These 8 juniors are set for breakout high school seasons

Previously low-profile players are ready for the spotlight.

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Oak Park’s Isaiah Barnes (33) shoots.

Oak Park’s Isaiah Barnes (33) shoots.

Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

It’s easy to get caught up in the high-profile stars in the junior class. Both Max Christie of Rolling Meadows and Bryce Hopkins of Fenwick have produced at a star level and sport double-digit offers from high-major programs.

However, the growth in players between their sophomore and junior seasons can often be significant. Every player develops and emerges differently. 

As a result, there are a host of juniors, many of whom have had a taste of varsity action, poised to take the next step. There are names basketball fans have heard of through recruiting circles and other unknowns who are all set to the do the same: break out this winter. 

The biggest unknown player set to become a standout is Von Steuben’s Ola Ajiboye. The 6-8 big man has significantly improved and made a huge leap up the City/Suburban Hoops Report player rankings. 

“He’s put in the work and improved so much,” says Von Steuben coach Marvin Williams. “He lives in the gym and is a humble kid who is driven. He wants to be the best he can be and is never satisfied.”

Ajiboye was a double-double machine for a Von Steuben team that struggled last year in the Public League’s White Division. But his upside is easy to see with his size, mid-range shooting ability and the look of a player who likely isn’t done growing.

Williams actually shut his big man down this fall due to the growing pains Ajiboye has felt from the three inches he’s added since last season. 

“The sky is the limit,” says Williams of Ajiboye, who is also a solid student academically. 

Other potential Class of 2021 breakout candidates:

Louis Lesmond, Notre Dame

It was just a matter of time, no matter where he played this season, until Lesmond emerged on the high school scene. The 6-5 wing transferred from Evanston to Notre Dame after playing a role last season for a Class 4A state runner-up team. 

After averaging 4.4 points a game as a sophomore last season, Lesmond opened eyes with his play in June and was offered by Illinois, Nebraska and Dayton. He picked up an Oklahoma offer earlier this month. 

Isaiah Barnes and Josh Smith, Oak Park

Both of these Oak Park players made such big strides in the spring and summer. Now they’re expected to produce genuine breakout seasons. 

Barnes is already among the top 10 prospects in the junior class and picked up an offer from Illinois this past summer. But thus far it’s been all about the talent and upside for the versatile 6-6 Barnes.

This season Barnes could fill the stat sheet and see a significant increase in production. He’s bigger and stronger, more confident and capable of impacting in a variety of ways. 

Smith is an athletic 6-3 guard with terrific scoring ability. Although there is little fanfare right now surrounding Smith, he’s already among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 20 prospects. 

Ben Schwieger, Waubonsie Valley

There’s a reason a player who averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds a game last season has Division I offers. 

The 6-4 Schwieger improved and impressed this offseason. Now he’s among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 25 prospects in the class. He blends scoring and shooting ability with some underrated athleticism. With a bigger opportunity afforded to him this season, look for Schwieger to go from a no-namer to a force in the DuPage Valley Conference. 

Jakobi Heady and Hamahrie Bowers, Hillcrest

To include one of these two on this list and not the other would seem unfair. 

Neither Heady nor Bowers played varsity basketball last year, but they are coming fast. With their physical attributes and emerging games, both will be important cogs for one of the top teams in the state.

The highly athletic Bowers brings a lot to the table. The lefty can put it on the floor, get to the basket and has improved his jumper. Heady brings an offensive package that’s so appealing. 

“They are all-around players who have a chance to be special,” Hillcrest coach Don Houston said. “They can score, defend and will play major minutes for us.”

These 6-5 wings showed such promise and potential this past off season with their individual development, while the better-known junior teammate, 6-6 Julius Rollins, rounds out a terrific junior trio with size, length and versatility. 

Devon Ellis, Conant

The 6-4 Ellis showed everyone a glimpse last year of what he could do, especially towards the end of the season, while averaging nine points a game. He won’t be just a contributor this season. 

Look for Ellis to take a big leap forward this season. He’s big, strong and continues to add to his game, including a much-improved perimeter jumper. 

While Christie and Wisconsin commit Chris Hodges of Schaumburg receive all the attention in the Mid-Suburban League, watch for the impact of Ellis to be felt throughout the conference this winter. 

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