What might have been: A look back at the elite high school basketball players who left Illinois

Imagine Illinois high school basketball right now if Patrick Baldwin Jr. had just graduated and Amari Bailey was a senior-to-be?

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Jeremy Fears Jr. shoots against Canada last weekend in the FIBA Americas U16 semifinals in Xalapa, Mexico.

Jeremy Fears Jr. shoots against Canada last weekend in the FIBA Americas U16 semifinals in Xalapa, Mexico.

USA basketball photo

Imagine Illinois high school basketball right now if Patrick Baldwin, Jr., had just graduated and Amari Bailey was a senior-to-be? 

True, it’s only two players. But what a pair it would be. 

That would have been like going down memory lane with back-to-back years of having another round of Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, just as we did in 2013 and 2014 when those two garnered national headlines throughout their careers. 

Baldwin and Bailey never did play a minute of high school basketball in this state. Although both were middle school prodigies and already well known in the sport, Baldwin left months before attending Loyola Academy while Bailey was rumored to be leaning towards Whitney Young out of 8th grade. 

Back in the spring of 2017, I put together an Illinois star power poll that ranked every top player in the state as a prospect, regardless of age or class.

The key word, just as I stated a little over four years ago, is prospect. As always, we’re talking projection and the future rather than current best player. 

There is a whole lot of uniqueness throughout the detailed piece I wrote four years ago –– both then and even now looking back. 

The top player listed in that story (Baldwin) wasn’t even in high school yet, while another player ranked among the top prospects at the time (Bailey) was just a seventh-grader!

Anyone who follows my work closely knows I try to stay away from over-hyping and going ga-ga over any player prior to entering high school. Roughly 99 percent of the time there is no need to. But there have been a few exceptions, a time where you just can’t ignore the obvious. 

Over the past 10 years I know I went overboard on Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Jalen Brunson before they were officially in high school. Those three all panned out and then some. 

There were plenty of familiar names in that rankings story from four years ago. EJ Liddell of Belleville West and Ayo Dosunmu of Morgan Park were near the top. A pair of budding, young stars at the time, DJ Steward and Adam Miller, were just completing their sophomore years at Fenwick and Morgan Park, respectively. 

But the two that raised eyebrows then and still stand out today are the aforementioned Baldwin and Bailey. Indeed, the superlatives were flowing before they were in high school. 

Baldwin, fresh out of Haven Middle School in Evanston in the spring of 2017, was at the top. He was the 14-year-old eighth-grader who I ranked as the very best college prospect in the state regardless of class. 

It helped that there weren’t any transcendent prep hoops stars in high school at the time. There wasn’t a version of Parker or Okafor or an Anthony Davis, all of whom would be more of a sure thing as a junior or senior in high school than any 8th grader could be. But Baldwin was such a no-brainer, even at that early age. 

Instead of going to Loyola Academy for his freshman year, Baldwin headed to the Milwaukee suburbs to play his high school basketball. His father, Pat Baldwin, Sr., who was then an assistant coach at Northwestern, was hired as the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in June of 2017. 

Thus, all Loyola coach Tom Livatino has is the lasting memory of coaching one of the elite players in the country for a couple of weeks in the summer, which included Baldwin’s public debut at the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout. 

All Loyola did without Baldwin was win 24, 23 and 30 games and three regional titles in Baldwin’s first three seasons before the Covid-shortened 14-win season a year go. 

Today? Baldwin was a five-star recruit and top five player in the country in the Class of 2021. He was named a McDonald’s All-American. The 6-10, smooth shooting forward will play next year for his father at UW-Milwaukee and ultimately be a NBA Lottery pick sooner than later. 

Also high on that list four years ago was Amari Bailey. He was a silky 6-2 lefty guard who just completed seventh-grade at Skinner West Elementary back in 2017. Here was the description of Bailey from that story:

“Rarely has the City/Suburban Hoops Report highlighted players this young. But it’s impossible to keep him off the list. He already brings a “Wow” factor for a player so young with pure, natural basketball ability and unique physical tools. His passing ability is off the charts and he calmly and cooly plays the game while featuring a legit jumper with three-point range.”

Bailey was just one of those very rare talents you see at such a young age who you just know is destined to be a pro as long as the road there stays clear of debris.

Unfortunately, we never were able to see Bailey play in this state, either. Bailey left Chicago for California where he currently plays in the spotlight with Lebron James’ son, Bronny, at Sierra Canyon. 

Since his departure from Chicago, the hype surrounding Bailey only expanded and increased. Now Bailey, a UCLA commit, is a projected NBA Lottery Pick in 2023 who hangs with Lebron and music icon Drake. Things worked out pretty well for the kid. 

With the top two players in the Class of 2022, Jalen Duren of Montverde Academy in Florida and Emoni Bates of Michigan, recently re-classifying to the Class of 2021, Bailey is now the No. 2 ranked player in the country in his class by both Rivals and 247Sports. ESPN has already elevated Bailey to the top of the class. 

Imagine if the state would have been fortunate enough to have had Baldwin and Bailey play their high school basketball here in Illinois? 

Instead of discussing how the state has been lacking the surefire, high-level college prospects in recent years, Baldwin and Bailey would have fallen right in line with so many other past greats this state has churned out. 

Prep basketball stars shine a spotlight on the sport, especially in the state of Illinois. These two would have only added to the great basketball legacy in Illinois and enhanced the star power this state has produced and been recognized for. 

The loss of Baldwin and Bailey in the Class of 2021 and Class of 2022, respectively, followed the departure of another highly-ranked player who left the state: Nimari Burnett. 

After making a name for himself at Beasley Elementary, Burnett starred as a freshman at Morgan Park during the 2016-17 season. He scored 20 points in the state championship game win over Fenwick. But Burnett started a wave of big-time talent to leave the state.

Burnett departed for California and finished his prep career at Profilic Prep as the No. 27 ranked player in the Class of 2020.

Burnett, who was named a McDonald’s All-American, signed with Texas Tech out of high school. He transferred this past year and will begin his sophomore year at Alabama this year. 

While Burnett, Baldwin and Bailey were headline-grabbing high school stars at the national level, there have been so many others who have also left Illinois. 

Currently, Jeremy Fears, Jr., who left Joliet West for La Lumiere in Indiana following his freshman year, has a ton of high-major interest and offers. The 6-1 guard is another top 100 talent nationally who would have generated buzz and headlines if he had stayed playing in Illinois. 

And Matas Bazelis, a skilled and versatile 6-8 junior, would be the No. 2 ranked player in the state in Class of 2023 if he had stayed in Illinois. But Bazelis, another high-major talent who is among the top 50 players in the country, bolted for Brewster Academy in New Hampshire after one year at Hinsdale Central. 

These five departures in particular –- Baldwin, Bailey, Burnett, Bazelis and Fears –– have completely changed the landscape of Illinois high school basketball during this five-year window. 

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