The Prep Hoops team provided the area with a platform, an opportunity for a whole lot of club basketball teams and players to be seen, thanks to the Prep Hoops Chi-Town Tip Off held this past weekend throughout the area.
Here are a five storylines taken from another busy weekend of basketball.
Meanstreets vs. Bradley Beal what club basketball is about
Without question the highlight of a jam-packed weekend was the intense tussle between Meanstreets and Bradley Beal Elite at the 17U level. This is what makes club basketball special in its own right.
This was a collection of top-level talent on both teams competing against each other on the same floor at the high school level. This simply doesn’t happen in regular scholastic high school basketball — at least not to this degree — where multiple nationally ranked players are going at it and Division I players are coming off the bench.
The matchup was circled early on when the schedule came out. These are two highly-regarded national programs that play on the Nike grassroots EYBL circuit, which is without question the best club basketball you will find In the country. Thus, there is a lot of familiarity with the two programs, both geographically in the Midwest and in EYBL action.
The game did not disappoint. These two went at it, back and forth all game long, making play after play before Buffalo Grove’s Kam Craft ended it on a 25-foot jumper at the buzzer, giving Meanstreets a thrilling 70-69 win.
The talent level on display was eye-opening, starting with the Meanstreets frontcourt trio of 6-8 AJ Casey, 6-8 Jalen Washington and 6-6 Ty Rodgers.
Casey, who plays at Young, and Washington, who preps at Gary West Side in Indiana, are two players ranked among the top 25 in the country. Rodgers, who plays at Grand Blanc, Mich., is a top 100 player nationally. All three took turns impressing and living up to the hype.
Casey, the top junior prospect in Illinois, gets it done in so many different ways. There is the jump-hook at the basket, a drive, slash and dunk at the rim, a floater in the lane, a good-looking three-point shot. There are simply so many tools to work with.
Washington has the desired on-the-block game that’s gone missing in basketball. His footwork and maneuvering around the basket and along the baseline, coupled with his soft and efficient 10-15 foot face-up jumper, is why virtually the entire Big Ten is courting him.
And you will be hard pressed to find a better combination of high-running motor, power and athleticism than what you will find with Rodgers. This is an active rebounder and interior finisher at his size. The skill needs to be refined, but those aforementioned attributes translate to all levels of basketball. And they can be game-changing at the high school level.
Rodgers led Grand Blanc to its first-ever Michigan state championship earlier this month.
Kam Craft ready to open eyes
As mentioned, Craft provided the most dramatic moment of the weekend. Craft burying that 25-foot pull-up three-pointer to beat Bradley Beal Elite showed the type of intestinal fortitude he regularly plays with.
Craft has been outstanding this spring. First, he opened eyes with his play at NY2LA’s Swish N’ Dish a couple of weeks ago. Then he did it again this past weekend. In addition to that ice-in-his-veins moment, Craft also scored a team-high 18 points in the win.
Remember, this is a player who averaged 27.1 points this past season as a junior and set a school record with 46 points in a game as a sophomore.
While Craft was a bit of a high-volume shooter this past weekend — the efficiency was lacking — make no mistake about the fact the 6-5 guard is a bonafide perimeter shooting threat. He can create space for himself, elevate and get his shot off in a variety of ways. Plus, Craft is comfortable and pretty fearless with his own game. I’m going to be fine running a set for Craft in clutch situations.
But what has jumped out over the past few weeks in watching Craft is added athleticism and bounce off the floor. There has been plenty of evidence to support that, including a massive baseline dunk in a game played on Sunday that generated a buzz in the gym.
All of this will be showcased this summer as he tries to prove and solidify himself as a high-major prospect in front of college coaches.
Welcome back, Jeremy Fears Jr. — kind of
With the uncertainty of the Illinois high school basketball season last fall, Joliet West super sophomore Jeremy Fears Jr., headed off to prep school. He crossed the Illinois-Indiana border and headed to La Lumiere.
But the Joliet native returned home this past weekend as the starting point guard for Bradley Beal Elite, playing up an age group and still impressing in the Chi-Town Tip Off.
Fears has made some serious strides physically and with his game over the past year. He’s much more athletic and has grown to a legit 6-1 while maintaining his feel at the point guard position.
With what we hope is some normalcy next basketball season, it would be a boon to everyone involved if Fears were to return to Joliet for his junior season.
Fears would be a signature player in this basketball state. He would significantly enhance the hopes of the Tigers, be able to play for “something” with his younger brother, enjoy a traditional high school life and gain notoriety and regular headlines along the way.
Basically, Fears would get back to taking the same path so many other Illinois prep stars have taken without going the prep school route, where they are eventually forgotten about in time.
Here’s hoping Fears is back in Joliet next year.
Players continue to solidify themselves as Division I prospects
Until college coaches can truly get out to see and evaluate prospects again in person, it’s going to take time for players to actually do the following: solidify themselves as Division I prospects.
However, there are a few who have not been heavily courted just yet but who have clearly established themselves as Division I prospects. They will finally be seen — fingers crossed — this June and July.
But know this: Glenbrook South’s Nick Martinelli and Timothy Christian’s Ben Vander Wal are legit Division I players. Both proved once again their value while playing at a high level this past weekend.
Martinelli has a unique game. The craftiness and the consistent production outweighs the short supply of flash he provides. Don’t wait for the highlight reel when it comes to Martinelli. But who cares how he gets it done.
The 6-7 Martinelli, who produced at a significant level while leading Glenbrook South to a 16-2 record and a share of the Central Suburban League South this past year, is all about substance. He simply finds a way, always putting himself –– or finding himself –– in the right spots.
There is a competitive edge with Vander Wal, who at 6-6 is becoming more and more of a space-the-floor 4-man. He shoots it with range and with growing efficiency, especially for the position as a catch-and-shoot threat.
With the sneaky bounce he has off the floor and the toughness he plays with, along with that shooting ability, Vander Wal is a no-brainer Division I player.
And how many times can you say this about a player: VanderWal has an uncanny ability to draw charges. Lots of them. You see it while playing with his Breakaway team on the club circuit, and there is further proof when digging deeper. Vander Wal took 14 charges this past season in 16 games for Timothy Christian, where he averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds a game.
The low-major/low-major plus programs, especially those high-academic schools, will keep their fingers crossed he doesn’t move up a level and solidify himself as a bonafide mid-major player.
Tavari Johnson may be the best-kept secret in Illinois
The Lyons point guard didn’t play varsity as a sophomore. Then a makeshift junior year followed where the Lions only played 17 games in a five-week stretch — and all of them against West Suburban Conference foes.
The slender 6-0 guard is not going to dazzle you with blinding speed or raw explosiveness, yet he gets where he needs to get on the floor. He’s so steady, calm and offers a beautiful blend of taking care of the ball, facilitating and plenty of scoring ability at the point guard position to go with it.
While Johnson is on the small side when evaluating and projecting him forward at the Division I level, he’s a playmaking and shot-making lead guard. A wiggly player with the ball who changes speeds, Johnson has an easy way about him with the ball in his hands.
However, there aren’t any Division I offers just yet, which makes Johnson arguably the best-kept secret in the state right now. Johnson is a legitimate Division I player.