As the No. 54 and No. 66 ranked player in the country, according to the most recent Scout.com and Rivals.com national rankings, respectively, Nick Rakocevic isn’t quite in the same company as recent greats out of the Chicago area.
In the past eight years Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker and Cliff Alexander were all top five national talents. Even current Class of 2015 star Jalen Brunson is among the top 20.
But Rakocevic, the talented and still budding 6-10 forward from St. Joseph, has one thing in common with each of them: He’s the No. 1 ranked player in Illinois in his class.
Here’s Rakocevic’s thoughts on being the next in line in this high school basketball hotbed of Chicago, along with his high expectations for this year and where he’s at with his recruitment.
On whether or not being the No. 1 ranked prospect in the state adds any extra weight on his shoulders or puts added pressure on him:
“I feel like there is some pressure when you’re getting compared to past No. 1 players in past years from Chicago. I do think those are some standards that are difficult to live up to. While I do feel like it puts a little pressure on me, at the same time it gives me a responsibility to do what I need to do on the court. It makes me play harder because I do have somewhat of a target on my back.”
On those “responsibilities” of being the No. 1 player in Illinois and how he envisions it:
“You have to be consistent like those guys were on the court, making sure your team is winning, that you’re a leader and that you’re always working. That’s what I envision a No. 1 player to be, because there is always someone trying to take your spot. No one wants to be that No. 2 guy. Now that I’m there, it’s my job to make sure I stay there and go even further in becoming the best player I can be. My job isn’t done, either.”
On what he’s learned since becoming the No. 1 prospect in the class and gaining the hype and notoriety that comes with it:
“Early on in 8th grade, during my freshman year, no one really knew anything about me. It’s different now. You go into your local gym or around other gyms in the Chicago area and around Illinois and some people start noticing you a little. Little kids ask to take a picture with you, and things like that can get to you as a player. If I can be an inspiration to some of these kids, that’s great, just as Jabari was and Jahlil was and Jalen is, so if I can be an inspiration and continue to get better, that would be great.
“I want to stay humble. That’s important to me. Through the recruitment I’ve tried to stay that way with all the rankings, the publicity, everything that comes with that. I want to stay humble, but at the same time you have to stay hungry and keep working.”
On whether he thinks the hype and attention is too much for high school basketball players:
“For me personally, I just kind of go with the flow. There are some guys who get ranked, get noticed, and they quit working. They think, ‘I’ve made it some top 25 rankings; I don’t need to work anymore.’ I know players who have done that. As a ranked player it’s motivation for me to just keep working, because there are a lot of guys who do just quit working when they see their names somewhere.
“My advice is when you see that, you have to work even harder. There are so many players out there across the country. It’s not just Illinois, it’s California, it’s New York, it’s everywhere around the United States. The crucial part is to just get better.”
On the high expectations he has for his St. Joseph team this season:
“I definitely think as a team we have really high expectations. We have Division I players, experience and talent. We’ve matured, I’ve matured, our chemistry is better. Now our expectation is to win a state championship, and I think it’s at the point where if we don’t win a state championship it’s going to be a disappointment. That’s what we are expecting to do with the talent we have coming back. We are all on the same page and that’s our goal. We have to stay focused.”
On his recruitment and what schools have been on him the most:
“Miami, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Creighton, Indiana are the most heavily involved, have shown the most recruiting attention. There are a lot more schools that are recruiting me like Kansas, Texas, UCLA and MIchigan. It’s a big decision and I’m feeling it out right now. Everyone is so different, and I’m just starting to sort it out.”
On what specific things he’s looking for in a school:
“No matter where you go, I think any school is going to have the academics in place for you to set you up beyond basketball. Academics is important. I want academics, but at the same time I’m also trying to go somewhere in basketball. So I’m going to be looking at schools in terms of how will they make me a better player down the road? What can they do to get me to the next level, to help me play professionally?
“Second, what are the people like there? What are the coaches like? What is my relationship with them? How do I get along with them? That’s going to be important. I’m going to be playing for them for the four years I’m in college.
“Finally, it’s the opportunity. A big thing for me is playing as a freshman. I would love to play at the highest program possible, but if they have a sophomore, junior and senior at my position, that’s probably going to have an impact on the decision. I would go to what people would maybe call a smaller school or program where I can play 25-30 minutes as a freshman.”
On what he wants and needs to do to improve and become the player he wants to be:
“Right now most people consider me a stretch 4. I would like to become a 3 and to do that I have to become a better ball-handler and an even better shooter. I have to stretch the floor even more. But I do feel like my ball-handling is getting better. I worked on it a lot this summer.
“But I have to get stronger, be more aggressive. Whether I play the 3, 4 or 5, I need to get stronger. I think that’s the most important thing for me right now going forward –– to get stronger. I’m still growing. I’m 6-10½ and the doctor says I’m not done growing, so it’s been difficult to put on weight, to get stronger while you’re still growing and getting a feel for your body. That’s the key for me to playing in college and beyond college, getting bigger and stronger.”