Stevenson junior Justin Smith has the most difficult assignment of any high school basketball player in the state this season: step up and fill Jalen Brunson’s shoes.
Brunson is the best player in Stevenson history. He was the 2015 Sun-Times Player of the Year and is widely considered one of the best players in state history. He capped off his career by winning the Class 4A state title in March. Smith was a complementary player on that team, a live-wire, athletic sophomore that seemed to have unlimited potential.
The time for potential has passed. The Patriots need production now, and that’s exactly what the 6-7 forward delivered on Saturday in Wheaton.
Smith scored 32 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead Stevenson in an 80-69 win over Downers Grove South in the quarterfinals of the Wheaton-Warrenville South Martin Luther King Tournament.
He’s accepted his new role with relish.
“I like it,” Smith said. “It gives me a challenge and gets me going, gets the blood flowing. It’s something new and I enjoy it.”
The Mustangs (12-6) led by as many as ten points in the first half. Stevenson took over the game in the third quarter, closing the frame out with a 12-0 run.
“We just started sharing the ball,” Smith said. “We were in such good sync with one another, we just got it out.”
Smith was 12-for-17 shooting. He made two three-pointers, had three slam dunks and four blocks.
“He hits jumpers, he drives, he does a lot of things,” Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. “He’s not a distributor yet or a back to the basket guy but he’s very hard to match up against.”
Ambrose says Smith started asserted himself more in mid-December.
“The Prospect game, that’s when he really started playing better and with a lot of energy and rebounding,” Ambrose said. “He’s obviously dynamic. That follow-up tip slam, there are maybe 15 kids in the state of Illinois that can do that. He does it, not regularly, but he’s capable of it.”
Smith and Evanston’s Nojel Eastern are the top two recruits in the area’s junior class.
“Michigan State was here today, Indiana is very involved,” Smith said. “Also Creighton, St. Louis, Purdue, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma State and Illinois.”
Ryuji Aoki, Rodney Herenton Jr. and Aidan O’Connell each scored 12 points for the Patriots (11-4). They beat Metea Valley earlier in the day in the tournament’s first round.
Sam Ebersold led Downers Grove South with 29 points and Denis Alibegovic added 13.
“(Alibegovic) is a good player and a good shooter so he was part of the focus,” Ambrose said. “But Ebersold was tough, you take one away and the other one steps up.”
Stevenson will face the winner of the Waukegan-Benet quarterfinal in the semis on Monday.