Sophomore AJ Casey living up to the hype in Tinley Park

The move to Tinley Park was seen as risky by many observers — most players are clamoring to play at the highest-profile schools. But, so far, it is a raging success.

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Tinley Park’s AJ Casey (23) reacts during the game against Schaumburg.

Tinley Park’s AJ Casey (23) reacts during the game against Schaumburg.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

AJ Casey began high school last year with all the trappings of the Next Big Thing. He was 6-8, a USA Basketball camp attendee and on top of the state’s Class of 2022 rankings.

All of that seems important in the moment, but it guarantees exactly zero future success. Casey started for Simeon all season. The Wolverines and coach Robert Smith lived with the ups and downs of a freshman center.

It paid off magnificently in the end, with Casey securing a rebound and putback at the buzzer in overtime to beat Brother Rice on the road in the regional finals.

“I just gave him a big hug,” Simeon’s Antonio Reeves said after the game. “I almost gave him a kiss.”

It appeared Simeon had its newest young superstar. But things changed in June. Casey, now 6-9, left the state’s premier basketball program for Tinley Park. It was a shocking decision. The Titans haven’t won a regional since 2008.

‘‘There isn’t a whole lot to it, and it’s nothing serious in terms of anything to do with Simeon,’’ Casey’s father, Andre, told the Sun-Times in June. ‘‘But he’s going to be living with his mother in Tinley Park.’’

The Wolverines receive plenty of criticism for all the players that transfer in, but just as many players, especially on the younger levels, transfer away. Those players are rarely elite talents and never Simeon’s next major star, though, which is unique.

The move to Tinley Park was seen as risky by many observers — most players are clamoring to play at the highest-profile schools. But, so far, it is a raging success.

Tinley Park’s AJ Casey drives the ball past Schaumburg’s Jared Schoo (15).

Tinley Park’s AJ Casey drives the ball past Schaumburg’s Jared Schoo (15).

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Casey clearly evolved as a player over the spring and summer. The stiffness and uncertainty he occasionally played with during freshman year are gone. He’s playing on the perimeter a lot for Tinley Park. He’s actually all over the court. It is clearly Casey’s team. There is no other star to defer to, no other USA Basketball-level teammate or highly touted new transfer that must get his points.

Casey and the Titans played their first major showcase game last Saturday in the loaded Team Rose Shootout at Mount Carmel. They were matched up against undefeated Schaumburg, a team fresh off a win against Rolling Meadows and junior Max Christie, the only player in the state with a national ranking even close to Casey’s.

Tinley Park, who had a 5-3 record heading into the game, pulled off a 39-37 upset. Casey made two free throws with 24 seconds left to seal the win.

“I’m kind of shocked right now,” Casey said. “There were so many doubters. We weren’t supposed to win this game. We pulled it out at the end, so it is kind of big.”

He finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks while being matched up against Chris Hodges, Schaumburg’s 6-8 junior committed to Wisconsin.

“He’s a great post player,” Casey said. “When you get behind him it is hard to fight over him. I learned that quickly. He finishes everything.”

It was an eye-opening performance from Casey, who scored in a variety of ways and showcased his ball-handling skills.

“That’s what we expect,” Tinley Park coach DJ Brown said. “He is here to show he’s multifaceted. He’s playing outside, he’s playing inside, he’s handling the ball. He’s our do-it-all guy.”

There was no letup this week. The Titans played on the road against No. 8 Marian Catholic on Tuesday. The Spartans are the most talented team Tinley Park has faced this season.

The Titans lost 72-54, but Casey finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. That’s a tremendous performance from a player just 10 games into his sophomore season.

Casey is averaging 20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.8 blocks and 2.5 steals. He’s shooting 65 percent from the field and 35 percent from three, and he leads the team in charges taken.

It’s still very early in his career, but Casey is living up to the hype so far. Tinley Park’s players have adjusted well to the increased attention that comes with playing alongside the state’s top prospect.

“There is way more attention,” Brown said. “The guys are welcoming it, and they are stepping up. AJ has been fantastic with it all, he’s been wonderful to have. We are young, and we are learning to win.”

So far, there haven’t been any rumors swirling about Casey leaving Tinley Park for another Public League powerhouse or a national prep school program. The rumors actually are about other south suburban players transferring to play alongside Casey.

It’s going to be an interesting three seasons in Tinley Park.

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