Now this is a class worth getting excited about. And college coaches around the Midwest and the country are doing just that.
While the Class of 2013, headed by Simeon's Jabari Parker, was a breath of fresh air after a less-than-memorable Class of 2012 the previous year, the Class of 2014 offers big-time talent at the top and some high-major depth.
With Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor, Curie's Cliff Alexander and Normal U-High's Keita Bates-Diop at the very top of the class, the state of Illinois has a trio of players ranked among the 25 best talents in the country. These three are fixtures on the national scene when it comes to rankings and their recruitments.
And debate all you want about the next dozen prospects and where they should rank and what level they can play at in college, the fact is this class could very well have 15-plus players who sign with high-major programs. Currently, 13 of the top 16 players in the class have already been offered by a program that plays in a high-major conference. Plus, there is a prospect outside the Hoops Report's top 16 that was offered by a high-major program.
By comparison, here is how the previous three years have stacked up in terms of signing with the highest-level conferences in the country:
• From last year's senior class, only Simeon's Steve Taylor (Marquette) and Crete-Monee's Michael Orris (Kansas State) are playing at the high-major level this year.
• The highly-regarded Class of 2011 in Illinois, who are now sophomores in college, ended up having 17 players sign with high-major conference programs (15 of those 17 actually landed where they signed). That 2011 class was the best the Hoops Report has seen in Illinois since 1998, arguably the best class in state history. And this Class of 2014 has the makings of being better than the Class of 2011.
• In the Class of 2010, there were 12 players who signed with high-major conference schools in the class, which featured Waukegan's Jereme Richmond and Robinson's Meyers Leonard at the top.
This Class of 2014 is deep. When you look at the top 25 prospects in this class, there may be as much quality in those two-dozen-plus players as we've seen in years. There are a group of guards in that 17-25 range that are talented and intriguing, including Decatur MacArthur's Marcus Bartley, Belleville East's Darreon Reddick, Proviso East's Jevon Carter, St. Rita's Dominique Matthews, St. Viator's Ore Arogundade, Simeon's Donta Ingram and Chatham-Glenwood's Peyton Allen among others in the class.
That 17-25 group, which are all mid-major prospects or better, also boasts size in 6-7 Amanze Egekeze out of Huntley and an athletic wing in 6-6 Darius Austin of Cahokia.
The Class of 2014 has yet to play a minute of their junior year, yet the Hoops Report has already identified 40-plus Division I prospects in the class.
Here is how the Hoops Report sees the top 16 prospects in the Class of 2014 heading into their junior year, with a handful of others receiving high-major interest and capable of climbing the rankings and raising their stock over the next 18 months of their high school careers.
1. Jahlil Okafor, 6-11, C, Chicago (Whitney Young)
Really, we're talking an anomaly here in Okafor in that he's huge, skilled and a true back-to-the-basket dominant presence in this guard-oriented era. He's a special talent and program-changer at the next level with advanced footwork and feel on the block. He catches everything with his big, soft hands. Plus, he's a terrific kid who wants to get better, is a very good student and brings zero superstar baggage. That's what you call the total package.
2. Cliff Alexander, 6-8, PF, Chicago (Curie)
He just looks like an elite prospect when you watch him with his build and frame, combined with his growing strength. When he turns that raw talent into anything resembling polished, look out. Prototypical 4-man at the college level with size, strength, athleticism and an ability to run the floor. Already an advanced rebounder who will block a shot. Offensively, he's still in the development stage.
3. Keita Bates-Diop, 6-8, WF/PF, Normal (U-High)
Difficult not to get excited about how far he's come and where he will be three or four years down the road. When talking prospect, Bates-Diop is closer to Alexander and the No. 2 spot than you think. With Bates-Diop, just about every area of his game has improved, including his assertiveness and competitiveness. His terrific size and length alone helps him impact games on both ends of the floor. When he becomes a high-level shooter for his position, which will happen in time, the sky is the limit.
4. L.J. Peak, 6-5, WF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
In the small sample size the Hoops Report has had of Peak, the kid is legit. Big-bodied wing who seems to play hard and have an understanding of the game. Possesses good body control as a slasher to the basket with an ability to drop in a 3-pointer. He was receiving high-major interest and offers in the south before his arrival from South Carolina. A well-rounded wing who will certainly bolster Whitney Young this season as he does a lot of things well.
5. Tyler Ulis, 5-8, PG, Chicago (Marian Catholic)
Even at his diminutive size, there are few players, if any, that impact the game more than Ulis. The purest of point guards, Ulis is poised and features an off-the-charts basketball I.Q. He makes those around him better. Outstanding ballhandler with a nasty crossover. His feel and imagination on the floor helps overcome his lack of size, though that size remains a concern at the highest level.
6. Michael Finke, 6-8, PF, Champaign (Centennial)
The Hoops Report's biggest stock riser of the summer, Finke is a natural "fit" 4-man at the next level whose best days are clearly down the road. While he lacks the fluid agility and foot speed you would like and must get physically stronger, he can really pass the ball and step out and knock down shots with consistency. At the end of the day he's going to be a big, filled-out 6-8 or 6-9 stretch 4-man with skill. Wisconsin has made a living off Finke-type 4-men. And he's only getting better.
7. Larry Austin, 6-1, PG/2G, Springfield (Lanphier)
There are two aspects that jump out at you when watching Austin. He plays with a great motor and he just might be the best defensive player in the class at this time. He will get in a stance and wants to guard, getting in passing lanes and is consistently disruptive. He's not a point guard -- yet. Will get his chance to finally have the ball in his hands as the point guard at Lanphier this winter, which will dictate how high his game will reach over the next couple of years. Shooting remains a concern.
8. Paul White, 6-9, WF/PF, Chicago (Whitney Young)
A big year ahead for the always-promising White who is looking to take his game to another level, particularly with his consistency and productivity. His skill set and versatility at his size opens eyes and keeps you coming back. The goal this season should be to avoid the days of where people leave the gym wanting more from the talented White.
9. Vic Law, 6-6½, WF, Chicago (St. Rita)
Always promising, always talented since entering high school, but he's just needed to take the next step forward. Look for Law to do that this season. The perimeter jumper has gotten better and more consistent. Brings terrific size, athleticism and activity for a perimeter player. The arrow certainly pointing up once again for the versatile Law, who will be a high-major recruit at the end of the day.
10. Tyquone Greer, 6-6, WF, Chicago (Orr)
Still a bundle of talent and upside waiting to be tapped into and polished. Looks the part with his body, length and athleticism, along with the ability to step out and knock down a shot from beyond the arc. But he's still in the process of figuring it all out. Needs to improve his handle, which will allow him to create more for himself and others off the dribble. Absolutely love the upside in Greer.
11. Sean O'Mara, 6-8½, C, Lisle (Benet Academy)
Really increased his stock with his play in July, showing just what he is: an on-the-block, back-to-the-basket big man with good size. Everyone complains about not having a guy like that. Well, here he is. Also an underrated passer for a big man. But he does have his limitations mobility wise and athletically.
12. Ethan Happ, 6-7, WF, Rockridge (Taylor Ridge)
Wisconsin snuck into Illinois and nabbed a sleeper who flew under the radar early in his career. He has some bounce in him and does a little of everything as a combo forward with good versatility. He's tougher, more competitive than you think.
13. Josh Cunningham, 6-6, WF, Chicago (Morgan Park)
He oozes potential, yet remains a little on the raw side. When he's out running in the open floor and finishing in transition, he's awfully good, looks the part and is a big-time finisher. Explosive athlete with length and capable of becoming a difference-making perimeter defender. Must take better care of the ball on the perimeter and find a way to knock down shots at some point.
14. Marlon Jones, 6-8, PF, Chicago (Orr)
One of those classic long, wiry, active, athletic 4-men who will beat players at his size and position down the floor. Plus, he plays with a ticker. What will surprise you with Jones is his better-than-you think skill level, particularly with his turnaround and face-up jumper from 12-15 feet. Jones, who sat out last season, must get stronger, fill out that body and continue learning and adjusting to the game.
15. Milik Yarbrough, 6-5, WF, Zion-Benton
The kid who has been on the radar since his freshman year is a multi-talented scorer. Yarbrough puts the ball in the hole. He's produced at a high level in high school during his first two seasons, extending his shooting range while using his big body to his advantage around the basket. Still must get after it and learn to play hard consistently. And how well does his body type, athleticism and overall game translate to the next level?
16. Malek Harris, 6-7, WF/PF, Orland Park (Sandburg)
He looks the part with his body and dimensions. Although he doesn't have eye-popping athleticism, he's agile, moves well, plays hard and competes at a high level. Plus, he handles the ball well for his size. But he's still trying to morph into a true wing as his perimeter shot must become a consistent threat and a bigger part of his game.
17. JayQuan McCloud, 6-2, 2G, North Chicago
An absolute dream scorer with the ability to knock down jumpers from 15, 17 or 20 feet with regularity. Missed almost all of last season with an injury but is poised to break out during his junior year. He's a smooth scoring guard and arguably the most under-the-radar talent in the class.
18. Dominique Matthews, 6-2½, PG/2G, Chicago (St. Rita)
A big-bodied combo guard with the ability to attack the rim and shoot it from beyond the arc. When he adds a mid-range game to his arsenal, Matthews will be one heck of an offensive force. Forms one of the state's top backcourts with brother Charles Matthews.
19. Amanze Egekeze, 6-7, PF, Huntley
Unfortunately, he's out until midseason as he recovers from knee surgery. A workhorse around the basket who will battle for rebounds and second-chance scoring opportunities. Now he's showing a better ability to step away from the basket and knock shots down.
20. Darreon Reddick, 6-2, PG/2G, PG/2G, Belleville East
Easy to appreciate his versatility in the backcourt, along with the size and strength he brings to the position. He's not a blow-by guard, but he's physical, can take contact features a developed mid-range game and feel.
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