DJ Steward, the Sun-Times Player of the Year, doesn’t have a tragic origin story. And he wasn’t a childhood phenom, drenched with expectations from a super-young age. Football was his primary sport until junior high.
Steward had the luxury of just being your average kid, which is increasingly rare for a player of his quality. That might explain why he seems to be having so much fun on the court.
He is known as much for his smile as his skill. Steward plays with a lightness and joy that reminds fans and media of what high school basketball should be but so rarely is. Especially in Chicago.
‘‘I’m just always happy,’’ Steward said. ‘‘I’m playing a game I love to play and always out there having a good time. But now that we are in the playoffs and everything is on the line, I may start to get a little bit more serious and change my tone and manner and try to move with a purpose.’’
Don’t get it wrong: Steward is not a flighty, undependable, smiling fool. He has been a serious force on the court since his freshman year at Fenwick. He was the most productive freshman in the state since Glenbrook North star Jon Scheyer in 2003. Steward teamed with seniors Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon to lead the Friars to the Class 3A title game.
Fenwick lost to Morgan Park, but Steward was the best player on the floor, finishing with 26 points and seven rebounds. He was 10-for-10 shooting.
Steward transferred to Young for his junior season and slowly but surely proved himself in the eyes of the national evaluators. He committed to Duke before the season and in January became Illinois’ first McDonald’s All-American since former Stevenson star Jalen Brunson in 2015.
That drought was difficult for Chicago’s proud basketball culture to stomach. Steward likely will be remembered most for putting an end to that embarrassment.
It came with a cost, though. Young coach Tyrone Slaughter, always a proponent of traveling to play the best teams in the country, knew it was best to be on the road even more the last two seasons.
‘‘The last two years, we’ve been on the road 50 to 70 percent of the time in our nonconference schedule,’’ Slaughter said. ‘‘We travel because we like it and it helps us prepare, but this year it took on a different kind of scenario. It was really about trying to give him a legitimate opportunity to become a McDonald’s All-American. That did not help [Steward] from a perception standpoint locally. But you have to go and play where the people that make the decision are.’’
Slaughter said his team was ‘‘out of sight, out of mind’’ this season, and that is true. There is no media circus around Steward despite his status as a five-star Duke recruit.
That’s probably a good thing for Steward and his team, but it’s a shame that one of the most engaging high-level players the city has had in years is a relative unknown.
‘‘He’s a joy on and off the court,’’ Slaughter said. ‘‘We don’t have to feed the ego. Whatever you ask him to do, even if he’s not good at it, he’ll try. His teammates all like him because he’s not absorbed with himself.’’
Steward actually called each of the college coaches who cracked his final six and told them personally that he was committing to Duke. That’s nearly unheard of, a task left to parents or coaches.
‘‘I honestly thought everyone did it,’’ Steward said. ‘‘But then people told me that was really mature of me. That is how it was going to have to be. I knew I had to grow up and be responsible and learn how to talk to adults in the right way. Some of them were very surprised.’’
Steward averaged 22.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists this season. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but he is an efficient scorer and posted them against the best players and teams in the country.
‘‘[Jahlil Okafor] was an anomaly, so we set him to the side,’’ Slaughter said. ‘‘Steward is one of the most gifted scorers I’ve coached. He’s not a shooter, a driver; he’s a scorer. It makes him a very difficult guy to cover.
‘‘The hardest thing about coaching a player of his personal quality and athletic caliber is you want to do well as a coach and win as much as possible because they deserve to experience the pinnacle of the sport.’’
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2019—DaJuan Gordon, Curie
2014—Cliff Alexander, Curie
2013—Jahlil Okafor, Young
2012—Jabari Parker, Simeon
2011—Wayne Blackshear, Morgan Park
2010—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2009—Jereme Richmond, Waukegan
2008—Kevin Dillard, Homewood-Flossmoor
2007—Derrick Rose, Simeon
2005—DeAndre Thomas, Westinghouse
2004–Calvin Brock, Simeon
2003—Shannon Brown, Proviso East
2002—Sean Dockery, Julian
2001—Eddy Curry, Thornwood
2000—Cedrick Banks, Westinghouse
1999—Leon Smith, King
1998—Quentin Richardson, Young
1997—Melvin Ely, Thornton
1996—Ronnie Fields, Farragut
1995—Kevin Garnett, Farragut
1994—Jerry Gee, St. Martin de Porres
1993—Rashard Griffith, King
1992—Chris Collins, Glenbrook North
1991—Sherell Ford, Proviso East
1990—Jamie Brandon, King
1989—Deon Thomas, Simeon
1988—Eric Anderson, de Sales
1987—Marcus Liberty, King
1986—Nick Anderson, Simeon
1985—Michael Ingram, Proviso West
1984—Hersey Hawkins, Westinghouse
1983—Len Bertolini, St. Patrick
1982—Bernard Jackson, Phillips
1981—Walter Downing, Providence
1980—Glenn Rivers, Proviso East
1979—Isiah Thomas, St. Joseph
1978—Mark Aguirre, Westinghouse
1977—Eddie Johnson, Westinghouse
1976—Glen Grunwald, East Leyden
1975—Pete Boesen, Maine South
1974—Audie Matthews, Bloom
1973—Mark Vitali, St. Charles
1972—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1971—Quinn Buckner, Thornridge
1970—Lloyd Batts, Thornton
1969—Jim Brewer, Proviso East
1968—Jeff Hickman, Lockport
1967—Rick Howat, Downers Grove
1966—Rich Bradshaw, Marshall
1965—Terry Hurley, Steinmetz
1964—Eugene Ford, Crane
1963—Joe Allen, Carver
1962—Cazzie Russell, Carver
1961—Bob Caress, Thornton
1960—George Wilson, Marshall