A little premature? Maybe.
But it's time to go from Player of the Year watch to official Player of the Year conversation.
There is always the Chicago area vs. downstate debate. When it comes to Chicago area players, the media attention thrown their way and opportunities to be seen by the masses are just greater than your downstate players.
When it comes to Mr. Basketball, some would say the Chicago area player has a distinct advantage, unless the downstate player has the advantage of signing with the University of Illinois. Thus, writers from around the state are said to cast their vote for the kid who stayed home to play his college basketball.
Who knows what exactly makes a true difference, though the aforementioned case could have certainly been made in 1998. That year I believed Whitney Young's Quentin Richardson clearly deserved Mr. Basketball; Peoria Manual's Frank Williams, a legit superstar in his own right, was an Illini recruit and beat out both Richardson and Fenwick's Corey Maggette.
Simeon's Jabari Parker is the reigning Mr. Everything, including being the first junior to ever win the coveted Mr. Basketball award last year. So he entered the season as the prohibitive favorite to repeat the awards circuit. Preseason hype, though, doesn't always result in postseason accolades and becoming the first player to repeat is no slam dunk.
Parker got off to a very slow start this season, due to his recovery from the foot injury he suffered this past summer. That, along with a couple of players putting up big numbers for good teams, has opened the POY conversation back up.
Parker is on the verge of becoming his old self. While he was at about 15-20 percent those first two games of the season, he was probably at 70 percent by Pontiac Holiday Tournament time. Now he's inched his way up over 80 percent as we head to the middle of January.
But you just can't ignore what Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor is doing for what has definitively been the No. 1 team in the state through the midway point of the season.
Yes, he's incredibly gifted as a prospect and the most fundamentally sound high school big man in recent memory. Okafor, however, is the whole package.
This is reality: Okafor is averaging 22 points, 9 rebounds and over 2 blocks a game while shooting 69 percent from the field. And he's doing it against the toughest schedule in the state and all within the framework of a balanced team. Today, January 8, 2013, he's the most dominating player in Illinois high school basketball.
Then there is the downstate factor discussed in the opening of this story when it comes Belleville East's Malcolm Hill, who has long been the Hoops Report's No. 2 prospect in the Class of 2013. Hill may not play for Simeon or Whitney Young. He may not have played on the Proviso West or Pontiac Holiday Tournament stages. And unless Belleville East reaches Peoria in March, he will never play a game north of Interstate 74.
It shouldn't matter. Although in somewhat obscure fashion, Hill is thriving. And .... he's headed to Illinois.
Simply put, Hill has been a monster, a dominating difference-maker who is facing junk defenses and has led his team to a 13-2 start.
The 6-6 wing is putting up 23.9 points a game, including an average of 28 points a game in his last eight. He's grabbing over 6 rebounds and nearly 2 block shots a game. Hill is shooting an impressive 44 percent from the three-point line (24 of 54 from beyond the arc) and has already gotten to the free-throw line 118 times, shooting 80 percent once he's there.
If Hill can continue to put up these impressive numbers and lead Belleville East to 25-plus wins and a deep March run, he needs to be included in any player of the year conversation.
Now imagine if Hill, the Illinois recruit who is among the top 100 prospects in the country in the senior class, didn't miss nearly an entire offseason to further develop?
Hill, unfortunately, suffered through a scary situation when he developed a blood clot in his arm this past offseason. It kept him out of action for three months, including the all-important July evaluation period. The national "experts" missed him and his coming of age. This is why the Hoops Report believes Hill is somewhat overlooked and underrated nationally.
The Hoops Report's Player of the Year Rankings
(Top Five through Jan. 8)
1. Jahlil Okafor, 6-11, Jr., Whitney Young
Dominating presence. Big-time production.And so far, the best player on the best team.
2. Malcolm Hill, 6-6, Sr., Belleville East
The superior numbers, combined with team success, speaks volumes.
3. Jabari Parker, 6-8, Sr., Simeon
Despite being returning Player of the Year, forced to play catch-up after battling back from injury. But he's climbing fast!
4. Tyler Ulis, 5-8, Jr., Marian Catholic
Aside from Okafor, there might not be a player who impacts more trips down the floor.
5. Cliff Alexander, 6-9, Jr., Curie
Has evolved over the past month into more than just an elite prospect.
By the way, how good would THAT starting five above be a couple of years from now in college? Okafor in the middle, Big Cliff at the 4-spot and Parker at small forward!?!? And then Ulis at the point and Malcolm Hill at the 2-guard!?!?!
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport