Signing Day: The top recruiting steals among local players

There were several college programs who were able to secure a recruiting steal out of Illinois, whether for the level the player chose or in fighting off maybe bigger or, in some cases, more attractive offers.

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Hillcrest’s Darrion Baker (0) dunks in the first quarter against Glenbard West.

Hillcrest’s Darrion Baker (0) dunks in the first quarter against Glenbard West.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

When looking at the Class of 2023 in Illinois and National Signing Day this week, there are two themes that developed with the class and the recruiting of it: late-bloomers and recruiting steals.

The latter will make several college coaches and fan bases feeling pretty jubilant this week as prospects across the country sign their letter-of-intent.

There were many factors behind the late development of players in this class.

A pandemic in the early part of their high school careers stripped many of these players of time in the gym and being seen by college colleges. Plus, the metamorphosis of the transfer portal went from an option to use for college coaches to a necessity in building rosters, which led to putting high school talent evaluations on the backburner.

But this class did its job. When looking back 12 or 18 months ago, no one would have forecasted seven high-major players in the class, especially after top 100 national talent JJ Taylor left Kenwood for California following his sophomore year.

Also, no one would have predicted the number of Division I players would rise to 30-plus in the class. This week the state will have 29 players sign with another handful with either Division I offers or on the bubble of emerging as Division I prospects.

But there were several college programs who were able to secure a recruiting steal out of Illinois, whether for the level the player chose or in fighting off maybe bigger or, in some cases, more attractive offers.

Here are is a list of those recruiting steals and why:

Cameron Christie to Minnesota

The Rolling Meadows star is underrated nationally. But it’s not as if the 6-6, high-upside guard didn’t have his choice of high-major options, including some top 25 national programs.

Some simply didn’t get real far in Christie’s recruitment. That’s a credit to Minnesota and head coach Ben Johnson. The Gophers were in on Christie very early and were tenacious in both developing a relationship and recruiting a player and family who have been through this process before.

The Christie family has seen and heard it all having gone through it with Cameron’s older brother Max Christie, who is now with the Lakers after playing at Michigan State for one year.

Cameron Christie knew exactly what he was looking for in a coach and program. And in the end, Minnesota was able to secure what was the No. 1 ranked senior prospect in Illinois. He joins 7-footer and top 25 prospect Dennis Evans in Minnesota’s recruiting class.

Dalen Davis to Princeton

When you’re in the Ivy League and you can snag a point guard talent and top five prospect in Illinois, you’re ecstatic on Signing Day. And the Young point guard has Princeton coach Mitch Henderson and the Tigers feeling good.

Fortunately for Princeton, Davis stayed true to his word in that the level in college wasn’t the be-all, end-all as it is for so many other players. He wanted academics and, through basketball, set himself up for long-term success.

Quentin Jones to Cal-Poly

This is an evaluator’s hunch. But Jones, a versatile 6-4 perimeter threat from Marian Catholic, is the quintessential late-blooming prospect who will prove to be a big miss for many programs in Illinois and throughout the Midwest. As a result, Cal-Poly in the Big West Conference notches a big recruiting win.

Jones is just scratching the surface as a player. He projects physically with his length and athleticism while his overall game continues to grow.

Assistant coach Omar Lowery, who has developed an eye and strong base in the Midwest after coaching for five years at Butler and a season at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, landed a good one in his first year on the Cal-Poly staff.

Nik Polonowski to Penn

Here is another recruiting win out of Illinois for the Ivy League.

No one knew Polonowski 12 months ago. He went out and averaged 11.2 points, three rebounds and two assists a game as a junior at Lyons but was still unknown in recruiting circles heading into the spring.

Ultimately there were a lot of programs playing catch-up, jumping in late and plenty of others simply missing the boat on Polonowki’s potential as a prospect.

The 6-6 Polonowski made a name for himself over the course of the summer. He showed an ability to knock down shots from the three-point line with sneaky athleticism and playing with a physicality.

Penn jumped in the mix a little later than others with a late summer offer. But it held off Western Michigan, San Diego, St. Thomas in Minnesota and South Florida.

Polonowski won’t sign with Penn during the early period due to a university policy. He’ll sign on Feb. 1.

Miles Rubin to Loyola

The jump Rubin made in his development as a player from the summer of 2021 to the summer of 2022 was impressive. So those that disregarded the late-developing 6-9 big man too soon failed to do their job, because over the course of his junior season Rubin emerged in a big way for Simeon.

Rubin, who grew to 6-9, is still putting together his offensive game, but he already projects as a potential difference-maker defensively early in his college career.

Loyola coach Drew Valentine and his staff were all over it. They were able to evaluate Rubin throughout the season. Valentine made the trip to Champaign to watch his recruiting target in the state tournament and soon followed with an offer.

Loyola’s jump up to the Atlantic 10 Conference was helpful. Rubin was right on the cusp of being a potential high-major target, so the fit and level is ideal for both player and program.

But make no mistake, the Ramblers landed a player they need to have to compete and thrive in the A-10.

Darrion Baker to Akron

Very much like Rubin, the upside with Baker is undeniable. There is a lot to learn still as the much-improved Hillcrest star still remains a budding big man with skill.

But it’s so difficult to find 6-9 players with the combination of size and skill at the mid-major level; it’s why mid-major programs are scouring the transfer portal each spring in search of high-major big men cast-offs.

Here is a chance for coach John Groce and his staff to develop a high school big and mold him over those early years.

Mekhi Lowery to Towson

Oswego East’s Swiss Army knife can rebound, handle the ball, disrupt defensively and play multiple positions. He’s 6-6 with endless length and a high ceiling. And he’s heading to … Towson University in Maryland.

We aren’t discrediting Towson; there is no need to. The Tigers won 25 games last year, reached the NIT and are favored to win the Colonial Athletic Association this year. Nabbing a player with the potential of Lowery is precisely why Towson’s arrow is pointing up under coach Pat Skerry.

But the fact a school 740 miles away that historically hasn’t recruited the state comes in and secures this type of talent is quite a recruiting win.

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