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The top recruiting steals out of Illinois in the last 20 years

These players went on to have college careers that vastly exceeded the expectations of evaluators.

Seton’s D.J. Cooper delivers a no-look pass at the end of the first half of his team’s 83-63 victory in the Class 2A state championship game on March 14.
Seton’s D.J. Cooper delivers a no-look pass at the end of the first half of his team’s 83-63 victory in the Class 2A state championship game on March 14.
Sun-Times file photo

What constitutes a “steal” in recruiting is subjective and can differ in opinion. There are a few variations of the definition of a recruiting steal.

There is the present day steal: a program signs a player who many project could –– or even should –– play at a higher level. That is typically the go-to “recruiting steal” application. But that player must still go out and prove he’s a steal.

Then there is the obvious steal. Those are the prep players who are absolutely in demand and coveted at a particular level –– choose your level: low-major, mid-major, high-major, Division II, etc. –– but only one program at that level is fortunate to secure a commitment and land that player.

There are recruiting steals that develop. These tend to be the ones most commonly referenced, because in reality they are after the fact, down the road when it’s easy to say, “Whoa! That kid was a steal.”

These developed recruiting steals are the players who simply slip through the cracks. A player who far surpasses his player ranking, proves to be better than the stars attributed to him by national talent evaluators and, most importantly, blows past the production even the coaches that recruited the player expected. Think Stephen Curry at Davidson or Damian Lillard at Weber State.

Dwyane Wade, the former Richards star who went on to Marquette, is the poster child for recruiting steals out of this state in recent memory.

While it’s true he was the City/Suburban Hoops Report Player of the Year in 2000 –– over Darius Miles of East St. Louis –– the story of the overlooked D-Wade has been repeated dozens of times. Although academic issues played a part, Wade was a lightly recruited prospect who went on to star at Marquette, become one of the NBA’s greatest players and is a sure-to-be first-ballot Hall of Famer.

A trip down memory lane leads to these 20 players who proved to be some of the biggest recruiting steals out of Illinois over the past 20 years.

Before we get to that list we start with a few notes from the research that really stand out:

▪︎ A striking and ultra-impressive number among these 20 sleepers is the fact seven of the players broke the all-time scoring records in their program’s history by the time their playing careers ended.

▪︎ Of the 20 sleepers listed, 14 of the players finished their careers among the top four scorers in the history of their respective program.

▪︎ Current Missouri State head coach Dana Ford recruited three of the 20 steals as an assistant coach while at Wichita State and Tennessee State.

▪︎ The Class of 2009 was not considered a particularly strong class overall, particularly at the top of the class. But it proved better than we thought with three of these sleepers hailing from that class.

Alando Tucker, Lockport (Wisconsin) • Class of 2002

Lockport guard Alando Tucker drives around a Lincoln-Way player.
Lockport guard Alando Tucker drives around a Lincoln-Way player.
Sun-Times file photo

A bit of an afterthought in a class that included three McDonald’s All-Americans in Proviso East’s Dee Brown, Providence’s Michael Thompson and Julian’s Sean Dockery. Throw in Andre Igoudala of Springfield Lanphier and Tucker was a forgotten man in the class, but he proved to be a steal for the Badgers.

A consensus All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior, Tucker remains the all-time leading scorer in Wisconsin history with 2,217 points.

Brandon Ewing, Julian (Wyoming) • Class of 2005

Farragut players Christopher Singletary (L) and Lamont Williams (22) try to keep Julian guard Brandon Ewing from going to the basket.
Farragut players Christopher Singletary (L) and Lamont Williams (22) try to keep Julian guard Brandon Ewing from going to the basket.
Sun-Times file photo

The 6-1 guard was ranked behind several guards in the class, a class that included several big-named prospects like Brother Rice’s Bobby Frasor, Peoria Richwoods’ Jamar Smith, Niles West’s Sead Odzic, Downers Grove South’s Bryan Mullins, Robeson’s Jeremy Pargo, and Proviso East’s Phillip Perry.

Maybe Wyoming was a bit of an outpost at the time, but all Ewing did from the day he set foot in Laramie was score the basketball. The 6-1 guard averaged 13.2 points a game as a freshman and then pumped in 19.9, 17.2 and 18.5 points a game over the next three years. He led the Mountain West Conference in scoring all three years.

Ewing became the second all-time leading scorer in program history with 2,168 points. He finished second in career assists and, at the time, made the most three-pointers in program history.

Osiris Eldridge, Phillips (Illinois State) • Class of 2006

Osiris Eldridge playing for Phillips in 2006.
Osiris Eldridge playing for Phillips in 2006.
Sun-Times file photo

There were some big-time guards in the state who gobbled up the headlines, including seniors Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins and Patrick Beverley and junior Derrick Rose. Thus it was easy for a talent like Eldridge to fly under the radar, especially for the casual fan.

While he was a recruiting target for several college programs, he proved to be a recruiting steal for Illinois State.

The high-flying 6-3 guard from a low-profile high school program was a difference-maker at both ends of the floor and a star for the Redbirds.

Eldridge, who won 71 games in his final three seasons with the Redbirds, is third on the career scoring list at Illinois State, finishing his career with 1,838 points.

Jerome Randle, Hales (California) • Class of 2006

Jerome Randle and Lisle’s #31 Matt Milner collide for the double-foul
Jerome Randle and Lisle’s #31 Matt Milner collide for the double-foul.
Sun-Times file photo

There were many who believed the 5-9 point guard was too small to play at the high-major level, let alone make a major impact. No one envisioned the type of impact and career Randle would put together in the Pac-10.

No player has made more three-pointers or had a higher free-throw percentage in Cal basketball history than Randle. That played a big part in Randle becoming the all-time leading scorer in Golden Bears history with 1,835 points.

As a junior and senior he fueled two Cal NCAA Tournament appearances.

Jacob Pullen, Proviso East (Kansas State) • Class of 2007

Jacob Pullen of Proviso East drives to the basketball past Jerome Robinson of St. Patrick.
Jacob Pullen of Proviso East drives to the basketball past Jerome Robinson of St. Patrick.
Sun-Times file photo

He was recruited but was hardly a hot name in recruiting circles, particularly at the high-major level. However, the 6-1 scoring lead guard put together a monster career at K-State. He scored 18 points in his college debut as a freshman and kept pouring in points, ultimately finishing his career as one of program’s all-time greats.

This is a three-star recruit who finished as the leading scorer in program history with 2,132 points.

Pullen played three games in NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2017-18 season while enjoying a long professional career overseas.

John Shurna, Glenbard West (Northwestern) • Class of 2008

Glenbard West basketball player John Shurna gets ready to sign a national letter of intent with Northwestern.
Glenbard West basketball player John Shurna gets ready to sign a national letter of intent with Northwestern.

When he committed in May of his junior year of high school, Shurna had some high-major interest but just one high-major offer –– from Northwestern.

Shurna went on to become a three-time All-Big Ten selection and is now the single season and all-time leading scorer in Northwestern basketball history. He’s enjoyed eight successful years of playing overseas since leaving NU.

Derek Needham, De La Salle (Fairfield) • Class of 2009

Derek Needham playing for De La Salle.
Derek Needham playing for De La Salle.
Sun-Times file photo

A completely forgotten player nationally who wasn’t on rankings lists or attached with stars in his profile. However, Needham proved to be a monumental steal for the Fairfield basketball program.

The Fairfield program had won 20 or more games three times in the program’s history before Needham arrived. In Needham’s four years at Fairfield he led the Stags to an average of 22 wins a year.

The strong, physical 5-11 point guard made an instant impact as he was named MAAC Rookie of the Year award as a freshman, averaging 16.4 points a game. He went on to score the third most points in Fairfield history with a career mark of 1,875 points.

DJ Cooper, Seton (Ohio) • Class of 2009

Seton’s D.J. Cooper delivers a no-look pass at the end of the first half of his team’s 83-63 victory in the 2A state championship game on March 14, 2009.
Seton’s D.J. Cooper delivers a no-look pass at the end of the first half of his team’s 83-63 victory in the 2A state championship game on March 14, 2009.
Sun-Times file photo

A pretty coveted mid-major prospect, Cooper was more or less an afterthought for high-major programs but . He was an instant star at Ohio as the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year. As a junior he led Ohio to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament and as a senior was the MAC Player of the Year.

How big of a steal was he for then Ohio coach John Groce? Cooper became the only player in college basketball history to record 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in a career.

Robert Covington, Proviso West (Tennessee State) • Class of 2009

It’s hard to believe a player who is currently a 30-plus minute NBA player over the past few seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets could have been a relative unknown in Chicago basketball circles as a prep player.

Proviso West’s Robert Covington (33) slams home two points during the first quarter of Friday evening’s game against Hinsdale Central.
Proviso West’s Robert Covington (33) slams home two points during the first quarter of Friday evening’s game against Hinsdale Central.
Sun-Times file photo

And people may not even know where the 6-8 forward played collegiately and what a great career he put together at little-known Tennessee State. Yes, we’re talking the prototypical recruiting steal. Tennessee State was front and center, holding off an interested Ball State and a walk-on opportunity at Kansas State.

Covington scored 1,748 points and pulled down 876 rebounds in his career. He left his mark at Tennessee State in the career record books: fourth all-time leading scorer, third in rebounds, second in blocked shots and fourth in three-pointers made.

Patrick Miller, Hales (Tennessee State) • Class of 2010

Hales’ Patrick Miller drives and scores while Seton’s Corbin Thomas defends.
Hales’ Patrick Miller drives and scores while Seton’s Corbin Thomas defends.
Sun-Times file photo

Moving from one Tennessee State legend to another …

The City/Suburban Hoops Report was bullish on the 6-0 point guard. He was the Hoops Report’s No. 15 ranked player in what was a loaded Class of 2010 in Illinois. The class featured a dozen players who signed with high-major programs. But the recruitment of Miller was extremely mild.

He signed with Tennessee State early but then exploded as a senior, opening eyes with huge performances at the Big Dipper in December. That grabbed the attention of Big Ten schools who tried to get him get out of his commitment and letter-of-intent. But Miller stayed true, didn’t seek to get out of his LOI and stuck with the Ohio Valley Conference school.

He played in more games and played more minutes than any player in Tennessee State history. And he produced in a big way, finishing as the second all-time leading scorer in program history with 1,900 points. He’s the school’s all-time leader in assists (520 assists) and second in steals (196 steals). As a senior he was the nation’s fifth leading scorer with 23.7 points a game.

Keifer Sykes, Marshall (Wisconsin-Green Bay) • Class of 2011

Keifer Sykes looks to pass the ball up court followed by teammate senior Korbin McClain.
Keifer Sykes looks to pass the ball up court followed by teammate senior Korbin McClain.
Sun-Times file photo

The athletic 5-11 point guard was a completely overlooked prospect –– it came down to Wisconsin-Green Bay and Eastern Illinois –– who quickly showed he was a high-major talent once he reached college.

But that overlooked status led to Sykes being scooped up by coach Brian Wardle and becoming one of the best players in Horizon League history. He was a two-time Horizon League Player of the Year. His 2,059 career points are the most in UWGB history and were the second most scored in Horizon League history.

He’s played overseas for the past five years and has become a basketball star in China, averaging 26 points a game in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Frank Kaminsky, Benet (Wisconsin) • Class of 2011

Benet center Frank Kaminsky (44) comes eye to eye with Joliet Township guard Anthony Shoemaker.
Benet center Frank Kaminsky (44) comes eye to eye with Joliet Township guard Anthony Shoemaker.
Sun-Times file photo

When he committed he had just two high-major offers: Wisconsin and Northwestern. There was a belief that NU wasn’t even 100 percent on board while a few mid-major programs remained skeptical. Plus, he was a complete City/Suburban Hoops Report miss.

All Kaminsky did after averaging a combined 2.9 points a game his first two years in Madison was become Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. He led Wisconsin to the Final Four and was the No. 9 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Fred VanVleet, Rockford Auburn (Wichita State) • Class of 2012

Auburn’s Fred VanVleet shoots during their Super Sectional loss to Glenbard East.
Auburn’s Fred VanVleet shoots during their Super Sectional loss to Glenbard East.
Sun-Times file photo

A memorable and highly-successful college career at Wichita State included four NCAA Tournament appearances, including a pair of Sweet Sixteen runs and a Final Four. He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and the career leader in assists and steals in Shockers basketball history.

Van Vleet has now carved out a successful NBA career, spending the last four years with the Toronto Raptors and is now a coveted free agent after winning a title in 2019 and averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 assists a game this past season.

All this from a player whose final three schools on his list were Wichita State, Northern Illinois and Kent State.

Jared Brownridge, Waubonsie Valley (Santa Clara) • Class of 2013

Waubonsie Valley’s Jared Brownridge drives to the basket against Metea Valley.
Waubonsie Valley’s Jared Brownridge drives to the basket against Metea Valley.
Sun-Times file photo

Anyone who does this, no matter the level, is an absolute steal: second all-time leading scorer in school history and the fourth all-time leading scorer in West Coast Conference history.

Santa Clara thought it was getting an outstanding shooter who could space the floor. By the time Brownridge graduated he finished his career with whopping offensive numbers, including 2,313 career points and 385 three-pointers made. Brownridge made 90-plus three-pointers all four seasons he played.

He did this at a school that’s produced some NBA talent, including Steve Nash, and in a high-level basketball conference.

Alec Peters, Washington (Valparaiso) • Class of 2013

This is one of the all-time great mid-major steals, because Peters had a flurry of high-major interest and some offers at the end yet decided on a mid-major program.

There were a few high-major programs that flirted with Peters in the recruiting process and ultimately pulled the trigger late in the process. Yet Valpo still landed one of the biggest mid-major steals when he turned down the likes of Boston College, Washington State, Missouri and Tennessee who had all offered.

He went on to become an All-American candidate, the Horizon League Player of the Year and set Valpo school records for most points (2,348) and rebounds (996) in a career. He finished as the all-time leading scorer in Horizon League history.

He played 20 games for the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18 and played professionally overseas.

Jevon Carter, Proviso East (West Virginia) • Class of 2014

Proviso East’s Jevon Carter goes to the basket and scores two points against H-F.
Proviso East’s Jevon Carter goes to the basket and scores two points against H-F.
Sun-Times file photo

Locally, Carter was highly overlooked despite playing for high-profile program and for teams that won a ton of games. And while there was a whole bunch of mid-major offers, the high-major interest was nearly non-existent. Coach Bob Huggins rolled the dice and won big. The accolades and college résumé will impress any college basketball observer.

He was a defensive dynamo with the most career steals in program history and was the consensus National Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

But no one forecasted the 6-1 guard would be an All-American at West Virginia, where he scored 1,758 career points and was also the career assists leader. During his senior season he became the first major college player in history to reach 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career.

Carter spent the past two seasons playing for Memphis and Phoenix in the NBA.

John Konchar, West Chicago (Purdue-Fort Wayne) • Class of 2014

John Konchar (5) of West Chicago comes down with a rebound that is just out of reach for Matt Gialamas of Waubonsie Valley.
John Konchar (5) of West Chicago comes down with a rebound that is just out of reach for Matt Gialamas of Waubonsie Valley.
Sun-Times file photo

This was a monumental recruiting snub by the masses. Heck, he was the Hoops Report’s No. 43 ranked player in the class.

A little-known player and a lightly recruited prospect as a senior, Konchar landed at PFW and became a college star –– and arguably the greatest player in school history. Konchar tops the Mastadons’ career list in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

The numbers are staggering. He finished as the first player in college basketball history with 2,000 points (2,065), 1,000 rebounds (1,149), 500 assists (553) and 200 steals (272).

Konchar continues to surpass expectations as he latched on with the Memphis Grizzlies this past season and appeared in 19 games.

Max Strus, Stagg (Lewis) • Class of 2014

Stagg’s Max Strus (23) drives to the basket against Bolingbrook.
Stagg’s Max Strus (23) drives to the basket against Bolingbrook.
Sun-Times file photo

A player who went from having little to no Division I interest and signing with a Division II school to one wanted by high-major programs two years later.

As a senior at Stagg he was a small college recruiting steal for coach Scott Trost at Lewis. Strus made an immediate impact as a freshman at the Division II level, averaging 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. He became an All-American candidate as a sophomore when he averaged 20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game. The h highlight of his two years at Lewis included making a Division II NCAA Tournament and scoring a career-high 52 points on just 18 shots.

Following his sophomore year the 6-6 wing decided to transfer. He received multiple high-major offers before landing at DePaul. In just two seasons he scored 1,226 points and made 194 three-pointers, including a senior season where he averaged 20.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game.

Loudon Love, Geneva (Wright State) • Class of 2016

Geneva’s Loudon Love-Vollbrecht (40) pushes pass Normal’s Tyler Seibring (33).
Geneva’s Loudon Love-Vollbrecht (40) pushes pass Normal’s Tyler Seibring (33).
Sun-Times file photo

This is one of the best and most interesting recruiting tales on the list.

South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy and his staff really liked Love in the summer before his senior year. They were one of the few who were all on board despite the 6-8, 280-pounder also being a prized Division I football recruit as an offensive tackle.

Love, however, tore his ACL on the final play of the final game of the football season in the first week of November. South Dakota State was still on board and signed Love at the tail end of the early signing period in November.

Nagy took the Wright State job the following spring. Love opened his recruitment back up again. With no senior tape and rehabbing an ACL injury, the interest remained mild. Nagy, however, recruited Love again and brought him with to Wright State.

Now Love, who redshirted as a freshman, is the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year after averaging 17.8 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. He was recently named the preseason Player of the Year as Wright State is the league favorite.

In three seasons he’s scored 1,393 points and is set to become the all-time leading rebounder in program history this season.

Cameron Krutwig, Jacobs (Loyola) • Class of 2017

Jacobs senior Cameron Krutwig (24) back down Bartlett’s Jason Hasenberg (24).
Jacobs senior Cameron Krutwig (24) back down Bartlett’s Jason Hasenberg (24).
Sun-Times file photo

When it’s all said and done, Krutwig will likely end his college career as the most productive and accomplished player in the Class of 2017 in Illinois.

Yes, he was a coveted by college coaches at the mid-major level. But he was one of those “present day steals” when he signed with Loyola, at least in the eyes of the Hoops Report, who billed Krutwig as the best passing big man it had seen in 20 years. Krutwig lacked the athleticism that high-major programs insist on, thus Loyola has reaped the rewards of its “recruiting steal” from a few years ago.

Currently a senior at Loyola, Krutwig was a key piece in Loyola’s Final Four run as a freshman. He’s already scored 1,384 points and pulled down 737 rebounds in his career with a season to play. He’s also a 5-man who has dished out a whopping 282 assists.

He’s already a two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference pick and a regular Player of the Year candidate.