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Summer basketball notebook: DJ Steward piles up offers, breakout seniors and more

The summer is winding down but the storylines continue from the high school basketball and recruiting beat.

Glenbrook South’s Dom Martinelli (32) makes a basket against New Trier.
Glenbrook South’s Dom Martinelli (32) makes a basket against New Trier.
Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

The summer is winding down but the storylines continue from the high school basketball and recruiting beat. Here is a midsummer notebook.

Steward adds more blue blood offers, interest

The offers keep flying in for Young’s DJ Steward, the red-hot senior guard who has flourished this spring and summer for the Dolphins and his Meanstreets club team.

The 6-3 guard picked up offers from both Duke and North Carolina following his play at Nike’s Peach Jam on the EYBL circuit last week. Now a third blue blood may enter the mix as it appears Kentucky is close to pulling the trigger.

Steward has taken unofficial visits to Louisville and Illinois and an official visit to Texas while adding a plethora of high-major offers over the past few weeks. There is a lot to be sorted out in the coming months. Even Steward admits the landscape has changed with the recent offers.

“It’s definitely changed my thought process,” Steward says of the uptick in interest from blue blood programs.

Steward acknowledges the reputations of the programs who have stepped up with recent offers. But he also points out that the change is also due to the fact they are new schools he will consider because they’ve actually now extended offers.

“Like the other schools who have been recruiting me, I have to find out if they are the right fit for me,” says Steward. “I will have to look at how they play, look at their rosters.”

Steward quickly admits he has and wants to “show his respect” to those schools and coaches who have invested their time recruiting him from the start. He adds that despite the perception of what happens sometimes when blue bloods come calling, that he remains “wide open.”

There are programs out there that could pack up their tent and go home. Steward says he’s not close to making a decision right now and has no real leader.

“Those schools that have been there, I say they definitely should should stay on me,” says Steward. “I know how it’s been for some when the Dukes and Carolinas come in, but it’s not like that for me.”

Steward certainly doesn’t have any reason to beg someone to stay on him as the recruitment of the star-studded guard is about to ramp up to another level. However, Steward, who says he will whittle his list down to “around 10 schools” sometime in the very near future, has kept his priorities throughout the process.

“I will really be looking at the relationship I have with the coach and coaching staff,” says Steward. “I will look at who will continue to make me a priority and where I can play my game.”

Right now Steward intends to visit Louisville a second time in a couple of months. Steward will visit during the “Louisville Live” event Sept. 27. Last year the event took place in downtown Louisville on a portable court for fans to get a glimpse of the Cardinals and team activities in a festive atmosphere.

The other breakout seniors

The summer months are generally filled with talk revolving around rising prospects gaining interest and offers from Division I programs, especially this summer with the evaluation and recruiting calendar changes.

But beyond those breakout Division I prospects and high-profile names that have been written and talked about so much are some other seniors who have impressed but without the fanfare. These players have produced at a high level and even dazzled at times this summer.

◼︎ Ryan Sroka, Huntley

Expect a big year from the 6-4 perimeter threat. Sroka showed to be a complete scorer, both with his high school team in June and on the club circuit while playing with Mercury Elite. He can shoot on the move and shoots it with range out to the three-point line. He brings a blend of shot-making and penetrating and has evolved into a coveted small college basketball prospect over the course of the summer.

◼︎ Jaden Henderson, Jacobs

A year ago Henderson jumped from averaging 2.7 points a game as a sophomore to 14.6 points and 4.7 rebounds a game as a junior. After taking in the senior guard’s play this summer, you can expect the numbers to continue to rise.

The put-together 6-3 guard is a versatile scoring threat on the perimeter. He was extremely efficient as a junior despite carrying a big load for the Golden Eagles.

◼︎ Luke Sgarbossa, Lake Park

There were moments at the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout in June where the 6-0 guard was over-the-top good. Fueled by a confidence-building junior season where he led the Lancers to a regional championship, Sgarbossa is a prime small college target with his ability to make shots, toughness and gamesmanship.

◼︎ Alijah Nelson, Glenbard East

Nelson has already surpassed 1,000 career points in three years at Glenbard East and brings a blend of playmaking and scoring ability to the backcourt. He will knock a three down and showcases a floater in that 8-12 foot range. While playing with Kevon Looney on the club circuit, the 6-0 point guard continued to show that combination of scoring and playmaking in the backcourt.

◼︎ Jason Bergstrom, Notre Dame

St, Patrick’s Jason Bergstrom (5) looks for an open player.
St, Patrick’s Jason Bergstrom (5) looks for an open player.
Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

While the big-named juniors at Notre Dame –– Anthony Sayles, Louis Lesmond and Troy D’Amico –– garnered all kinds of headlines and hype this summer, Bergstrom also put in a terrific body of work. This is a much-improved player who played and shot the ball with confidence this summer after averaging nine points a game as a junior.

◼︎ John Ittounas, Stevenson

Stevenson’s John Ittounas (1) drives past the Benet defense to score.
Stevenson’s John Ittounas (1) drives past the Benet defense to score.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

As Stevenson cruised through an impressive month of June following its sectional championship season three months earlier, Matt Ambrose and RJ Holmes gobbled up quite a bit of the attention and headlines. But guard John Ittounas has quietly impressed as well and is poised for a breakout senior season of his own. The senior guard’s game and feel have been underestimated. Ittounas is a solid small college prospect.

◼︎ Josh Holmes, De La Salle

The 6-1 guard put together a very good weekend at the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout and then picked up off offers from Northern Arizona and Division II Gannon. Holmes is a bucket-getting guard with scoring ability and is set for a big senior season for the Meteors.

◼︎ Jayden Johnson, Batavia

When the 6-5 senior gets it rolling from the three-point line he becomes a difference-maker as a shooter who can spread the floor. He has nice balance on his catch-and-shoot jumper and is a shooting specialist.

◼︎ Billy Durkin, Hinsdale South

The wiry guard plays with some spunk and energy while showcasing a scoring ability on the perimeter, highlighted by his three-point shooting marksmanship. There was a one-dimensional aspect to his game early in his career. But the 6-1 guard continues to improve and add more to his offensive repertoire after averaging 13.5 points and connecting on 69 three-pointers as a junior.

With Durkin and the enticing 6-7 Aaron Tims returning, keep an eye on the Hornets in the West Suburban Gold.

Dom Martinelli magic continues

The 6-3 senior was one of the breakout players in the Chicago area this past season, putting up whopping numbers in an uncanny way in the Central Suburban League South. He averaged 24.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a game as a junior in helping the Titans to a 24-9 record last season.

Whether it’s with Glenbrook South or his All-In Athletics club team, Martinelli continues to defy. If the phrase “He finds a way” can be directly attached to any one single player in the senior class it’s Martinelli.

Hillcrest’s other juniors

Mar’Keise Irving is a big name in the south suburbs as a dual-sport star. The junior is a dynamic football player being recruited by the likes of Power Five football programs. He’s also the leader and big-time contributor to coach Don Houston’s basketball team in the backcourt.

The strong and compact Irving, who transferred to Hillcrest following his freshman year at Morgan Park, is a known commodity already.

Julius Rollins, a rangy 6-5 forward with tremendous upside, opened eyes this past season as a sophomore. His rise in the Class of 2021 has continued this spring and summer as he is now among the top 20 prospects in the junior class.

Even guard Kenton Wright has been a mainstay on this team as he began his freshman year starting at the varsity level and will already be a three-year varsity player as a junior this season.

But the less heralded junior tandem of Hamahrie Bowers and Jakobi Heady is what makes you think this Hawks team has a chance to be pretty special. Their progression as players gives Houston and the Hawks a variety of weapons, athleticism and unique length.

The 6-5 Bowers and the 6-6 Heady are a pair of long wings with high ceilings and emerging games. They have both opened eyes as prospects this summer and have the look of players who are just starting to scratch the surface.

The idea of Rollins, Bowers and Heady playing together –– all in that 6-5 to 6-6 range with their length, bounce, athleticism and versatility –– is a little unusual for the typically guard-heavy Hillcrest program.

“What it does is allows us to get back to what we’ve done in the past on the defensive end,” says Houston. “They are long, quick and can cover a lot of ground.”

If this group stays intact as a cohesive unit, Hillcrest potentially has quite a two-year run ahead it.

“They all know how to play and can play,” says Houston of his talented bunch. “Our next step is learning how to do it together.”

Jeremiah Oden opening eyes

Anyone and everyone who watched Jeremiah Oden during his career at St. Rita came away intrigued with his upside and potential as a prospect. The expectation was there would be a breakout at some point.

While Oden may not have had a singular moment or meteoric breakthrough during his time at St. Rita, it was mostly due to the late maturation process –– both physically and with his individual game. Oden is very young for his class and has always been a baby physically. But that length, athleticism, agility and size screamed “just wait!” when evaluating him.

And as has been stated numerous times in this space, the development of high school basketball players, particularly with Oden’s story and attributes, can come in many different stages.

The Class of 2019 unsigned Oden has looked terrific this summer with Team Rose on the club circuit. With fluid athleticism, running ability and ideal physical tools at 6-8, along with an improved jumper and more consistent production, Oden looks as if he’s set to reach that ceiling as a prospect.

Although he had numerous mid-major options, the plan is for Oden to head to prep school this fall. In the world of prep school prospects, Oden appears to be the ideal candidate as a true, late-blooming player.

Oden looks more than the part of a mid-major prospect right now. With a year of prep school and further development, it would be surprising if Oden isn’t recruited at the mid-major plus or high-major levels in the coming year.

Piecing the Orr puzzle together

It’s July and if there is one team you just aren’t sure about –– How good will they be? Where will they be ranked? Who will be on the roster in November? –– it’s Orr.

The three-time Class 2A state champs looked to be in a bit of a rebuild mode following the graduation of double-figure scorers Tujautae Williams (Tennessee Tech), Sherif Kenney (La Salle), Greg Outlaw (Central Connecticut State) and Terry Williams.

But just as last year’s team was built on transfers –– Williams came from Lincoln Park, Outlaw from Bogan and Kenney from Washington, D.C., by way of a prep school –– this year’s team will be aided by transfers as well.

Reggie Strong, who began his career at Farragut and then transferred to St. Joseph, will be at his third school. The 6-0 point guard makes the move back to the West Side as he has enrolled at Orr.

In addition, there is talk another player or two could be headed Orr’s way before school starts in September.

If Orr can get always-promising junior Demarius Splunge healthy and growth from the likes of sophomore point guard Leontae Lilly and senior Shaun Harris, Orr could be knocking on the door once again in Class 2A.

Orr coach Lou Adams is especially excited about Lilly, a dynamite but diminutive point guard.

“He’s going to be the best point guard in the state,” Adams says emphatically. “There won’t be anyone better. Nobody.”