Kenwood’s JJ Taylor is a star in the making

The rising junior is a top-10 player in the country, according to several recruiting services.

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Kenwood’s JJ Taylor (1) dunks the ball in the game against Clemente.

Kenwood’s JJ Taylor (1) dunks the ball in the game against Clemente.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

When you get into that top 10 conversation, it’s just a different type of prospect. 

The hype and expectations surrounding them is different. Their recruitments are different. And, most definitely, they often look and play different. Both the physical attributes and talent level scream one thing: “obvious.” 

The state of Illinois had grown accustomed to players ranked among the nation’s best, players who were coveted from coast to coast, national recruits with the early upside which boasted NBA potential. 

The start of this century churned out Darius Miles in 2000, Eddy Curry in 2001, Shannon Brown in 2003, Shaun Livingston in 2004, Julian Wright in 2005 and Derrick Rose in 2007 — all consensus top 10 prospects in the country. 

Anthony Davis finished as the nation’s top-ranked player in 2011. Jabari Parker was a consensus top five player in 2013. Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander followed that up in 2014 as a pair of top five prospects in their class.

There have been highly-ranked players since, including a few who were consensus top 20 prospects: Tyler Ulis in 2014, Jalen Brunson in 2015 and Max Christie in 2021. 

But not since the Class of 2014 has there been a bonafide top 10 player in the country from Illinois. 

Kenwood’s JJ Taylor is hoping to end that drought. 

The long, wiry, uber-athletic 6-7 sophomore is the highest ranked young player the state has featured since Okafor and Alexander finished ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, seven summers ago. 

Rivals has elevated Taylor to No. 4 in its Class of 2023 rankings. ESPN has Taylor No. 6 in the country while 247Sports has him ranked No. 8.

“The shot, the handle, the length and athleticism … with how he’s playing right now, at this age, he’s one of the best all-around talents I’ve ever coached,” said Kenwood coach Mike Irvin. 

Taylor is a highlight reel waiting to happen. He can score from all over the floor but needs to polish various parts of his game, just as any star high school talent must do. But he’s an electric athlete who flies to the rim and finishes in impressive fashion while showcasing a jumper out to the three-point line. Taylor is devastating in transition.

Said one high-major assistant coach while watching Taylor play during the June live period, “He’s the type of player you don’t have to worry about bringing your head coach to see him play and wondering if he’s talented enough.” 

Irvin has been around a whole lot of highly-ranked players while coaching the Mac Irvin Fire club program. He’s watched his brother Nick Irvin lead a star-studded Morgan Park program for the past decade. He recognizes Taylor’s elite ability, just as he did with so many previous big-named Chicago products. But he also sees a difference. 

Irvin believes it’s more than just raw basketball ability. Taylor’s coach is going to add focus and cognitive basketball skills to the mix, along with a work ethic. 

“I think what makes him a little different than those other guys is that at this age he studies the game,” said Irvin. “He’s a student of the game who really studies the details of the game. He’s always watching, and he has a work ethic. He’s always in the gym. He’s the first in the gym and the last to leave type of player.”

While Taylor was a big name as soon as he entered Morgan Park as a freshman, it took time to showcase — from a production standpoint — why he was such a hot name and top-ranked player in the class. He didn’t make an impact at the varsity level as a freshman. But he’s taken off since. 

Kenwood coach Mike Irvin coaches JJ Taylor (1) during the game against Clemente.

Kenwood coach Mike Irvin coaches JJ Taylor (1) during the game against Clemente.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

This past winter in an abbreviated season following the Covid shutdown, Taylor regularly put up 30-plus points a game. He tapped into that world of upside talent, put up numbers and has continued to open eyes all spring and into the summer. 

“The jump he made from eighth grade to his freshman year was good,” said Irvin. “But the jump he made from his freshman year to sophomore year was huge.”

Irvin actually credits the Covid shutdown for Taylor turning himself from big-time prospect to productive player as a sophomore. Simply put, with so little to do the coach believes there just wasn’t anything else for his star player to focus on during Covid.

“I think the reason for the jump he showed is that he was training non-stop,” said Irvin. “He was working out two or three times a day. There wasn’t much to do, so he worked in the gym and his training really ramped up. That time was a big benefit for him, and he took advantage of it.”

Taylor himself believes that the layoff may have been the best thing for his game. While the absence of real competition was frustrating and going up and down the court was missed, the ultra-talented player was able to refine his game in workouts, alone, in the gym. 

“I took it as an opportunity to get better,” Taylor said of those months without any organized basketball being played. “I was thirsty to get in the gym, so why not make the best of it and take advantage of whatever I could? I felt like it was a blessing, actually, that I was able to get in a gym when so many couldn’t. I went to work.”

He said he worked on his whole arsenal but specifically focused on his mid-range jumper and post-up moves to further diversify his game. 

Watching Taylor play, it’s easy to see growth in his game, both in his understanding and with his consistency as he matures as a player. 

“The thing he has is he’s hungry,” said Irvin. “He know there is a lot more basketball to be played. He has all the tools.”

He has the tools and the early hype having already established himself as a coveted top 10 prospect. But there is another short list of Chicago and Illinois prospects over the years, one of young players who have been ranked extremely high as freshmen and sophomores and fell considerably by the time they were seniors. 

So even though Taylor has the name and recognition as the top prospect in Illinois, this is still a big July for him as he is seen and evaluated in EYBL play. He knows there is a lot at stake and the expectations are high. But he says he welcomes it. 

“It’s very important for me to be that player, to live up to it,” Taylor said of his top 10 national status. “It means something. There is some pressure that comes with that, and I know and expect people to come at me. But I am ready for it and want that. I have to keep working to maintain it, live up to it, to represent Chicago. I know I’m being watched.”

Top 10 players from Chicago since 2000

Since the Class of 2000 graduated over two decades ago, the state has produced 11 consensus top 10 prospects in the country. Here is a list of players with the year they graduated and their consensus national ranking at the conclusion of their high school career. 

Jahlil Okafor, Young - 2014 (No. 1)

Cliff Alexander, Curie - 2014 (No. 4)

Jabari Parker, Simeon - 2013 (No. 3)

Anthony Davis, Perspectives - 2011 (No. 1)

Derrick Rose, Simeon - 2007 (No. 5)

Julian Wright, Homewood-Flossmoor - 2005 (No. 6)

Shaun Livingston, Peoria Central - 2004 (No. 2)

Shannon Brown, Proviso East - 2003 (No. 3)

Eddy Curry, Thornwood - 2001 (No. 1)

Darius Miles, East St. Louis - 2000 (No. 3)

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