This is supposed to be a period in Illinois high school basketball where top-of-the-line talent is lacking and surefire high-major prospects are far and few between. In reality, that is still the case.
Yet at the conclusion of the recently completed 2017-2018 season –– and as we head into the April evaluation period for college coaches –– there is a bonafide player boasting that fabulous combination of talent, production and pure, untapped upside.
Max Christie of Rolling Meadows brings a smooth, modern day game and defies his age with an old-school mindset.
The 6-4 Christie, who just turned 15 in February and is in the closing months of wrapping up his freshman year, is without question one of the top talents and prospects in the state, regardless of class.
This past year Christie dazzled, putting up numbers freshmen typically don’t. He scored an impressive 18 points a night and added eight rebounds and 2.9 assists a game. He also shot 36 percent (37 of 103) from beyond arc and over 80 percent from the free-throw line.
Christie shines early
Coach Kevin Katovich has been watching Christie since he was a bit of a boy wonder in fifth grade. Christie was a regular at the Rolling Meadows summer basketball camps as a kid, so the coaches had fun watching the scrawny 10-year-old begin his development.
Katovich and his staff knew then he was going to be a heck of a player at some point. How good was too difficult to project at that young of an age.
But even with his arrival to Rolling Meadows on the horizon last summer, Katovich couldn’t help but keep thinking of Christie as the pre-teen hooper he had been watching for years.
“We knew he was coming, we knew he was talented, but he was also still just this junior high kid,” says Katovich, who has been the head coach at Rolling Meadows since 2002.
It didn’t take long for Christie to make his presence felt. The day after his eighth-grade graduation last spring, Christie headed to Marquette for a camp with his Rolling Meadows teammates.
“He did things there that not only showed us he would play varsity, but that he would also really contribute at a high level,” says Katovich.
But even with that summer glimpse, no one expected the type of dynamic freshman season Christie put together.
“We thought we would get maybe 8 to 10 points from him a game, and that would be a really successful freshman year,” says Katovich.
Even Christie found his early, rapid success a surprise.
“I personally didn’t think I would be able to have the impact that I did as a freshman,” says Christie. “But I received so much help and support from my teammates. I still owe a lot to them and how they helped me along.”
Christie’s rapid rise, attention to detail
There was a definite learning curve. And as there is with any freshman, there were plenty of highs and lows. The first game of the season, Christie admits, was nerve-racking. Everyone, including Christie and Katovich, agrees the season-opening loss to York was a rough one for the freshman.
“He really struggled,” says Katovich of Christie’s first exposure to varsity basketball.
But things came together pretty quickly, and the highs far outnumbered the lows. By mid-December he was more comfortable, the confidence was growing, the numbers followed and heads began to turn.
“The switch turned on, he started to take over and he had a few of those breakout-type games,” says Katovich.
As the confidence grew, so did the point totals, the production and big games became the norm. Some local attention followed. And the young freshman became a catalyst while starting to understand for himself where things could be headed.
“As the high school season played out, I started to realize I can really do something with this,” says Christie of his basketball future. “I started to see the potential that’s out there and how it is going to be up to me to reach it.”
Basketball smarts, personal drive stand out
There was an early February game against Niles West, a 69-66 defeat, where Christie repeatedly turned the ball over and looked like … well, a freshman.
Yes, he scored 20-some points but played poorly overall and had what Katovich says was “like 12 turnovers.” The coach decided not to harp too hard on his young player, instead waiting until the next film session to address the poor play and break down the mistakes with his prized freshman.
By the time the two met to study the film, Christie was ready to tell the coach exactly what his mistakes were.
“He came in and said, ‘I know exactly what I did in all those turnovers,’” says Katovich. “Here is this freshman who scored 20 some points but thought he had played terrible.”
Katovich wasn’t all that surprised, however, as he says Christie wants to win and get better. He is the player who wins all the sprints and wants to win all the drills at practice, says Katovich.
Christie credits his parents for the drive he possesses and the passion to get better at whatever he does.
“My parents drive me to improve, get me to strive to be better in everything I do,” says Christie. “With that Niles West game, yes, I scored 20 or something points, but I know it’s not all about scoring. I needed to take care of the ball, and I didn’t do that in that game. I knew I didn’t play very well.”
So Max and his dad, Max, Sr., who played at Wisconsin-Superior in college, went home and broke down the Niles West game and focused on all the turnovers.
“Every mistake is a chance to better myself as a player and a chance to learn,” says Christie, whose maturity for a freshman is striking. “What’s out there for me in basketball is motivation for me.”
At the start, Katovich deliberately kept things simple for his young star. But he soon realized he could throw more and more at Christie as the season went on.
“One of the most impressive things about Max is you only have to tell him and show him once,” says Katovich of his freshman’s high basketball I.Q.. “He just kept taking it all in and ran with it. We kept increasing things and he didn’t miss a beat.”
Christie the prospect
Christie is as versatile as they come. He has the ability to play multiple positions, but he’s ultimately a point guard with great length and height for the position. With a young looking body ready to grow and family size to go with it –– his mom, Katrina Hannaford Christie, is right around 6-5 and played basketball at Northwestern –– it’s pretty easy to envision Christie as a 6-6 or 6-7 lead guard.
While he’s not a jet or freakishly athletic, Christie is as smooth as they come with what will end up being a prototypical basketball body with his length, wingspan and size. He has an easy glide and a natural way about him on the floor, blessed with amazing poise for a player his age.
Christie simply has that look –– that basketball look –– and does things freshmen just don’t do. He even speaks the game and his own development differently than players his own age or even older. About five minutes into the conversation you forget he’s a freshman. There is a passion for the game, for sure, but it’s how he conveys it that is so impressive for a kid his age.
As Katovich says, “He’s a regular, goofy and fun 15-year-old kid who becomes something different when he steps on the floor.”
As a player, he understands how to control the flow of the game and can make his teammates better. But as his numbers indicate, he can score in a variety of ways, from all over the floor, and already has a feel for isolating and creating points off the dribble while showing sound shooting mechanics.
The high-major programs have already jumped in and bypassed the mid-majors at this early juncture. DePaul offered and Florida extended an offer earlier this week, while Christie says he’s heard the most from Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Dayton. Even more will lock in on the precocious guard as he play out the spring and summer with the Illinois Wolves on the club circuit.
“He has a chance to be special,” says one high-major assistant coach. “He’s so talented but is just scratching the surface.”
But the burgeoning player is already tuning out any hype coming his way. While many kids Christie’s age would love the hoopla his talent talent creates, you can tell he’s a little uncomfortable with it. He’s not having any of it.
Christie knows his flaws and will freely talk about them. He knows he turns the ball over too much, must add consistency to his perimeter jumper and needs to develop his body. He realizes there is a ton of room for improvement. Just ask him.
“I know I can’t settle, that I can’t quit working,” says Christie. “I have to work hard every day, because there is so much I have to improve in so many different areas of my game.
“I want to become a better leader, both vocally and leading by example. I know I have to get a lot stronger –– physically and mentally. I have to learn to handle better when things aren’t going right, how to move on. But my preparation in general is what really boosts my confidence, so I will continue to try and better myself by preparing.”
Trying to lift a program
At a program like Rolling Meadows, Christie is an oddity. Meadows hasn’t exactly churned out big-named players, all-staters or Division I prospects.
There was late-blooming Aaron Williams, an athletic big man who played at Rolling Meadows in the late 1980s, went on to Xavier and put together a lengthy NBA career.
Mike Lipnisky took the state by storm during the 1989-1990 season, captivating fans with his play in leading Rolling Meadows to the Elite Eight.
For a trip down memory lane, Lipnisky, who averaged 30.5 points a game his senior year, scored 43 points in the state quarterfinal loss to Gordon Tech. He made headlines with 71 consecutive free throws made at one point in the season, led the Mustangs to a 29-2 record and was the No. 2 vote-getter for Mr. Basketball his senior year.
Christie, though, is on track to dwarf anything basketball related or any player that’s ever played at the northwest suburban school. Understandably, he’s viewed as a program changer at a school like Rolling Meadows.
“He wants to be a great teammate,” says Katovich. “He gives credit to others, respects his teammates, and I think he really takes pride in his Rolling Meadows team. He wants the program to do things it’s never done and be a part of that.”
Christie is well on his way to elevating himself as a prospect and, along with a solid young nucleus, the status of Rolling Meadows basketball in the coming years.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport