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Henricksen: Five talented players with bigger roles and opportunities in 2016-2017

They were key players for their very successful teams a year ago. Their teams finished a combined 132-32 last year –– all winning regional titles and three of the five playing in Peoria on the final weekend of the season.

But this winter will present something different for five talented seniors. Their individual roles and opportunities will expand and become even greater.

Maybe it’s added confidence or the fact they’ve enhanced their individual games. It could simply be that others have graduated and moved on, leaving these five players with more weight on their shoulders and responsibilities this season.

Here is a closer look at five players in the Class of 2017 who are looking forward to taking advantage of a bigger role and opportunity with their respective team, all of which figure to contend for league titles and 20-win seasons.

Terry Smith, Curie

The defending Class 4A champs lost a bundle of talent with the departure of Devin Gage (DePaul) and Landers Nolley (transferred). But coach Mike Oliver’s Condors remain loaded. The talent includes highly-regarded prospects in senior Elijah Joiner, one of the top 10 players in the Class of 2017, and juniors Treavon Martin and Tyree Martin.

But the rapid improvement of Smith, a 6-5 senior who averaged 8 points a game last season, gives Oliver another weapon in 2016-2017. Smith has progressed from an undersized 4-man to more of a versatile forward and threat offensively.

“He’s going to be huge for us, yet nobody really knows about him,” says Oliver of his athletic forward and three-year starter. “We expect big things from him. He can be a 14 or 15 point per game scorer.”

Smith, who is also a very good student in the classroom, put together a solid spring and summer on the club circuit and while playing with the Condors in June. As a result, Oliver says he sees a “soaring confidence” in Smith.

“His leadership is going to be big for us,” says Oliver. “He’s seen just about everything you can see at this level, playing in big games and big moments.”

Jack Nolan, Benet Academy

The surprise run from Benet last season, which ended in a Class 4A state title game loss to Curie, was fueled by a balanced attack that featured four players averaging between 10-12 points a game.

With the leading scoring trio of James Dockery (11.9 ppg), Dan Sobolewski (10.8) and Jason Malonga (11.2 ppg) all graduating, senior Jack Nolan, who averaged 10 points a game last season, becomes the focal point.

Nolan, a 5-11 combo guard, has progressed immensely as a player. A guard who can handle it and shoot it, Nolan also has a natural basketball feel. He was terrific all summer and has evolved into a must-have recruit for the top Division III programs in the Midwest. Look for Nolan to have a breakout senior season for a Benet team that will lean heavily on him.

Jeameril Wilson, Notre Dame

After starting the last dozen games as a sophomore and all of last season as a junior, the 6-6 Wilson is poised for a breakthrough senior year after averaging 8.5 points and 5 rebounds a game.

The long, agile, versatile 6-6 senior has the type of length, athleticism and size that college coaches covet. What’s even more attractive is the defensive ability he brings to the table. Now it’s a matter of putting it all together.

He’s picked up a few Division II offers and has generated a lot of interest among Division II and lower Division I programs as he begins his senior year.

“Experience and maturity are huge in any player’s development,” says Notre Dame coach Tom Les. “Jeameril has a lot more of that now. He has to play with more confidence and authority, and I think we’re seeing more of that from him.”

With the departure of guard Lucas Simon, 6-7 Anthony D’Avanzo and 6-5 Ammar Becar from a 25-win team, Les and the Dons will be relying a lot more heavily on the vast potential of Wilson.

“He has the potential to be a defensive stopper and dominant type of player,” says Les.

Elyjah Williams, Evanston

When Williams went down with a fracture in his foot at the midway point last season, it was a huge and underrated blow for the Wildkits.

At the onset, Evanston played well without Williams, but the much-needed size, defense and rebounding Williams provided Evanston was eventually felt and greatly missed. Evanston was 17-2 at one point but went 6-4 down the stretch, falling in the sectional semifinal. Williams did come back for two games but was a shadow of his former self because of the layoff.

Then Williams was poked in the eye on the second day of summer basketball with the Wildkits. He had surgery and missed all of June.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all that he brings to the table,” says Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “This is someone who we think can be one of the best players on the floor every night, and that’s saying something with the schedule we’ll be playing.”

With a healthy Williams this year, along with the return of star Nojel Eastern, Evanston’s fortunes are as high as they’ve been in some time. Those expectations, though, are contingent on the return of –– and the production from –– Williams.

A 6-5 senior forward with terrific versatility, Williams is a strong, crafty finisher around the basket who can get out and finish with a dunk in transition. He will even drop in a perimeter jumper and put it on the floor against bigger, slower defenders.

“This is going to be a big year for him,” says Ellis.

Jason Towers, St. Joseph

With big man Nick Rakocevic playing like an all-stater and freshman Marquis Walker stepping up and effectively handling the point guard chores, St. Joseph finished fourth in the state last March in Class 3A.

While Walker does return, the opportunity is now there for Towers, a highly-athletic guard who now has a lot of game experience after missing his entire sophomore season due to academics.

This past season he averaged nearly 7 points a game as a junior while opening eyes in the state semifinal with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and a signature dunk in the loss to Belleville Althoff.

Towers continued to impress this past spring and summer on the club circuit and figures to play a more prominent role this winter for coach Gene Pingatore’s Chargers.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport