by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
Sidelined since July with a foot injury, and dealing with everything off the basketball court a consensus top-5 player in the country does, Simeon senior Jabari Parker didn’t want to lose any time with his teammates in his final go-around in a Wolverines jersey.
“This is our last time we’re going to play, and we’re trying to go out to win a national championship. So every game is like our last,” he said Saturday night after the Chicago Elite Classic.
Hours before tipoff of three-time defending state champion Simeon’s season-opener against Milton (GA) in the nightcap of the CEC, Parker decided he was sick of resting and wanted to give it a go.
He scored 6 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in 10 minutes of action during the Wolverines 56-35 win in which they led wire-to-wire.
“I had a second opinion from last week, and they said to take my time,” said Parker, who is deciding between Michigan State, Duke, BYU, Florida or Stanford. “But I felt good and the most important thing I had was my faith. God just helped me out and everything goes to him today.
“I just wanted to get a feel (on the court) again. I’ve been out for a long time. I’m trying to get my body back, my leadership skills back and there’s just a lot of things that go into it that I tried to get. I was surprised I wasn’t as winded or gasping for air.”
Clearly there was some rust after not playing in a game since he broke his foot playing with gold medal-winning Team USA at the FIBA U-17 World Championships. He also has a few extra pounds he gained while having to heal his foot that he will shed as the season progresses. But all and all, he was just happy to be back on the court helping Simeon get wins.
“I felt good,” said Parker, who gave himself a D+ for his performance. “Of course I had some bumps and bruises coming in, but as the game progressed I was a little sore. But I’m learning how to get my wind back and trying to get back in shape.”
As exciting as his return was to onlookers and Illinois high school basketball fans, it was 2014 No. 1 rated prospect Jahlil Okafor who gave fans their money’s worth.
The 6-10 center possesses the hands, feet and touch of a guard, and the body-type to punish any defender who tries to play him one-on-one in the post. Whether he was getting buckets off spin moves in transition, dunks or from his deep bag of tricks on the block, there wasn’t much DeMatha (MD) could do as he led the Dolphins to a 72-58 win.
Okafor, who has Illinois, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State, North Carolina and every other high-major program hot on his trail, finished the game with 34 points, 9 rebounds and 4 steals.
He said he wasn’t trying to prove his lofty individual ranking with his dominant performance, but rather helping show Young belongs in the conversation as Illinois and the country’s best team,
“This isn’t a personal statement, but a team statement for me,” Okafor said. “I’m pretty confident in what I can do, and I think everybody else pretty much knows. This was just a team statement for me. Chicago was (0-2), so we had to come out and get a win for our city.”
Dolphins shooting guard L.J. Peak, who is rated 64th in the class of 2014 by rivalshoops.com, and forward Paul White (55th in the class of 2014) both gave Okafor plenty of support Saturday and are primary reasons why Young has a legitimate claim as an elite team.
Peak scored 17 to go with six boards, while the 6-8 White stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and five blocks. Along with California transfer, Ausar Madison, at point guard and returning varsity starting guard—Miles Reynolds—Okafor has higher hopes for this year’s team because he feels they’re much better than the last two teams.
“No comparison at all,” Okafor said. “With this team we’re just a unit. Last year we had three sophomores starting with me, Miles (Reynolds) and Paul White. Now we’re all juniors and a little bit more mature so I think that’s definitely helping us out.
“If everybody can stay healthy and everybody can stay together this could be one of the greatest teams to come out of Whitney Young.”
There’s no denying how dangerous Young can be, but Simeon will be its biggest roadblock. The Wolverines are in line to become the first team to win four straight state titles since Peoria’s Manual High School did it ‘94-‘97. Parker and Illini-bound combo guard Kendrick Nunn have been a part of the last three.
Nunn and fellow backcourt mate and Illini-commit, Jaylon Tate, are more than capable of picking up the slack while Parker continues to mend. Nunn finished with 11 points and 6 boards, while Tate handled the point guard duties dishing out 9 assists and recording just 2 turnovers.
With future coach John Groce, and some Illini assistants looking on, Tate found Nunn twice for highlight reel alley-oops in transition. And Nunn says there is a lot more where that came from.
“Jaylon and I have great chemistry,” Nunn said. “We play in school and in AAU. Jaylon and I are like partners in crime.
“We could be much better, this is only the first step. We had to get a rhythm and get the jitterbugs out. But with our schedule we have to be much better.”
The rest of coach Rob Smith’s roster is filled with several other DI talents like seniors Kendall Pollard (Dayton), Russell Woods and Ricky Norris or junior Donte Ingram.
But he’s also got a few underclassmen who make them one of the best teams in the country. One of them, 6-7 sophomore, D.J. Williams led the Wolverines in scoring Saturday with 12 and also grabbed 8 rebounds. He played sporadically as a freshman, but displayed a veteran coolness to his game and a great perimeter stroke.
“I like playing guard, and I told Coach Rob over the summer I want to play point guard,” Williams said. “So I’ve been working on my ball-handling really well. But wherever he puts me, it’s whatever.”
Don’t mistake Williams’ passiveness on his role for disinterest. He can be effective in whatever role he’s put at as evidenced by a play where he snatched a rebound, freed himself up in transition with a nasty in-and-out crossover and finished with a lay-up after a euro-step around a defender.
Williams said Florida and Michigan State have been the most recent schools to come at him, and already holds offers from Illinois and DePaul.
Because of the smoothness and versatility to his game, which still has three full seasons of high school to improve, he will go through similar heated recruiting battles that some of his older teammates have already experienced if he continues to develop.
With the upper-classmen on his team, and what they’ve experienced in their careers, that shouldn’t be an issue.
“They all tell me to just keep working hard,” Williams said. “Coach Rob gets on me, and I just try to take what he says. In practice, they push on me real hard—especially Jabari and Kendall (Pollard) because they’re really aggressive. They make me aggressive by pushing on me.
“Last year I had to get used to the game style. Like I had all these top players in the state on my team so I had to learn how to share the ball and play well as a team. I learned to talk more too. Now I got a little more confidence.”
Finding the right rotations, and staying healthy, will be important for Simeon’s quest for four straight state titles and a No. 1 national ranking. The Wolverines play in other national showcase events this year, but they won’t have to look far for possibly the best competition they’ll see.
Simeon plays Whitney Young on January 26.
“I only watched half the game but they looked pretty good,” said Nunn, who had to get ready for his game during the second half. “I know it will be a good game, and I know we got to bring our A game.”