Henricksen: Battle to be best in 2016

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In the grand scheme of things, these so-much-talked-about player rankings mean very little. But this necessary evil for the culture we live in does bring some reward and, with it, usually plenty of spirited debate among basketball junkies.

There is something to be said about being the best at something, even if it’s being on top of a list that is more about projecting what you will become rather than what you are. Remember, the rankings are of prospects, which so often people get confused about or misconstrue.

The last few years there has been no debate over the top prep prospect in Illinois: Jabari Parker in 2013; Jahlil Okafor in 2014 (And, no, there should never have been a dispute about Okafor vs. Big Cliff); and Jalen Brunson in 2015.

The story is a little different in this year’s junior class. Though the City/Suburban Hoops Report vaulted St. Joseph’s Nick Rakocevic to the top spot in the Class of 2016 more than a year ago –– and he’s remained there –– there are and will be legit challengers.

Barrington’s Rapolas Ivanauskas is coming fast.

Ivanauskas continues to blossom. He was sensational in leading Barrington to the championship game of the Jacobs Holiday Tournament last month, where the Broncos fell to Larkin in the championship game.

In the semifinal matchup against Tennessee recruit Admiral Schofield and Zion-Benton, the 6-8 junior scored in every way imaginable en route to a scintillating 37-point performance. He then followed it up with 30 more in the title game loss.

Ivanauskas has made tremendous ground in the past 15 months as a player and prospect.

Then there is Hinsdale South’s Barret Benson, the now rare but true back-to-the-basket young big man who continues to seems get better and better by the week. The 6-10 Benson was at his absolute best when I took in a win over Proviso East last week. He was aggressive, more assertive than he typically is on the offensive end, en route to a 36-point performance.

All three –– Rakocevic, Ivanauskas and Benson –– have size, yet are so different with their respective games. But one specific area all three have a lot in common is their physical development –– or lack thereof.

This trio has a long way to go in developing physically. But, again, that’s obviously commonplace when talking about teenagers who are between 6-8 and 6-10 and smack dab in the middle of growth spurts and maturation.

Simeon’s Zach Norvell, a big-bodied 6-4 guard, entered the “best prospect in 2016” conversation long ago. He’s actually right there, too, as Simeon has flourished with Norvell elevating his game this season.

Over the next few days the City/Suburban Hoops Report will break down and highlight the top four prospects in the junior class and where they stand from a recruiting standpoint. These four uncommitted “prospects” in the Class of 2016 have solidified themselves as high-major recruits.

Today: No. 3 and No. 4; Up next: No. 1 and No. 2.

No. 3: BARRET BENSON, Hinsdale South

What he is: He’s big. Real big. And when he’s done growing, maturing and filling out his big frame in college, he’s going to be enormous. He hovers around 6-10 and 245 pounds now –– as a prospect who is just midway through his junior year of high school. That right there is so enticing to a college coach who are all in desperate need of a big man they can can develop.

Even at his his size, Benson has good footwork in the lane, a soft touch around the basket and, most impressively, tremendous hands. He catches everything. What he lacks when projecting him as a high-major prospect is elite athleticism, pop off the floor when rebounding and finishing around the rim. However, he does offset that somewhat with his basketball I.Q., feel and understanding to go with his size.

With Benson, you’re really talking prospect and projection. That’s typically the case with any true, back-to-the-basket big as it’s a process for any young, developing post player. It’s about what Benson will be three years from now. Benson has improved greatly from where he was at the end of his sophomore season last March.

Where he’s at nationally: He checks in at No. 87 on Rivals.com’s top 150 while unranked by the other national rankings. While on the circuit this spring and summer with the Illinois Wolves, look for the appreciation among national scouts to rise.

The offers and interest: Northwestern, Loyola, Kansas State, Indiana, Purdue, DePaul, Penn State, Oregon and Oregon State have all offered Benson, who is an outstanding student in the classroom. There has been a boatload of interest from a dozen-plus high-major programs, especially from high academic schools like Notre Dame and Stanford.

No. 4: ZACH NORVELL, Simeon

What he is: Norvell is an easy-to-appreciate guard who seems to always respect the game, teammates and coaches. He’s not about bravado or flash. Plus, he plays with a toughness, strength and competitiveness that draws you in and college coaches value so much. At 6-4 he’s a big-bodied guard with a nice frame and the body type to take some contact at the rim and a bump on the perimeter.

He was hyped as a young prospect in the city while playing for a state powerhouse, but he was forced to play out of position last year (at point guard) early on as a sophomore –– mostly out of necessity. Now he’s playing primarily off the ball this year and has flourished, with a 20-point performance (with 5 three-pointers) in a win over Morgan Park last week.

Norvell is a solid shooter with range and is adding consistency, but more importantly he’s starting to become one of those when-it-counts shooters.

Yes, he may lack the type of big-time athleticism and explosiveness, but you now find yourself saying, “Zach Norvell is really good and playing consistently” too many times that you begin to ignore the limitations.

Where he’s at nationally: Norvell is the highest ranked Illinois prospect in 2016 by both ESPN (No. 60) and Rivals (No. 62), while he is Scout’s 83rd ranked player.

The offers and interest: Norvell hasn’t received enough interest when it comes to firm offers, with Bradley, Loyola, Memphis and Oklahoma being the four schools to step up with offers. But the list of those who have shown interest is lengthy, including Illinois, Georgetown, Saint Louis, Kansas, Purdue, Creighton, Iowa State, Oregon, Florida and USC. There should be and will be more offers sooner than later.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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