has missed large chunks of time on the court for various reasons over the past several months. But on Saturday, Hamilton was more active and energetic than the Hoops Report has seen him in quite some time. He had his moments where he played well and again showed his unique skill level for a player his size. This is a big season for Hamilton to solidify himself as not just a much-talked-about prospect, but a true difference-maker.
Unsung talent on star-studded team
Proviso East will be a consensus top five team in the preseason rankings when the season tips off in November. With the return of several Division I prospects from last year's 22-win team, including big names like Keith Carter and 6-4 junior Sterling Brown, coach Donnie Boyce should enjoy his first year on the job immensely.
But don't underestimate the impact Curie transfer Paris Burns could have this season for Boyce's Pirates. The 5-10 Burns is a player capable of energizing a team and impacting games on both ends of the floor with his elite athleticism and quickness. He also has showed an improved jumper and range that he's added to his offensive game.
Watch out for Morgan Park -- in 2013
Wayne Blackshear is off to Louisville and Jerome Brown is at UIC, so there was to be an expected drop at Morgan Park this coming season. The Mustangs, led by DePaul commit Billy Garrett, will be competitive, dangerous and a ranked team this year. But the following season could be coach Nick Irvin's best team since he's taken over the Morgan Park program.
Led by Garrett, a 6-4 point guard who is just a junior, the Mustangs have an abundance of young talent in the program. The Hoops Report continues to be impressed with the improvement of 6-8 junior Xzavier Taylor, who is now among the top 15 prospects in the stellar Class of 2013.
And the potential in the sophomore class is endless, led by Hoops Report sleeper and favorite Josh Cunningham, a highly-athletic 6-5 forward. And 6-6 Kierre Perkins, along with guards Lamont Walker, Eddie Miles and Torry Johnson, round out a handful of impressive sophomores.
But the player who caught the Hoops Report's eye in limited time was freshman Kain Harris, who is clearly among the top prospects in the Class of 2015. This isn't the first time Harris has opened eyes, yet he is rarely mentioned with some of the other top freshmen in Illinois. He needs to be. Harris is big and strong for his age and athletic, while also showing an ability to both put it on the floor and knock down shots with range. Harris is an impressive prospect.
You can't help but look forward to some potential barnburners on the South Side in 2012-2013 between Simeon and Morgan Park.
R-B still solid
Riverside-Brookfield has graduate a couple of terrific guards the past two years in Sean McGonagill (Brown) and Ryan Jackson (Lewis). Those two led R-B to a combined 69 wins the past three years. While the Bulldogs won't have the big-named guard, coach Tom McCloskey's club will still be very competitive this winter.
The senior duo of Luke Nortier and Andrew Hanley, along with junior Damonta Henry, form a solid perimeter trio. Nortier is a versatile 6-3 do-it-all type who is an ideal small college prospect. Louis Marino, a 6-4 senior, shot the ball extremely well at the Back to School Jam on Saturday and will play a key role. Throw in 6-6 junior Miki Ljuboja, who is out with an injury, and the Bulldogs have a little size to complement a team with some good perimeter shooting.
R-B, which went 12-0 in the Metro Suburban last season and won a second straight regional championship, will once again be in the thick of a conference race that figures to include Ridgewood.
And a few more thoughts from the weekend ...
• When the basketball season tips off in the south suburbs this November, the talk will center around a veteran and talented Homewood-Flossmoor team and Tom Cappel's return to coaching -- this time at Crete-Monee. But Hillcrest, despite the loss of leader Juice Brown (now at Toledo) and the tragedy this past summer when an innocent Ryan Royall was killed in a senseless murder, will still be lurking.
The team made up of Hillcrest players reached the title game of the Mac Irvin Back to School Jam, where it fell to a highly-regarded Proviso East team. The senior tandem of 6-4 Jalen Loving and 6-5 Jayone Troutman are a pair of blue-collar workhorses.
• Look for Von Steuben's Deqwon Horn, a strong, 5-9 bulldozing point guard, to put together a solid season and keep coach Vince Carter's Panthers in the hunt in a what should be a wide open Red-North.
• Whitney Young's Scott Kingsley, a 6-2 junior, can really shoot the basketball. The Dolphins are stacked with Division I talent, but Kingsley could play a key role off the bench in helping space the floor for coach Tyrone Slaughter's big men.
• Keep an eye on University High over the next couple of years. Max Rothschild, a 6-5 sophomore, is a player. And the addition of Lincoln-Way East transfer Kyle Parker, a 5-10 junior guard, is another talent that could make the Maroons one to watch in Class 2A over the next couple of seasons.
• The Morton program remains the same -- a bunch of gutty kids that play loose and well together. It's a program you can't take lightly anymore. And while senior Rocco Belcaster and junior Waller Perez receive most of the attention, senior athlete David Chatman is a player. He may not have an ideal position, but the 6-3 Chatman is a super athlete who plays to his strengths very well.
• It will take some time, but St. Joseph will be a team that will be far better late in the season than they will be in November and December. And they will certainly be better than last year's uncharacteristic 10-17 season.