Just a couple of days before 247sports.com released its updated national rankings last week, Young’s DJ Steward was engaged in a conversation about … player rankings.
Steward wasn’t the one who turned the back-and-forth with me into a conversation of where he was ranked. He wasn’t the one questioning why he was ranked where he was.
I was the one who had posed the following question: With all the individual success and production he’s had in his three years of high school, has he felt a bit slighted nationally?
After all, Steward started his high school career with a bang with one of the more productive freshman seasons in state history. He was the leading scorer for a Fenwick team that finished as the state runner-up in Class 3A in 2017.
In the state title game, Steward went for 26 points (on 10 of 10 shooting from the field), seven rebounds and four steals in the loss to Morgan Park. That was after putting up 23 points and eight rebounds in the state semifinal win.
He put together a sensational sophomore season at Fenwick before transferring to Young for his junior year and instantly putting up massive numbers in the Public League.
Still, while Steward was starring locally, the national evaluators continued to ignore, leading me to my question. Why wasn’t this player so highly valued and thought of in Illinois not talked about more outside the state?
If you’ve ever talked with Steward –– or listened to those who know Steward well talk about him –– you know you’re not going to get some cliché answer from the 6-3 senior-to-be. The sharp, affable and thought-provoking Steward pounced on the question.
I set it up on a “T” for Steward, knowing the typical teen-aged response was about to come. Rankings, after all, can generate rage among those who are in them or out of them. Player rankings can dominate a lot of basketball conversations in the spring and summer and warp the minds of the selfish. But Steward was different when the topic was broached.
There was no “I don’t pay attention to that stuff” or “I feel disrespected” in any of his well-thought-out responses. He didn’t play the “disrespect” card. And there was no bitterness or arrogance when discussing that he was nowhere to be found in any top 50 rankings nationally.
“I did pay a lot of attention to it, because I wanted to use it,” Steward said somewhat emphatically. “I wanted to use that to my advantage.”
While not the be-all and end-all, Steward does realize the national rankings do impact invites to certain high-profile camps and they do matter when it comes to things like the McDonald’s All-American game. But from a personal perspective, Steward says the motivating factor of the rankings really had nothing to do with proving anyone wrong or proving something to anyone else. He says the motivation the rankings provided was about proving something to himself.
“It was only to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could change the perception around me as a player and prospect,” Steward said. “Changing the perception and moving up any rankings would mean I am improving, that I am getting better. I know I have a whole lot more work to do in getting better as a player, but I also think I did my job this spring.”
Remember, this was 48 hours before he even knew a whole new batch of rankings were about to be released. And when they were released, Steward had officially been noticed –– nationally –– and his words were prophetic. He had obviously put in the work and did his job.
Steward vaulted up the 247sports national rankings, landing at No. 31 and along the way became the top-ranked prospect in Illinois on the list. Rivals.com followed with its updated rankings this week and put him at No. 35. This is a far cry from where Steward was last year or even months ago on national lists.
Steward was sensational on Nike’s EYBL circuit all spring. He put up eye-popping numbers that couldn’t be ignored. Steward averaged 24.1 points a game while shooting 51 percent from the field and an impressive 40 percent from beyond the three-point line (26 of 64). He added 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game as well.
“Remember,” Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. “DJ is among the leaders in EYBL play and doing that against the best in the country. Those numbers –– those shooting numbers and how efficient he puts up those numbers –– came against really good competition, and he was the focal point of that team with every opposing team trying to shut him down.”
Of all people, Slaughter is the least surprised. He watched Steward comfortably and immediately adapt to Public League basketball and the rigorous schedule Young puts together each year. That’s never been an easy thing to do. But the silky smooth guard went out and averaged 24.3 points and over three assists a game.
“I really don’t know what took so long with college coaches recognizing all that he brings to the table as a player,” one high-major college coach said. “But there is no doubt he’s undervalued.”
Slaughter quickly found he had way more to be impressed about when it came to Steward than any numbers would show. Slaughter’s superlatives of Steward are wide-ranging, calling him “a gifted scorer” and a “better all-around player up close than from afar.”
“He knows how the game is played and has a terrific basketball I.Q.,” Slaughter said. “He plays the right way without the flash. He’s durable and doesn’t miss games. Some of these things are discounted in today’s evaluation of players.”
The coach who has watched the likes of Jahlil Okafor, Paul White, Sam Thompson and countless other Division I players in his program is impressed with his star’s talents and intangibles, for sure, but he gushes about the teammate he is.
“He’s an incredible teammate,” Slaughter said. “He supports the success of his teammates, big or small, as if they were his own and celebrates their victories. It’s not completely foreign, but it’s certainly not the norm in today’s game and world.
“Plus, he’s a hard-working kid, both with his academics and with his game.”
Steward’s recruitment is only going to heat up. There were a few high-major schools on him early but not enough considering the total package Steward brings to the table.
“I think a lot of schools will kick themselves for coming to the party late,” says Slaughter of Steward’s lack of early recruiting attention.
One of those schools and coaches that jumped on board very quickly with Steward was Texas and Shaka Smart. That early investment paid off as Steward just wrapped up an official visit in Austin this past weekend.
Steward admits he’s pretty wide open when it comes to his recruitment, but singles out six schools who have “been on me the most,” including Texas, Indiana, Louisville, Illinois, DePaul and Iowa State.
“Everything you do right now resets at the next level,” said Steward, who is poised for an individual battle with Adam Miller of Morgan Park for state’s top prospect in the Class of 2020. “So while that ranking and being mentioned as possibly the best player in the state is nice, it’s all forgotten when it all starts over again in college.”