By Joe Henricksen
The Class of 2011, which just graduated and is headed off to college this fall, was the best collection of individual talent the state has produced since the great and tough-to-top Class of 1998 that featured elite stars at the head of the class, a boatload of high-major talent and Division I depth.
The lack of surefire talent in the Class of 2012 has been well documented. The Class of 2013, led by Jabari Parker of Simeon at the top, is awfully impressive. And the Class of 2014, though still early, has certainly made its presence felt and looks to be a special group of players going forward --at this point on par, the Hoops Report believes, with the Class of 2013. And with some of these players, you need to remember they are just beginning their sophomore year.
Right now there are three players in the sophomore class -- the Whitney Young duo of Jahlil Okafor and Paul White and Curie's Cliff Alexander -- who are all ranked among the top 25 players in the class nationally. ESPN.com has Okafor No. 3, Alexander No. 13 and White No. 17. Rivals.com has Okafor No. 4, Alexander No. 9 and White No. 21. That brings back memories of 1998 when Fenwick's Corey Maggette, Whitney Young's Quentin Richardson, Simeon's Bobby Simmons, Peoria Manual's Frank Williams and, yes, even Galesburg's Joey Range, were all ranked among the top 30 players nationally early in their high school careers.
While there are some bigger, more popular names in the class others have ranked higher, here is a look at how the Hoops Report sees the burgeoning Class of 2014 heading into the fall of their sophomore year in high school. The Hoops Report's Baker's Dozen in 2014. They're young and they're talented.
1. Jahlil Okafor, 6-9, C, Chicago (Whitney Young)
He's one of those no-brainer types at a young age and a coveted high-major player. Big men develop slowly, yet Okafor has a mature game and massive frame at 255 pounds. Throw in his noted solid footwork, soft hands and high character and you're talking about quite an advanced package of talent for a sophomore in high school.
2. Cliff Alexander, 6-8, PF, Chicago (Curie)
The kid is just oozing with ability and potential, though more raw at this point than Okafor but with a little more bounce and athleticism. Alexander has the look with the size, body and wingspan of a true high-major power forward. Right now he's a difference-maker on the glass, blocks shots and is effective within a few feet of the rim as a finisher offensively. With his size, agility and body, he's a national-type recruit.
3. Paul White, 6-8, WF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
Impressive combination of skill and size. Extremely versatile for a player who is already 6-8 with guard-like qualities. When his concentration level is high, his feel for the game shows. White can handle the ball, sees the floor and, while his jumper must still get more consistent, it has improved. The third Illinois prep player who should be a consensus top 25 national talent.
4. Larry Austin, 6-0, PG, Springfield (Lanphier)
Has solidified himself as a high-major point guard. He's physical, strong and will get after it defensively. Uses his body strength to his advantage. While his perimeter jumper is still a work in progress, he's improved as a floor leader and already brings some intangibles you look for in winning players.
5. Keita Bates-Diop, 6-7, WF, Normal (U-High)
There wasn't a player in the sophomore class who has made bigger strides in the past year than Bates-Diop, who still has an enormous ceiling to reach. Long with a terrific wingspan, active and still growing into his body and gaining physical strength. He became more assertive this summer on the AAU circuit. Bates-Diop is a sleeper no more with Big Ten schools knocking on the door.
6. Tyquane Greer, 6-5, WF, Chicago (Orr)
The old "just starting to scratch the surface" applies perfectly to Greer's development. Right now he's raw and will need to learn how to play the game, but he's an extremely talented prospect. Long, athletic and can shoot the basketball with range. Overall basketball knowledge and awareness needs to improve, but he's young, still developing and had as much upside as anyone in this class outside of Okafor and Alexander.
7. Milik Yarbrough, 6-4, WF, Zion-Benton
Big-bodied wing who, if he pops a couple more inches (both his dad and brother are 6-7) has a chance to utilize his strengths even more. Just has a knack for putting the ball in the hole in a variety of ways and possesses a soft touch.
8. Tyler Ulis, 5-6, PG, Chicago Heights (Marian Catholic)
Is it too high for a 5-6 player? A Hoops Report favorite as there may not be a player in the class with a better feel for the game or the point guard position. He's as cool and composed as anyone with the ball in his hands and makes everyone around him better. But there is that height factor and slight frame that raises questions. But Ulis can flat-out play.
9. Paul Turner, 6-4, 2G/WF, Westchester (St. Joseph)
Like most all young players, Turner battles inconsistency. But he continues to look the part with his size, length and athleticism. The potential is there to be a big-time defender and a versatile threat offensively. While his talents still need to be refined, he continues to get more comfortable with his mid-range game and with the ball in his hands. As a prospect, projection still remains the key word with Turner.
10. Sean O'Mara, 6-9, C, Lisle (Benet Academy)
A true, big-bodied, old fashioned 5-man who will generate a ton of interest with his pure size and decent skill level. May not have the best feet or move great, but he's developing and .... he ... is ... huge.
11. Josh Cunningham, 6-6, PF, Chicago (Morgan Park)
A prospect who has received little to no pub. Look for this 6-6 athlete to burst on the scene pretty quickly after a solid, productive summer on the AAU circuit. Extremely mobile, well built and explosive off the floor. Cunningham has a chance to really move up the rankings over the next couple of years as his skills catch up with his athleticism.
12. Darius Austin, 6-5, 2G/WF, Cahokia
There is still a lot of polish that needs to be added to his game, but Austin will jump out at you and make you take notice when you start projecting him three or four years down the road. Another long, active perimeter player who is at his best as a slasher, with a great first step, who gets to the rim and scores. Terrific upside.
13. Darreon Reddick, 6-3, PG/2G, Belleville (East)
No player in the sophomore class grew more quickly on the Hoops Report this summer than the big-bodied guard from Belleville East. A strong, physical bull who plays hard and unselfish. He gets to the rim, finishes through contact and continues to improve his jumper. And he has shown that he has a pretty good natural feel.
14. Peyton Allen, 6-4, 2G/WF, Chatham-Glenwood
A prospect who may not wow the masses as he lacks ideal athleticism and burst. He brings size on the perimeter, a good basketball I.Q. and does a lot of different things well. A good shooter who will elevate his stock if he can become a great shooter. Scheduled visits with Michigan and Oklahoma State already on tap this fall.
15. Vic Law, 6-5, WF, Chicago (St. Rita)
May be starting to live up to the early promise he showed coming into high school. Really put together a solid summer, showcasing more versatility and an ability to play away from the basket. Possesses good length and athleticism. He's still trying to figure out who he is as a player and just how good he can be.
Hoops Report's Super Sleeper in 2014
• Nick Czarnowski, 6-7, PF, Naperville (Central)
Arguably the biggest sleeper in the class, especially considering his size and production as a freshman last season.