Much has been made about the fact the state of Illinois hasn’t produced a McDonald’s All-American since Jalen Brunson of Stevenson in 2015.
But maybe the case for two McDonald’s All-Americans in Illinois can be made this year for the first time since the state churned out three in 2014 — Young’s Jahlil Okafor, Curie’s Cliff Alexander and Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis.
Young’s DJ Steward and Morgan Park’s Adam Miller head into their senior year right on the fringe of that McDonald’s All-American threshold.
Currently, Miller is ranked No. 26 by ESPN, No. 29 by 247Sports and checks in at No. 30 in the Rivals national rankings. Meanwhile, Steward, fresh off a big summer, is ranked 27th by ESPN, 27th by 247Sports and No. 35 by Rivals.
“The ranking doesn’t matter to me at all,” Miller said. “At this point I know what I am as a player. I’ve been in the national rankings my first three years, so at this point the goal is to be a great college player and get to the league.”
But rankings do matter when it comes to the McDonald’s All-American Game selection. The fact is while there have been a few players ranked outside the top 50 nationally who have made a McDonald’s All-American Game, it’s proven to be close to impossible to do so.
With their current ranking, Steward and Miller are in position right now to be in the thick of the McDonald’s conversation going forward.
Steward had one of the biggest breakout summers in the Class of 2020, gathering up high-major offers and rising in the national rankings. Miller has been highly ranked since the day he entered high school at Peoria Manual as a freshman three years ago.
Miller and Steward will both be nominated for the McDonald’s All-American Game, a nomination process that closes Dec. 15. Then it will be at the hands of the 34 member McDonald’s All-American Game selection committee who will vote to determine the 2020 McDonald’s roster.
Those 34 committee members use several rounds of voting to whittle down the list, and in the end the top 24 vote getters comprise the McDonald’s All-American teams.
The rankings matter in that a consensus top 50 player obviously is a candidate because they represent the best in the class. The work put in over the summer goes a long way. But so does the start of the high school season. That one month before the deadline can make a difference, especially if a player is seen in a high-profile event at the start of the season.
There has been some public debate as to whether the senior season of a player can have much impact. Eric Bossi, the National Basketball Analyst and McDonald’s All-American Game voter, firmly believes it does in his eyes.
“It matters to me and is absolutely important,” Bossi said of the first couple of months of the high school basketball season.
Bossi points to a couple of recent examples in guard Andrew Jones out of Texas, who was a 2016 McDonald’s All-American before heading to Texas, and 6-9 Jeremiah Robinson-Earl of IMG Academy in Florida, who was a McDonald’s All-American last year.
“I don’t think either one of them would have made it without a big push at the start of their senior season,” says Bossi of both Jones and Robinson-Earl.
Last year Robinson-Earl, now a freshman at Villanova, had a big-time showing at a high-profile early-season event that helped propel his candidacy.
Both Miller and Steward played at the Nike Skills Academy last week in California, where many of the top players in the country compete in both games and instructional drills. While both play for high-profile club teams on Nike’s EYBL circuit, the Nike Skills Academy was another chance for both to be seen in front of a lot of eyes — and important ones.
Miller’s club coach, Mac Irvin Fire coach Mike Irvin, took in Nike Skills Academy action. He felt Miller did what he needed to do to maintain or even enhance his reputation. The 6-4 Miller showed the ability to play both guard spots, according to Irvin.
“He showed there that he could play well with other players and get other people involved,” Irvin said. “He was one of the elite players there. He showed that he is a combo guard who can effectively play both guards spots.”
Rivals national recruiting analyst Corey Evans was also on hand at the Nike Skills Academy. After evaluating both Steward and Miller a bunch in the spring and summer, he continued to break down the state’s top players with a more critical eye and zeroed in on “what they can’t do as well.”
Evans likes both Steward and Miller a lot for what they offer and bring to the table with their respective games. But he also saw the two playing against very high-level competition, so it was an opportune time to see both strengths and weaknesses.
“Adam is going to get his points,” Evans said. “He’s a microwave in that regard, and in today’s game that’s very valuable. There were plays, though, where he needs to pinpoint whether it’s best to make a pass or when to score.”
Steward had one of the breakout summers in the Class of 2020. He gathered up high-major offers and vaulted up the national rankings.
“DJ is going to have to continue to show how he’s going to score at the rim and how to score against length,” Evans said. “But he makes shots, can catch and shoot and plays to his role so well.”
Both Miller and Steward now enter the final stage in proving they can end the McDonald’s drought in Illinois. They both have put together stellar three-year careers thus far, have attracted a wide-range of high-major interest and are ranked among the nation’s top players. This is a scenario — two such highly-regarded players in one class –– the state hasn’t been accustomed to in quite some time.
You have to go back to 2015 to find the last time there were two players ranked in the top 50 as seniors. Brunson was a consensus top 20 player in the country while St. Rita’s Charles Matthews barely snuck into the top 50.
Imagine if Nimari Burnett had stayed in Chicago? Illinois would have three viable McDonald’s All-American candidates. Burnett, currently a consensus top 25 player in the country in the Class of 2020, played his freshman year at Morgan Park. The 6-3 guard is now at Prolific Prep in California and recently narrowed his college list to Alabama, Michigan, Louisville, Oregon and Texas Tech.
While recent history would suggest otherwise, the state produced at least one McDonald’s All-American during the first 31 years the game was played. Maybe even more impressive is the fact Illinois had multiple McDonald’s All-Americans in 22 of the first 37 years.
Now Illinois has been shut out of the game in six of the last 11 years.
Here is a look at each year the state produced multiple McDonald’s All-Americans, including seven years where Illinois had three representatives play in the game.
Cliff Alexander, Curie
Jahlil Okafor, Young
Tyler Ulis, Marian Catholic
Anthony Davis, Perspectives-MSA
Wayne Blackshear, Morgan Park
Michael Dunigan, Farragut
Iman Shumpert, Oak Park
Sherron Collins, Crane
Jon Scheyer, Glenbrook North
Bobby Frasor, Brother Rice
Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor
Dee Brown, Proviso East
Sean Dockery, Julian
Michael Thompson, Providence
Andre Brown, Leo
Darius Miles, East St. Louis
Corey Maggette, Fenwick
Quentin Richardson, Young
Frank Williams, Peoria Manual
Melvin Ely, Thornton
Marcus Griffin, Peoria Manual
Ronnie Fields, Farragut
Michael Robinson, Peoria Richwoods
Chris Collins, Glenbrook North
Richard Keene, Collinsville
Juwan Howard, Vocational
Tom Kleinschmidt, Gordon Tech
Howard Nathan, Peoria Manual
Eric Anderson, St. Francis De Sales
LaPhonso Ellis, East St. Louis Lincoln
Ray Thompson, Argo
Deryl Cunningham, St. Joseph
Bill Heppner, Crystal Lake
Marcus Liberty, King
Nick Anderson, Simeon
Phil Henderson, Crete-Monee
Lowell Hamilton, Providence-St. Mel
Ed Horton, Springfield Lanphier
Barry Sumpter, Lovejoy
Daryl Thomas, St. Joseph
Bruce Douglas, Quincy
Daryl Thomas, St. Joseph
Walter Downing, Providence
Michael Payne, Quincy
Russell Cross, Manley
Glenn Rivers, Proviso East
Teddy Grubbs, King
Raymond McCoy, Bloom
Isiah Thomas, St. Joseph
Mark Aguirre, Westinghouse
Chuck Verderber, Lincoln