You want a tall basketball task? Go ahead and try ranking the top basketball prospects, as seen coming out as high school seniors, from the state of Illinois since the turn of the century in 2000.
You will notice an asterisk next to the names Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander when they appear on this list. That's because their prospect grade remains incomplete. Their respective body of work is, well, still a work in progress. The fact they are already among the top 10 without having played and completed their senior year of high school says a lot.
Okafor and Alexander are the only two on this list that can move up depending on their senior year and their continued development over the next five months. Alexander, in particular, has come so far since last season, so when looking at the jump he's made, it's tantalizing to think what he can become.
Much has been made of the recent run of true stars the Chicago area has pumped out since Derrick Rose moved on from Simeon in 2007, led Memphis to a NCAA title game appearance in 2008 and became a NBA star and league MVP. He was followed by Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and now, Okafor and Alexander.
What's challenging and difficult is to match up and compare eras. Where would the likes of Thornridge's Quinn Buckner, East Leyden's Glen Grunwald, Manley's Russell Cross, Westinghouse's Mark Aguirre or (choose the name of a super prep player and prospect and enter here) fall in the following list? It's extremely difficult to effectively compare players from different eras. How would the plethora of modern athletes with the size, strength and speed we now see match up against the sound, fundamental players of 25 or 35 years ago?
Also, the list isn't comprised of the best high school players (you couldn't leave Jon Scheyer of Glenbrook North off that list) or the best post-high school players (i.e. Dwyane Wade of Richards, Evan Turner of St. Joseph, and Springfield Lanphier's Andre Igoudala).
For example, the City/Suburban Hoops Report's Player of the Year in 2000 was Dwayne Wade. He received that award over bigger, more highly regarded prospects named Darius Miles and Andre Brown. Although some liked Wade more than others (He was clearly a better prospect than Andre Brown in the eyes of the Hoops Report despite the national rankings), no one could have imagined or forecasted just what Wade would become after leaving Richards.
While Rose was clearly the top dog in the Class of 2007, Evan Turner wasn't too shabby. But even as a prospect at St. Joseph -- he finished as the No. 54 ranked player in the country in the final RSCI rankings -- Turner wasn't quite viewed as a Big Ten Conference scoring champ, NCAA National Player of the Year type and No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft material.
In 2002 it was Providence's Michael Thompson, Julian's Sean Dockery and Proviso East's Dee Brown all playing in the McDonald's All-American game, while Springfield Lanphier's Andre Igoudala, a future NBA star, was home watching.
While it is extremely difficult to effectively compare players from different eras, it's somewhat more doable when keeping it within the turn of the century, which is why this list -- a compilation of prospects since the graduating Class of 2000 -- is presented today. It's not as if Igoudala was this unknown, overlooked player. But nationally he wasn't even a consensus top 25 prospect in the class, while names like Shavlik Randolph, Evan Burns, Sean Dockery, Antoine Wright and DeAngelo Collins were.
No doubt any list like this is debatable. It should be. There isn't any one exact answer or one opinion. Kobe? The Big O? Jerry West? Magic? Bird? That's tough.
And this is a tough list to crack, too, and an even tougher list to rank. I went back and forth, over and over, moved players up and down the list multiple times, conversed with several prep and college coaches about the list. Plus, you always need to go back and remember them as the prospect they were as seniors in high school, which includes their national ranking, their distinct strengths, their defining games and where you thought they would peak as basketball players.
After some careful deliberation, here goes ...
#1 Anthony Davis, Perspectives (Class of 2011)
This one could cause a lightning rod among some purists, simply because he came on so fast, so late and, really, had one of the most bizarre high school careers in history.
Here was a player who was the consensus No. 1 player in the country as a senior, from Chicago, who hardly anyone saw play outside of basketball junkies and the limited number of college coaches who actually recruited him. No one knew his name his first three years of high school, and then no one cared to watch a terrible Perspectives team his senior year once he was an established basketball figure. He is without a doubt the least watched prep superstar from Chicago in the modern era.
Nonetheless, it's amazing that a player no one paid attention to as a freshman, sophomore or junior could be at the top of THIS list in this basketball hotbed and in this particular era. But by the time Davis completed his senior year, the 6-11 Kentucky-bound versatile freak was too tall, too long, too skilled, too talented to put him anywhere else but in the top spot.
I tried to find ways to not put him in this top spot, with others behind him that just seemed more legitimate and had longer résumés. But he was the consensus No. 1 player in the country in the Class of 2011 by the time the summer rolled around and, he never relinquished that spot -- maintaining that ranking throughout his senior year, which led to National Player of the Year as a freshman in college to the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Through it all, his upside as a prospect, from the day he was "discovered," was through the roof.
#2 Jabari Parker, Simeon (Class of 2013)
Of all the names on this list, this one might create the biggest stir among fans out there as to how high he's ranked. But not among those who really followed and watched Parker over the course of his high school years.
The Jabari Parker-Derrick Rose argument as high school players and prospects mirrors other great player vs. player comparisons at adifferent levels: Bird-Magic, Chamberlain-Russell, LeBron-Kobe, etc. Rose is so darn special now and so beyond what he was, it's hard to imagine that it would or could ever be a debate. But it's the high school player we are analyzing as a prospect. Simeon coach Robert Smith has always said Parker is the best "prospect" to come through Simeon, which is saying something considering who has come and gone through that hoops factory.
Parker, though, was unfortunately never at his peak during his senior year due to his five-month layoff from a foot injury. Those that saw him only in the winter months, especially in December and January games, were left a bit skeptical. He wasn't in shape, he was overweight, his timing was missing, and he was far from dominant.
But in the months just prior to his injury in the summer of 2012, Parker was playing at an elite level. Watching him at that time was like watching a human basketball camp. From a technical perspective, he was about as ideal as you could get for a high school player. And with his 6-8 size, it just all seemed perfect -- another Paul Pierce. He began to round back into that player late last season, but only now are we seeing and hearing, albeit a very brief snapshot in his early days at Duke, of the type of player those closest to him knew he would be.
#3 Derrick Rose (Class of 2007)
Did people envision the breathtaking athletic and explosive guard to ultimately become MVP of the NBA? And before the age of 25? No. But he was still a remarkable, bound-for-the-pros prospect who was destined for greatness because of his physical attributes and mental makeup.
Of the 10 players on this list, there isn't a more fierce competitor than Rose. A lot of what Rose did could not be measured by statistics. And when you combine that, which isn't always noticed at the high school level by the average fan, with his physical gifts, you do have a special prospect.
With his wonderfully powerful but in-control game, along with jaw-dropping explosiveness, Rose had that "I need to see that guy" wow factor. But he was also different in that he was a winner who made those around him better. Nonetheless, there were even skeptics while he dazzled in high school, partly due to an inconsistent jumper (but far from broken), his lack of true NBA-like size at 6-2, and the fact he rarely ever put up monster offensive numbers.
Through it all, Rose was always included in the mix of tremendous prospects in a Class of 2007 that was absolutely loaded. O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon and Michael Beasley all joined Rose at the top, but the class also included Blake Griffin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Cole Aldrich, DeAndre Jordan and several others who are playing in the NBA today. At the end of the day, Rose was THAT big of a prospect in high school.
#4 Shaun Livingston, Peoria Central (Class of 2004)
Maybe more than any player on this list, the ultra-smooth pure point guard with tremendous size at 6-7 and a wingspan of 6-11 was about projection when taken with the 4th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft straight out of high school.
Livingston, who led Peoria Central to back-to-back state titles, was the consensus No. 2 ranked player nationally in the class. But even those who loved watching him play have trouble putting his career, or path as a prospect, in context.
He was far from being a dominant scorer, even at the high school level. But Livingston had that rare ability, like Derrick Rose, of being an unselfish winner. True point guards at his size, with his feel, vision, passing ability and I.Q., are rare. He had a game that is so hard -- no, impossible -- to try and re-create at the high school level. Of all the players on this list, this is the guy that you most wonder if there will ever be a player LIKE him again. He did things you never saw from a 6-7 player at that age. THAT'S why Livingston translated so high two levels beyond high school and went straight to the NBA.
Sure, there were questions about his perimeter jumper and whether his body type would hold up to the rigors of the NBA, but you could make a small case for bumping Livingston up a spot or two on this list. That's how highly thought of he was by NBA executives coming out of high school.
Unfortunately, in 2007, in what looked to be his breakout third season in the NBA at the tender age of 22 (he was averaging 9.3 points a game), Livingston suffered a gruesome injury. He injured nearly every part of his knee, tearing his ACL, PCL and the lateral meniscus. He badly sprained his MCL, dislocated his patella and tibia-femoral. No one was ever able to see what Livingston would have become.
* #5 Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young (Class of 2014)
What Okafor has going for him is that he's a true 5-man -- What!?!? A true, honest-to-goodness, on-the-block 5-man? -- in an era when it's impossible to find one. He's also baggage-free. The other big plus is you know what you're going to get with him more than typical high school prospects because he is so advanced and polished, but it's also a reason why some believe his ceiling isn't quite as high as some others.
Nonetheless, college coaches have marveled at how advanced Okafor is for a player his age and size. Big men develop slowly while adapting to the speed of the game, their footwork and low-post moves on the block. Okafor is the anti-everything in that belief.
When comparing Okafor to former big man star Eddy Curry of Thornwood, two aspects must be taken into account: Okafor's overall individual make-up and the competition he's faced throughout his high school career. Okafor has some competitive chops to him, and when you combine the schedule Whitney Young plays on the national stage in the winter, the EYBL circuit in the offseason, and his experience with USA Basketball, it could be argued no high school player has ever faced a more demanding schedule in his high school career.
This is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country, maybe the best pure big man the state has produced since ... waiting ... waiting ... since??? The odds of seeing another big man with the talent and potential of Okafor gracing our presence again? Very slim.
* #6 Cliff Alexander, Curie (Class of 2014)
Early in his high school career Alexander was a two-trick pony: He rebounded and dunked. This wasn't all he showcased as a prospect -- he was big, ran the floor and was a terrific athlete -- but his rebounding and finishing around the basket brought him early success. As a rebounder he's the best at the high school level since Quentin Richardson in 1998 and Jonathan Mills in 2009.
But those who've watched him morph into a much more complete player have to be impressed with how far he's come in the last 9-12 months. Alexander is a completely different player than he was when fans watched him at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament last December. As a result, he's elevated himself as a prospect, with offensive weapons that go beyond dunking and finishing at the rim. An absolutely exciting talent who -- and this is what really gets you excited -- seems to be just putting it all together and scratching the surface of what he will become. Plus, he just appears to love to play the game, work and play with a chip on his shoulder no matter the fanfare he receives.
#7 Eddy Curry, Thornwood (Class of 2001)
People will focus and immediately preach that Curry was a bust, a NBA Lottery Pick of the hometown Bulls who never reached the level many projected. There were some unfortunate turns in his career, but Curry actually produced at various points, leading the NBA in field goal percentage in the 2002-2003 season and then averaging 14.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game in just his third year out of high school.
With the Knicks in 2006-2007, Curry averaged career bests 19.5 points and 7 rebounds a game as a 25-year old. But the fall from that point on was rapid. And this question always surrounded Curry as player and prospect: How badly did Eddy Curry want it? How dedicated was he to the game, to staying in shape and to improving as a player?
All of THAT has diminished how Curry was viewed as a prospect in high school. Regardless of what he became (or what he didn't become), Curry was an absolute beast in high school with enormous potential at his size. A dominating physical presence at 6-11 with nimble feet and terrific hands, there was a reason he was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country, MVP of the McDonald's All-Star game, went straight to the pros and was the No. 4 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft.
#8 Darius Miles, East St. Louis (Class of 2000)
On a recent list of the 50 most overhyped prospects in NBA history, Darius Miles checked in at No. 21. Ouch.
Nonetheless, when Miles was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers with the third pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, yours truly (and plenty other basketball fans from Illinois) was ecstatic knowing this young, dynamic talent was joining Chicagoans Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette on what was the damn coolest NBA roster imaginable.
Attitude, personality traits and commitment always dogged Miles throughout his short and rather unproductive NBA career. A severe knee injury didn't help, nor did an undeveloped perimeter jumper.
He dazzled, though, during his time at East St. Louis, leading the Flyers to Peoria and the Elite Eight his senior year. He was a high school prodigy, a thoroughbred, generating a buzz throughout Illinois -- partly due to his talents and partly due to the fact so few people saw him play. Miles was ranked No. 3 in the country following his senior year, behind only Zach Randolph and Eddie Griffin. The 6-9 forward would block shots, pass, slash, rebound, lead the break and showcase the coveted length, versatility and athleticism NBA general managers became enamored with.
#9 Shannon Brown, Proviso East (Class of 2003)
Although Brown was cut by the Washington Wizards a little more than 24 hours ago, overall he's been a little underappreciated as a prospect and player. He started 89 games in his three years at Michigan State, averaging over 17 points a game as a junior, was a first-round draft pick and, after a slow start in his professional career, found a niche in his seven years in the NBA.
People forget how highly the 2003 Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois was thought of as a prospect nationally. The athletic 6-3 guard was the No. 3 ranked player in the country his senior year, behind only LeBron James and Luol Deng -- and ahead of Chris Paul.
#10 Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor (Class of 2005)
A terrific athlete at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, Wright was a McDonald's All-American and the No. 6 ranked player in the country as a senior, behind Josh McRoberts (Carmel, Ind.). Monta Ellis (Jackson, Miss.), Martell Webster (Seattle, Wash.), Tyler Hansbrough (Poplar Bluff, Mo.) and Louis Williams (Snellville, Ga.). All five of those players remain on a NBA roster today, while Wright, the No. 13 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, hasn't played in the NBA since 2011 and signed with Krasnye Krylia of the Russian Professional Basketball League in September.
A player on this list the City/Suburban Hoops Report wasn't as ga-ga over as others were in terms of his projection, Wright was a coveted prospect who played two seasons at Kansas. But a somewhat soft side and lack of any kind of perimeter shot tempered the Hoops Report's enthusiasm over Wright over the course of his high school career.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport