By Joe Henricksen
The joy of AAU basketball is upon us, with never-ending tournaments and meaningless games all mass-produced to watch individual players and see how they project as prospects. The 2011-2012 prep basketball conversation this past season in Illinois was dominated by Simeon and Jabari Parker, with the powerful program breaking a state record with its sixth overall state championship and the 6-8 do-it-all becoming the first-ever junior to win Mr. Basketball.
The City/Suburban Hoops Report, however, can take a little more out of the season that was with a list of what it learned over the past four months. Here is a list of 10 things the Hoops Report learned--or at least confirmed--this season.
➊ The season and the Class of 2012 was as bad as anticipated
When the state is as down as it was with this particular senior class, it's a challenge to field multiple high-level, great teams in different geographic areas around the state. This season we had two great teams in Simeon and Proviso East, along with a glut of pretty good to slightly-above-average teams. That right there doesn't make a season or leave you wanting more when March finally does come to an end. Fortunately, a rather ho-hum season was erased just a little bit from the memory bank with a colossal matchup between Simeon and Proviso East that lived up to the hype.
But the numbers and facts support the ho-hum analogy: There was just one player in the senior class, Simeon's Steve Taylor, who was ranked in any top 100 national ranking; there wasn't a single player in the McDonald's All-American game from Illinois; a junior won Mr. Basketball for the first time in the award's history; Taylor (Marquette) and Crete-Monee's Michael Orris (Illinois) were the only two Illinois seniors to sign with high-major programs; there will be just over 30 seniors who will have signed with Division I schools, in comparison to 50-plus last year.
➋ The senior I missed on the most in 2012: Reggie Johnson
I'm sorry, Reggie. It's not as if I didn't watch you play a dozen or two times prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season, both with St. Joseph and on the AAU circuit. But the Hoops Report gave you no love as you played last summer and headed into the November signing period as a Tennessee State early commit. When the season began, Johnson couldn't even be found in the Hoops Report's top 60 prospects in the senior class. Now? He's arguably a top 25 player in the class and a recruiting steal for Tennessee State. His body, strength and force he brings translates well to the Ohio Valley Conference.
➌ With Jabari Parker, it's so much more
Forget the hype. Forget the talent. Forget the No. 1 ranking in his class nationally. Forget the U.S. National Team exposure, the talent, the skill and the size. Forget the offers at an early age from every major college basketball program in the country. What sets the 6-8 star apart from so many other elite talents is that the kid just gets it. Jabari Parker is obsessed with winning. That's what he truly, genuinely cares about. Fans in Peoria and statewide who took in Simeon's two games in Carver Arena either live or on television did not witness the true Jabari Parker. He put up pedestrian numbers (8 of 25 from the field and a total of 25 points and 10 rebounds in two games) and didn't leave a lasting wow-factor. But he could care less that he didn't have his two best days as long as he and his teammates walked out of there with a third straight state championship. No one -- not a single coach, player, fan or sportswriter -- will ever mutter these words about Jabari Parker now or in the future: "He cares about himself more than the team." Parker channels his competitiveness into the greater good of the team.
While it's not at the level of a Derrick Rose, Parker is still in that select group of stars who are wired a little differently with over-competitive DNA. Rose's will to win is second to none. He searches for every possible edge and will do it in different ways. If Parker gets to that Rose-like, pure killer dog, rip-your-heart-out level, then it's over when you add that often overlooked value to a 6-8 skilled talent with a pure basketball sense.
➍ The best freshman in the state is Jalen Brunson
With all due respect to St. Rita's Charles Matthews, who is a close second, right now Stevenson freshman guard Jalen Brunson is the best, most polished freshman in the state of Illinois. Period. The 5-11 lefty, who is the son of former Temple great, NBA player and Bulls assistant Rick Brunson, is as poised of a player as you will ever find for his age, with an uncanny feel for the game.
With Brunson, every move has a purpose, every decision stays true to the player he is; those attributes are rare for a player so young. People will love watching him, a dynamic, difference-making point guard. We're talking an elite talent, who projects to be a national recruit. People will take notice sooner or later of a player who can play in any major Division I conference in the country.
➎ There remain a few underrecuited players in 2013, including ...
Washington's Alec Peters has plenty of offers. Albany, IUPUI, IPFW, South Dakota State, UIC, Loyola, Illinois State, UW-Green Bay and UW-Milwaukee have all extended offers. But the fact Peters hasn't been obliterated with offers from virtually every MAC, Missouri Valley and Horizon League team shows he's not quite held in the same regard as the Hoops Report holds him, which is clearly among the top 15 prospects in the Class of 2013. Before it's all said and done, those offers will be rolling in for the kid from Washington, which is just outside Peoria. Tough, strong, crafty and an ability to step out and really shoot the basketball efficiently and with range, the 6-7 Peters has started to re-define his body. The classic face-up 4-man is simply better than many of the more ballyhooed players in the junior class in Illinois who are rated ahead of him by others.
And go ahead and throw Mundelein's 6-6 Sean O'Brien in that group of underrecruited juniors as well. The skilled perimeter threat with size can handle it and shoot it, yet despite being a Division I type prospect doesn't have a single Division I offer yet. That will change.
➏ No one in the Class of 2014 made a bigger splash than Ore Arongundade
St. Viator put together a memorable, program-changing type of season with an unbeaten run in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. And along the way, Ore Arongundade, a 6-2 sophomore, made his mark and took the next step as a prospect. The Hoops Report appreciated the unheralded prospect last December, but he elevated himself into a top 10 prospect in the sophomore class over the course of the season. He always has his hands in everything, whether it's a steal, deflection or blocking a shot. He fills a stat sheet (14.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2 spg) and impacts games in a variety of ways. A glider to the basket with a fast-developing perimeter jumper that extends to the three-point line, Arongundade's stock will rise on the AAU circuit this spring and summer with the Illinois Wolves.
➐ Tyler Ulis of Marian Catholic is a high-major player
Yes, the Hoops Report went ga-ga over the diminutive Tyler Ulis way back in December. So just go and read that blog to see why Ulis, despite being the tiny one high-major college programs tend to look past, can play at the highest Division I level.
➑ There are eight true, no-doubt-about-it high majors in 2013
First, there are a few vastly overrated prospects in the much-talked-about Class of 2013. And, soon enough, many will come to the realization their stock isn't as high as they think it is. While the junior class in Illinois will ultimately end up producing more than just eight high-major players, the Hoops Report believes there are eight no-brainer high-major prospects in the Class of 2013. But there will be a player or two that a high-major program reaches on and a player or two who may fit a particular system and style of a high-major program perfectly. But at the end of the day the Hoops Report feels comfortable in saying "These eight players are high-majors!"
➒ Jahlil Okafor is every bit the alpha dog prospect Jabari Parker is
We have two alpha dogs in Illinois. It's not earth-shattering news in stating Jahlil Okafor, a 6-10 sophomore from Whitney Young, is a rare big man specimen and talent. But Okafor is special. Really special. He has a chance to go down as one of the greatest true big men ever produced in state history. He's clearly the best big man prospect since Eddy Curry, who graduated from Thornwood in 2001 and became the No. 4 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. While still the No. 2 prospect in Illinois behind the great Jabari Parker, Okafor is every bit the alpha dog Parker is as a prospect -- meaning one of the nation's very elite who will be able to choose any college program he likes. When you look at Okafor's size and age, then combine that with his oven-mitt hands that gobbles up every pass and rebound that comes his way, no-you-just-didn't type of footwork, a willingness to play on the block with his back to the basket and natural ability, we are talking one unique and special prospect. And because he's a CENTER, and there are no centers, he is such a valuable commodity.
➓ Proviso East's Sterling Brown has turned the corner
Every player, no matter how untapped their potential is, how raw they are or how far they still have to go as a prospect, develops at a different rate. With Sterling Brown, the Hoops Report always just felt like it was a matter of time before the light came on and all that promise and potential came oozing out. It's happened. Brown was superb down the stretch, including a monumental performance in the state championship game against Simeon and Jabari Parker. The 6-5 wing is more explosive, stronger, assertive and his offensive game is so much more diverse.
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