The Class of 2017 in Illinois was widely hyped 24 months ago as a class with enormous high-major potential. There are times when a young group in a class continue to grow and prosper as players and prospects, while other groups in other years can stagnate and fizzle.
This year’s senior class in Illinois is somewhere in between prosper and fizzle.
The state’s top prospect, Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis, moved on to prep school at La Lumiere in Indiana. That didn’t help the class. Others, meanwhile, haven’t quite progressed the way many had envisioned, including the City/Suburban Hoops Report.
But the growth of Stevenson’s Justin Smith, a player ranked extremely high the moment he stepped foot into high school, continues. He still shows the upside and potential while flashing more substance on a consistent basis.
The uber-athletic 6-7 forward is fresh off a terrific weekend at the NY2LA Summer Jam, where he again showed progress. It’s been a gradual climb for the Hoops Report’s No. 3 ranked Illinois prospect in the Class of 2017. Now with an added bit of confidence and comfort level playing with his age group –– Smith has always played up a level throughout his high school and club basketball career –– he’s beginning to see a difference on the court.
“The biggest difference has been by aggressiveness and confidence,” says Smith, who believes things started to click and come together during the second half of his junior season. “I’m a pretty laid back kid off the court, so having to learn to be more aggressive, to raise my intensity level took some time. But that’s what has helped me the most.”
Smith is a dynamic finisher in transition, has shown more consistency with his three-point shot and possesses the ideal high-major body type and athleticism. He screams high-major prospect.
But again, the area Smith continues to slowly but surely grow is with that confidence and aggressiveness. Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose has also seen it.
“It’s been a slow, steady improvement in a lot of different areas with Justin,” says Ambrose. “The game has slowed down for him and things have come more natural for him. He’s more mature, more aware of things. As a result, he is playing with more confidence.”
Smith believes those early days of playing on the varsity as a freshman and sophomore, with the likes of Jalen Brunson and Connor Cashaw leading the Patriots to Peoria and, ultimately, a state championship in 2015, played a role in his development.
“Early on my confidence would come and go when I was young, but I just kept going, and in playing in big games and being in big moments, I gained so much experience during that time,” says Smith of a two-year run which saw the Patriots go a combined 62-5 during his freshman and sophomore years. “After being in those moments and playing in those big games early in my career, I’ve experienced it, so it’s not as big of a deal now when I’m in different situations.”
The next big situation will be choosing his college destination. Smith has established himself as a bonafide high-major prospect and a top 100 talent nationally. Now it’s getting close to trimming down a lengthy list that includes Villanova, Stanford, Xavier, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and several others.
“I’m going to see how this weekend goes, play it out and then I will cut my list to probably five or six schools in late July or early August,” says Smith. “At that point I will set up some official and unofficial visits.”
The Jacobs Brothers: There isn’t a better brother combination in Illinois than Demarius Jacobs and Markese Jacobs of Uplift. Both have put together impressive moments in July.
Demarius Jacobs, who has been a fixture in the Hoops Report’s top 15 in the Class of 2017 and become a coveted mid-major prospect, is a 6-3 guard who displays wiry athleticism and versatility as a scorer.
But Markese Jacobs, a 5-10 sophomore point guard, has emerged as one of the elite prospects in the state this month. A top 10 prospect in the Hoops Report’s Class of 2019 player rankings prior to the summer, Markese Jacobs will now push towards the top spot in the class. He’s clearly a more exciting talent and possesses more upside than many of the other more-talked-about and hyped prospects in the sophomore class.
The explosive, power-packed lead guard is a bundle of talent and athleticism. Jacobs has the dynamic ability to put constant pressure on the opposition with his ball skills and quick, explosive burst off the dribble. Throw in a good, but not yet polished jumper and the offensive package is scary.
The younger Jacobs has received offers from Loyola, DePaul and Kansas and projects as a no-brainer high-major prospect.
Sizzling Sotos: The Hoops Report’s breakout performer this past spring has officially broken out this July as Conant guard Jimmy Sotos has done his job.
The 6-3 guard has been outstanding with Fundamental U’s Young Legends team in July. As a result, Sotos now sports offers from Northeastern, Dartmouth, Brown, Bucknell, Lafayette, Army, Furman, Winthrop, Elon, Campbell and Minnesota State.
A poised lead guard with size and who can really shoot the basketball, Sotos will be evaluated and monitored right through the end of the evaluation period as a dozen-plus schools who haven’t offered are on the cusp.
Weekend with Windeler: The Hoops Report began pumping up Logan Windeler after a breakout performance this past May while playing in the All-Illinois Invite. The 6-8 Manteno senior continues to be an intriguing prospect with his size, length and face-up abilities. And college coaches are taking notice.
After playing the first two “live” weekends with Example Sports, Windeler will play this coming weekend in Las Vegas with the Mac Irvin Fire. With such a thin market when it comes to players with size, Windeler, who has offers from American and Lewis, will be watched closely. A host of schools are showing growing interest, including Belmont, Eastern Illinois, South Dakota, Holy Cross, Valparaiso and a host of others.
Other thoughts from the evaluation period …
➤ Maybe it’s a good thing? But there is a serious lack of drama and intrigue for the second straight year in Illinois high school basketball recruiting.
➤ The biggest takeaway when watching Illinois commit Javon Pickett of Belleville East is that the 6-4 guard just goes out and plays the game, competes and tries to find a way to impact.
➤ Christian Negron of Larkin, one of the top 10 prospects in Illinois in the senior class, is in Chile this week playing with the 18U Puerto Rico National Team.
➤ He doesn’t get any headlines, his game is a little unorthodox, and he plays with bigger-named players, but the Hoops Report likes and appreciates the game and style of Toraze Dobbs, a 6-4 junior from Uplift who plays with the 16U All-In Young & Reckless team. Dobbs battles, produces and is fun to watch.
➤ This past spring the Hoops Report called Milton Wordlow of Hales the best-kept secret in the city. He didn’t disappoint with his play this past weekend at the NY2LA Summer Jam. He’s tiny but impactful as the cat-quick 5-9 point guard continues to garner more Division II and lower Division I interest. Wordlow can play in control while also attacking a defense with his dribble penetration and pull-up.
➤ There won’t be many players in the senior class more coveted by high-level Division III programs than Benet’s Jack Nolan. The 5-11 combo guard is an outstanding student academically and has been terrific this summer with his high school team and Mercury Elite on the club circuit.
➤ Keep an eye on the development of 6-7 Tamell Pearson, an active and athletic 4-man at Morgan Park. While still very raw, he’s an intriguing prospect going forward in the Class of 2018.
➤ One of the most improved players in the Chicago area: Brother Rice’s 6-2 senior guard Josh Niego.
➤ Another improved player is Chris Harris, a big-bodied wing who plays at Lake Forest Academy and with the Illinois Wolves.
➤ There are always a lot of big names at Simeon. But one without a name just yet but continues to impress is Bakari Simmons, a 6-4 junior wing with a growing game.
➤ He’s overshadowed a bit on a talent-filled All-In Young & Reckless team, but Mather’s 6-4 Dolapo Olayinka is a strong-bodied, athletic 4-man primed and ready for a small college program.
➤ It wouldn’t be a July story without highlighting one of the many small college prospects the Illinois Irish display on a continuing basis.
The Hoops Report continues to be enamored with the potential and shooting ability of 6-7 Taylor Bruninga of Illini Bluffs, who should be on the radar of a number of Division II and lower-level Division I programs. And both Brandon McCombs of Jacksonville and Devin Whitelow of Washington have been praised in recent weeks and months.
But Max Muller of Petersburg-Porta is an underrated small college prospect as a 6-5 wing who can shoot the basketball and score with some size and length on the perimeter.
➤ While the Illinois Irish are praised for the number of small college prospects it churns out, the Illinois Stars are another program with a bevy of terrific Division III prospects. While senior guard P.J. Pipes of Lemont is a scholarship player and big man TeeAaron Powell of Marian Catholic continues to progress, small college coaches have been fixtures in watching the Illinois Stars this month.
➤ A name to remember from way down south: Blake Weiss. He’s a 6-5 junior from Mascoutah (just east of Belleville) with some game.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport