End of an Era
For now, at least.
All good things come to an end. For the past six years or so, I’ve been writing for this magazine, which I grew up reading (and shoplifting on occasion) and while I’m not exactly done doing that (the writing part, I was never that into stealing), you’ll likely be seeing a lot less of me in print and on this site (not that I constantly pump out posts to begin with). This has been in the works for a while, but starting last week, I’ll be covering the Chicago Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. With the NBA’s offseason coinciding with the grassroots summer circuit, hopefully I’ll stay in the AAU/high school loop and be able to fill y’all in on what I see and hear on the scene.
Speaking of, although I haven’t posted in a minute, I have seen a lot of ball, especially here in Chicago, as I’ve been doing some freelance work for both ESPN and the Chicago Sun-Times. Let’s start with back in November, when I went back to my former place of residence, New Orleans, and took in a Georgetown‘s season-opening win at Tulane for an upcoming story in the mag. Although I went to Temple and am hella proud of the Owls, I’ll remain a Hoyas fan at heart (despite losing to Villanova, did you see Greg Monroe’s 29 and 16 yesterday? Should quiet some of the critics who say he’s soft), just like I’ve been since I was too young to go to school. After I came back to the Windy City (truly a fitting moniker; it gets brick out here), I went out to my man Kevin Devitt’s South Suburban League to check out some sleepers, like 6-5 senior wing Adonis Bailey, who is making some noise in his first full season of varsity hoops. I laid low for a little bit before deciding to head out to St. Rita High School on the Southwest side of the city (Gary DeCaesare, who coached the likes of Kareem “Best Kept Secret” Reid at St. Raymond’s High School in New York before moving on to the college level as an assistant, is the coach there) for the opening night of the high school season. In addition to rapidly improving 6-10 St. Ignatius junior and Illinois commit Nnanna Egwu, the host school’s senior sleeper combo guard Lane Barlow and the scrappy kids from Uplift High School, I saw 6-5 junior wing and Louisville commit Wayne Blackshear play. While I’d seen Blackshear in the past, I didn’t quite buy the hype. In this game, he dropped 37 with 15-plus boards and plenty of spectacular plays and while he seemed much improved and displayed a whole lot of tools, I still wasn’t sold on him being an elite player nationally. More on that later.
The next day, I drove out to Washington, Ill., right outside of Peoria, to cover the State Farm Tournament of Champions for ESPN over the week of Thanksgiving. There were a boatload of players there (enough for one of my lengthier event recaps), but I’ll focus on four in particular: DeJuan Marrero, David Rivers, Willie Wiley and Quincy Miller. Marrero, who I first saw at the Pangos All-Midwest Underclassmen Camp, already has a national rep, but he continues to grow on me, as his amazing toughness (he’s from Gary, Ind.; what would you expect?) for such a young player, underrated ball skills, savvy and winning mentality are very impressive for a sophomore. Rivers, a 6-5 junior wing from Little Rock, is a kid I heard about through the grapevine a year ago, but had never seen play. He took a while to get going, but when he did, he displayed a smooth, efficient, mature, polished and versatile game, with a lot of room to grow. Wiley, a 6-6 sophomore from Springfield, Ill., is a blue-collar undersized post for now, but his passion, tremendous motor, rebounding ability, athleticism and fearlessness really stood out. I try not to knock high school coaches, but I’m not sure they know what they have on their hands in Springfield. Lastly, there’s Miller, who I saw last summer at the Pangos All-American Camp and loved his game upon first sight. I’m not going to join the people making Kevin Durant comparisons just yet–he’s 6-9, rail-thin, extremely athletic, gets it done around the basket and has great perimeter skills, including deep range and a guard’s handle–but ask me again in six months.
When I got back to the city, the Sun-Times–one of the major papers here in the Chi–put me to work covering high school ball. Actually, they had me cover some games when I was “Downstate” (local schools Lake Forest Academy and De La Salle were at the tourney), but my first game in the Chicago was at a school in my neighborhood, Hyde Park Career Academy. It was Hyde Park’s season opener, and another opportunity for me to see Fabyon Harris , their 5-9 senior point guard, who I’ve mentioned in the past, do his thing. More on him later. Anyway, later that week, I hit up another South Side school, Leo, to see them–led by athletic 6-3 senior wing Isaac Smith, an Eastern Illinois commit–blow out Catholic League rival Gordon Tech in front of a packed house in their tiny, third-floor gym, a great high school basketball atmosphere. For the next two days, I pulled double duty, evaluating the prospects in general and covering some specific games at Chicago State University for the City-Suburban Basketball Showcase. There were a lot of nice players there, but I left most impressed with the aforementioned Blackshear, who put up a line of 42 points, 18 boards and five blocks against East Aurora and fellow highly-regarded junior Ryan Boatright. (a quick and athletic scoring lead guard in the AI mold, who committed to Tim Floyd and USC as an eight-grader, but has since reopened his recruitment). Blackshear’s strength, shot-making ability, explosiveness, fluidity, knack for getting to the rim and playmaking on the defensive end now have me (and everybody else in the city; he could be the biggest name to come out of Chicago since Derrick Rose by the time he graduates) sold. Hey, everybody gets it wrong sometimes.
The last event I officially covered on the high school scene here was the historic Proviso West Holiday Tournament, which was right after Christmas. Again, this was another loaded event, so I won’t go through everybody who impressed me. Although his team lost in both the event’s semifinals and third-place, Alex Dragicevich, a 6-7 senior wing and Notre Dame signee from Glenbrook North (alma mater of Duke’s Jon Scheyer; does he have a chance to be a pro?), showed me that even with a big name in a big city and a high-major college destination, you can be underrated nationally. Anyway, the team “Drago” (my nickname for him; got a better one?) fell to in the semis, Whitney Young (last year’s Illinois state champs, led by Marcus Jordan, Mike’s kid) won the whole deal, taking down one of my favorite teams to watch in the city, Foreman, who has four Division I signees, all seniors. Young’s star junior, 6-6 freaky athletic wing Sam Thompson, may have had a coming-out party in that contest, but I need to see him be more consistent before I purchase stock in him like I did with Blackshear. I did like his progress, though. Foreman, led by St. Louis-bound scorer Mike McCall and sleeper Tommy Woolridge, an Eastern Illinois signee (South Florida-bound power point guard Lavonte Dority and undersized post Eddie Denard, an Illinois-Chicago recruit, are the other Division I signees, while 6-9 fellow senior Donte Jones is coming on strong) was coming off winning the Chicago Public Schools Holiday Tournament, so beating Young would have been a major accomplishment for the underdog squad.
Another game I took in, at that time billed as “the game of the year,” was Young vs. Simeon. Young prevailed in a close battle, but the game illuminated the abilities of two freshman stars, Simeon’s Jabari Parker and Young’s Tommy Hamilton. Along with De La Salle’s Alex Foster, a 6-7 post player, the aforementioned pair are two of the most heralded freshmen in Chicago ever. I realized I saw the debuts of all three, so here’s a quick rundown. Hamilton, the son of ex-prep star and brief pro Thomas Hamilton Sr., might have the most upside. A big-bodied 6-8 post player, he can shoot treys with ease, has great post moves, hands, passing ability and shooting touch. Parker, also the son of a former pro (Sonny Parker, who played for the Warriors back in the day), plays the biggest role on his high school team. A fundamentally sound 6-6 wing, he’s extremely versatile and has a tremendous basketball IQ. Foster is the most athletic, and playing with top junior Mike Shaw, he’s got a great on-court mentor to learn from.
I also saw another neighborhood school, Hales Franciscan (alma mater of Cal star Jerome Randle), play. They’re an extremely underrated team, led by Tennessee State signee Patrick Miller, an undersized shooting guard who can really get buckets, and play a crowd-pleasing, up-tempo, pressing style. My favorite kid to watch in the Chi, however, is the aforementioned Fabyon Harris. I saw him play in the summer and liked his game. Then, I saw him in a few fall events and liked him even more. The season started, and long story short, I haven’t seen him play a bad game yet. He’s now getting love as possibly the best point guard in the city and now mid-major and high-major schools alike are recruiting him. On top of that, he’s a great kid. That’s why I do what I do.
Oh yeah, let me not forget my homegirl Keisha Hampton. My boy from college coached her at Engineering and Science High School in Philly, so I watched her develop from a shy, skinny freshman into, well, a skinny senior–but one who was arguably the best players in the city and a big-time recruit. She ended up going to DePaul (all-Big East rookie team last season as a freshman) and I finally got a chance to see her play in college a few weeks ago. Of course, she didn’t let me down, dropping 22 in an OT home win over Louisville.
Today, I watched (on TV) Michael Gilchrist and his top-ranked St. Patrick squad take on Findlay Prep, the nation’s No. 3 team. Gilchrist, the nation’s top junior (the best player in the country, regardless of class, if you ask me) was coming off an injury and was spectacular early on before rolling his ankle. However, he stayed in the game still battled, although St. Pat’s would ultimately fall to Findlay. Duke signee Kyrie Irving of St. Pat’s went at it with unsigned senior Cory Joseph (the Canadian is also one of the nation’s top point guards) and Irving had a chance to send it into OT with a second left, but missed the game-tying free throw. Gilchrist snatched the board and appeared to be fouled, but it wasn’t called. Still, great game and while I hope Gilchrist didn’t aggravate his previous injury (thanks for the update, Cindy), he showed tremendous heart.
It takes me back to my early days on the School Daze beat, when I was watching kids like NBA rookie and current SLAM coverboy Brandon Jennings at the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp and he was saying things like this:
“I don’t respect West Coast point guards; they’re too Hollywood for me. I’m more of an East Coast, flashy-type point guard,” continued the rising senior at Oak Hill, arguably the most exciting player in the class. “Someone like Jrue Holiday [another top-ranked Cali guard], he’s real smooth, goes to work in the first three quarters–but he’s not a killer yet. Me, I’m a killer.”
While it’s great to see kids mature and I’m glad he has the high-top fade back, I miss the non-politically correct Brandon. Actually, judging from his Internet episode over the summer and his Twitter beef with (the fake?) Jordan Farmar, maybe it’s good he stays humble and drives that Ford Edge. Jokes, jokes. I will miss seeing the next phenom at my leisure, like when I saw Jennings’ top comp for ROY, Tyreke Evans, in his high school debut. It was at St. Joe’s in Philly, and he was playing against fellow NBA rookies Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, two other kids I saw early on. Although Episcopal Academy beat Evans’ American Christian team that day, I knew he was going to be special, so it was great to see him do his thing in the Kings’ historic upset of the Bulls, as well as to see he’s still the same kid from Chester that I wrote about for the mag when he was in high school. I’ll still be able to catch kids on an off day or on the circuit, but it won’t be the same.
Real quick, shout out to everybody at SLAM–Ben, Susan, Lang, Tzvi, etc. (God forbid I ever win some type of award), and SLAM fam in remote locations, like Ryan, Russ and especially Khalid (for getting me in the mag in the first place)–I appreciate all the support over the years, and I won’t be a stranger. Before I go, I won’t send any links, but whatever you can do to support the relief efforts in Haiti (my motherland and mother’s land), a country that needed the support before the earthquake, would be much appreciated. Catch you on the road.