Young, blossoming, under-the-radar prospects. They’re the type of players that get the high school basketball fan excited and college coaches intrigued.
There have been several underclassmen who have both blossomed and grabbed their share of headlines this season.
Just two weeks ago the City/Suburban Hoops Report labeled Glenbard West’s Braden Huff, who will ultimately be a target for high-major programs, as the best young prospect no one knows. Now they do.
Other young prospects have made their mark already, including Tinley Park’s AJ Casey. Following his transfer from Simeon to the south suburbs, Casey’s production has matched his potential with over 20 points a game. He’s been the state’s No. 1 prospect in the sophomore class since the day he entered high school.
The sharp-shooting Jaden Schutt of Yorkville Christian averaged 16 points a game as a freshman and is now at 24 points a game as a sophomore. He’s been billed as the state’s best shooter. Schutt is quickly approaching 100 made threes on the season and set a state record with 17 three-pointers in one game.
Buffalo Grove’s high-scoring Kam Craft and Oak Forest’s Robbie Avila are two other sophomores who have already made a major impact for two seasons at the varsity level. Craft, who is averaging 22.9 points a game, surpassed 1,000 career points last week in just a season and a half of work.
But there are a bundle of other young players who are still flying under the radar. Their day is definitely coming.
Here is a short list of players in the junior, sophomore and freshmen classes who have taken their games to another level this season.
Class of 2023: Asa Thomas, Lake Forest
This breakout freshman hasn’t received the same hype as some of the other players in the class have, particularly the high-profile young freshmen in the Chicago Public League. But there might not be a freshman who has been more productive than Thomas.
Thomas has quickly established himself as a knockdown shooter. The sweet-shooting Thomas is averaging 14 points and five rebounds a game and has already made 62 three-pointers on the season. He’s not just a gunner, either, as Thomas is shooting a quite impressive 44 percent from beyond the arc.
“He’s always had a little bit of an edge,” says Lake Forest coach Phil LaScala of his prized freshman. “You could see this summer when he played with us that he wasn’t afraid.”
A player with size and growing versatility on the perimeter, Thomas, who is a shade over 6-4, will grab your attention with his ability to stretch the floor from three-point range. But he offers plenty of basketball intangibles and smarts, especially for a freshman.
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Fears, Jr., Joliet West
The first thing that jumps out at you when watching Fears is that he belongs. The 5-11 point guard has a presence about him, doesn’t get rattled and plays with such terrific pace. That’s quite impressive for a freshman impacting a ranked team.
The overall numbers won’t wow you –– Fears is averaging 5.7 points, three rebounds and 3.6 assists a game. But Fears plays 24 minutes a game for a reason.
“His importance goes so far beyond stats,” says Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger. “It’s all the intangible things, which are so impressive at such a young age. His grasp of the offense, willingness to defend, the way he creates shots for others and basketball I.Q. is so important for us. Plus, he’s a hound on defense.”
Class of 2022: Trey Pettigrew, Fenwick
Pettigrew certainly made his presence felt as a freshman, leading the team in assists while starting every game. But he’s put together a sophomore season that will only raise his profile heading into the spring and summer.
Pettigrew was already a City/Suburban Hoops Report top five prospect in the class as a freshman. He’s only solidified his ranking with a whopper of a sophomore season.
Capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor with an ultra-smooth offensive game, Pettigrew has become an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses with his wide-ranging offensive repertoire.
This is a bonafide star playing along side heavily-hyped junior Bryce Hopkins. Pettigrew has had some monster games this season and is averaging 16.5 points and three assists a game. He’s also shooting 37 percent from the three-point line with 44 three-pointers made.
Fenwick coach Staunton Peck believes it’s more than just the fact he’s a year older and stronger. Peck credits Pettigrew’s big jump to the work he put in during the offseason.
“He worked so hard in the offseason to get to where he is as a player,” says Peck of his rising star. “He committed himself to the weight room. He was in the weight room four, five days a week, and you can see how his athleticism is so much better. He’s finishing at the rim, playing above the rim.”
Honorable Mention: Cade Pierce, Glenbard West
While Huff has grabbed a lot of attention in recent weeks, Pierce’s game and physical makeup continue to grow. He’s a long, versatile perimeter player who at the end of the day may be able to play three different positions.
While the 6-4 Pierce may not be putting up gaudy numbers, he has shown to be such a valuable jack-of-all-trades perimeter player. He’s averaging 7.8 points, seven rebounds and 3.8 assists a game while connecting on 21 three-pointers.
More importantly from a prospect perspective, Pierce is a late-blooming player, much like his older brother Justin Pierce, who starred at William & Mary before transferring to North Carolina for his senior season.
Pierce has played a lot of point guard for the Hilltoppers and showcases a much-desired skill set, including an efficient three-point shot and an impressive feel for passing the basketball. There is a high ceiling for a player who up to this point has received very little attention.
Class of 2021: Ben Schwieger, Waubonsie Valley
Is there a player in the junior class who has made a bigger jump as far as impact and production?
After playing a minimal role last year off the bench and averaging 3.2 points a game as a sophomore, the emergence of Schwieger has helped lead Waubonsie Valley to a 21-2 record.
Physically, he’s grown five inches since his freshman year. On the court his game has blossomed and his confidence has grown. As a result, Schwieger has raised his average by more than 13 points from a year ago as he’s averaging 16.7 points a game. In addition, he averages 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and has blocked 33 shots.
The 6-5 wing showcases pop off the floor with his athleticism and eye-opening dunks. He can keep a defense honest by stepping out and shooting the three (19 three-pointers made). But he’s also a player who looks to be just scratching the surface as a player and is set to add more to his game.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Johnson, DePaul Prep
The secret is kind of out regarding the DePaul Prep junior guard. He was impactful as a sophomore last year in helping the Rams to Peoria. But the masses don’t really know just how good Johnson is as a player and prospect. He’s making noise and his game is only growing louder.
This season he has upped his scoring to an impressive 21.2 points a game. He also chips in 3.1 rebounds, three assists and 2.3 steals for a team that’s currently 18-2. Known for his shooting and limitless range –– he’s just under 40 percent from the three-point line –– the 6-2 Johnson is an underrated athlete and also a pesky perimeter defender.
“He’s a gym rat who works on his game and who fell in love with the weight room,” says DePaul Prep coach Tom Kleinschmidt. “He grew two inches since last year and is now a complete player, a player who plays with confidence.”