With high school basketball practice officially beginning today, there is now a quick sprint to the first game of the season.
And before Thanksgiving tournament play starts in two weeks, the preseason rankings must include a preseason No. 1 team.
While my colleague Michael O’Brien is breaking down the options and sorting out who will be the No. 1 team in his Chicago Sun-Times preseason Super 25 rankings, I’ve locked one in as the season starts.
Even after losing a pair of Division I players in Javon Freeman (Valparaiso) and Xavier Castaneda (South Florida), the preseason City/Suburban Hoops Report rankings that I have produced for 23 years will have coach Tyrone Slaughter’s Young Dolphins on top. And here’s why.
Young finished second in the state a year ago in Class 4A, losing 60-56 in overtime to EJ Liddell and Belleville West in the state championship, and welcome back two impact players from that team –– senior guard Myles Baker and junior guard Tyler Beard –– and role-playing Keenan Jones, a 6-5 senior forward.
The big addition, however, is the arrival of transfer DJ Steward. In Beard and Steward, the Dolphins have two of the elite players in the junior class. Both are ranked among the top 100 prospects in the country in the Class of 2o20. And with Baker form a devastating perimeter trio as all three are versatile, double-digit scorers.
Young’s supporting cast –– from the talented, young newcomers to the veteran holdovers –– looked the part in the offseason. They looked like ideal complementary players ready to step into more prominent roles.
The best examples include 5-11 senior Justin Warren, 6-5 Sangolay Njie and 6-6 sophomore Grant Newell. Warren has evolved into a tough, competitive veteran who has morphed into more of a point guard, while Njie is a strong, athletic junior who provides some size and a presence. Njie stepped up last year to provide valuable minutes as a sophomore in the state championship game.
Newell, however, is the real wild card with his pure upside and talent. How fast will he come over the course of the season? Newell, who is already among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the Class of 2021, seems to get better by the month. It may take some time but Newell is long, active and boasts an emerging skill level.
Now it’s a matter of how the pieces are managed and come together. Slaughter has had experience with preseason No. 1 teams with expectations before and has dealt with rosters stocked with talent. The veteran coach has a calm feeling about those concerns.
“Normally, I would be saying what all coaches say at this time and that’s asking whether they are going to buy in, play together, be on the same page,” says Slaughter. “But I’ve watched them this offseason and they really showed that. They play together and really like playing together. They share the ball. I really like this group of kids.”
Yes, there is undeniable talent on the perimeter. Great high school basketball teams start with strong guard play. Slaughter will have plenty of it.
Baker, Beard and Steward are going to cause headaches for opponents, especially with the pressure they will put on a defense with their constant attacking of the basket on the offensive end. Plus, all three have played in state championship games during their career, with Steward playing in a Class 3A title game with Fenwick two years ago.
But there are questions to be answered. The Dolphins lost an all-stater in Freeman and a three-year starting point guard in Castaneda. Graduated seniors Jake Kosakowski and Justin Boyd proved to be valuable role players last season. But the biggest question mark Slaughter has going into the season is leadership.
“We are going to need to develop some leadership along the way,” says Slaughter, who led Young to state titles in 2009, 2014 and 2017. “We have some experience, guys who have played in big games and state championship games, but we are going to need some leadership from maybe some people who aren’t used to that or accustomed to that. If that leadership presents itself, we’re going to be fine.”
The other challengers for No. 1 …
Bogan. This could be coach Arthur Goodwin’s best Bogan team. The Bengals may lack the big-named star but the talent and depth is more than enough to challenge for a city title, get to Peoria and win a Class 3A state championship.
Evanston. The Wildkits reached Peoria a year ago and brought home a third-place trophy. Lance Jones was the catalyst last season and returns, along with senior guard Jaheim Holden and sophomores Blake Peters and Jaylin Gibson.
Morgan Park. Junior Adam Miller is a star capable of carrying any team. He will form a pretty dynamic guard trio with Marcus Watson and Lincoln Park transfer Chris Roberts.
Simeon. There are probably still too many unknowns for the perennial power to be tabbed No. 1. But there is enough talent in the program to push towards the top once again.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport