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Player toughness immeasurable and undervalued

By Joe Henricksen

Maybe college coaches are learning their lesson. A year after many coaches said De La Salle’s Derek Needham couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, they are warming up quite nicely to Hyde Park’s Fabyon Harris, the Hoops Report’s breakout senior who previously was vastly overlooked but whose recruiting stock has shot through the roof. Now he’s a hot player with a hot name and game. The same can be said for Hales Franciscan’s Pat Miller, the talented but often overlooked Tennessee State recruit who is finally getting his due.

But first, we digress back to Needham. There were a few (but far too few) college coaches who loved Needham. However, throughout Needham’s prep career many college coaches, particularly those at the mid-major level, stated during the evaluation process all different types of quirks they had with the 5-10 guard. I heard from them he couldn’t shoot it well enough. I heard from them he wasn’t a true playmaker. I heard from them he was too small. I heard he was … well, you get the point.

In some regard he may have been many of those things, but he still did all of them just enough. And then there were his qualities, which was a burst off the bounce and his physical strength that allowed him to get into the lane and where he wanted to on the floor. But there was an ingredient that wasn’t measured and is often difficult to quantify from the outside: toughness. Needham was blessed with both physical and mental toughness, something so needed when players try to make that adjustment to the college game and college coaching.

Fairfield coach Ed Cooley raves about Needham, who is in the midst of putting together a terrific freshman season. Siena and Niagara were all the talk in the MAAC, a league that has been on the rise and is starting to get the notoriety. But with the quick emergence of Needham, Fairfield (10-3) will be in the hunt as well. Needham is playing 34 minutes a game and averaging 16 points, 5.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and over 2 steals a game.

Which brings us back to players like Miller, the MVP of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament, and Harris, the diminutive point guard for Hyde Park. Harris has made the same impression on the Hoops Report as Needham did — and maybe more. While the Hoops Report had Needham ranked No. 19 and ahead of several of the bigger-named players in the Class of 2009 (two of which have already left and transferred from the schools they originally signed with), Harris has also climbed into the Hoops Report’s top 20 in his class. Little, tiny guards are a dime a dozen and typically I get scared off by them, probably because there are so many that don’t make it at the next level. And Harris is certainly smaller than even Needham, both in height and weight. But the toughness intangible in Harris, who has maybe more mojo than any player in the class, helps overcome the size deficiencies. He’s certainly special in his own way.

Miller, too, brings immeasurable toughness. Ironically, many of the same exact questions I heard in regard to Needham I heard again with Miller this past summer and fall from college coaches. But Miller was even more overlooked than Needham. He mirrors Needham in many ways, from his weaknesses to his strengths, as well as the fact he is compact and physically as strong as any guard in the state.

More and more toughness is becoming a key, especially with so many players being babied and coddled at a young age in getting wooed to their respective AAU programs and even high school. Throw in all the hype and superlatives young players now receive, and it’s easy to lose the edge and become a little soft.

College coaches will quickly brand and label a kid soft, which scares them off that particular player’s recruiting trail. And now more than ever, college coaches can’t be sure of how a player will react to adversity once they get them on campus as freshmen. College coaches now need to fully appreciate the toughness as much as they run scared of the softness.

Ultimate Warriors

These are the players in Illinois who, regardless of where they signed or where they project as college prospects, bring the ultimate toughness and competitiveness needed. The list is mostly made up of unyielding seniors who have proven their mettle; underclassmen have to prove it, though some of them have.

Fabyon Harris, 5-8, PG, Sr., Chicago (Hyde Park)

see above

Pat Miller, 5-10, PG, Sr., Chicago (Hales Franciscan)

see above

Jermaine Winfield, 6-4, PF, Sr., Chicago (North Lawndale)

No player is willing to do whatever it takes more for his team; rugged, physical, old-school player who is about getting as much done in any way he can.

Tommy Woolridge, 6-1, 2G, Sr., Chicago (Foreman)

The Eastern Illinois recruit brings it every time he steps on the floor and is willing to showcase that toughness on the defensive end.

Reggie Smith, 6-0, 2G, Sr., Harvey (Thornton)

There is a reason a player who may lack the ideal skills necessary signed with a Big East school: jaw-dropping athleticism, an inner-desire and willingness to play hard.

Tracy Abrams, 6-0, PG, Jr., Chicago (Mt. Carmel)

As far as high-profile players go, he may be the toughest of the bunch in the Class of 2011, which is one reason he excelled at such a high level as a freshman. Plus, he plays through pain. A great, classy kid who will rip your heart out to get a win.

Derrick Randolph, 5-6, PG, So., Chicago (Whitney Young)

Is there a player with a bigger heart? Tough-as-nails point guard overcomes his lack of size with the heart of a lion.

Roosevelt Jones, 6-3, WF, Jr., O’Fallon

Hoops Report hasn’t seen a lot of Jones but has loved the tenacity he brings to the floor and his robust game when it has watched him. Just a hard-nosed get-it-done type.

James Siakam, 6-6, PF, Jr., Carbondale (Brehm Prep)

This is about all you need to know: The rugged and ruthless power forward played nearly an entire game with six fractures in his face last month. He had a five-hour facial reconstruction surgery the next week. He gets after it, takes a hit and his motor never seems to stop.

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