By Joe Henricksen
A year ago the Nike Spring Showdown in Merrillville was the official unveiling of what would ultimately be the biggest individual story of the next 12 months — Anthony Davis of Chicago Perspectives.
By now everyone knows how the story played out. Davis wowed everyone in attendance in his coming-out party in Merrillville last April, high-majors immediately came calling, he vaulted to the top of the national rankings, signed with Kentucky and became an All-American. Now he’s projected to be a NBA Lottery Pick 14 months from now.
While there was no Anthony Davis story coming out of Merrillville this past weekend, the event again featured nearly all the top club programs and dozens of the top prospects in the state in every age group. And with the amount of talent on display, there were certainly some individuals who made the most of it.
Simpson stepping up
Maybe all the talk about Simeon’s Steve Taylor as the state’s No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2012 invigorated Champaign Central’s Jay Simpson. Maybe it’s just the natural progression of a big man, which typically always takes time. But how Simpson played in Merrillville with his Illinois Wolves team, particularly in a Saturday matchup with the Illinois Warriors, was as impressive as Simpson has looked. Simpson’s performance in Merrillville was certainly one of the top three or four individual storylines the Hoops Report took from the weekend.
Yes, we know. The Class of 2012 is lacking in Illinois. But simply put, Simpson does things that no other player in the class can do with his combination of size and skill. While he’s all of 6-8 and 235 pounds, Simpson has such a great touch for a player his age and size. Simpson certainly has had his moments in each of the previous two weekends at the Hall of Fame Classic in Chicago and the Battle for the Arch in St. Louis. But in Merrillville, in a tough one-point loss to the Warriors, Simpson showed why Purdue locked him up early and why he remains one of the top prospects in the state of Illinois in the junior class.
In each of the last three weeks, Simpson has showed the ability to step out and knock down the 18-20 foot jumper. That continued in Merrillville, but he scored in such a variety of ways — a turnaround 15-foot baseline jumper here, a baby jump-hook in the lane there. He posted up on the block, he finished around the rim with both hands, took contact, got to the line and, maybe most importantly, was very active. He rebounded better and kept balls alive on the offensive glass with second and third-chance opportunities.
The knock on Simpson has been conditioning and fatigue, part of which has been corrected since correctly dealing with an asthma issue, along with just playing hard, being consistent and productive for long stretches. Those issues have often led to some moments where Simpson does disappear and become a non-factor. While those are areas he is still dealing with, there is no doubt the size and skill he possesses are unique and very intriguing.
Wilbut putting it together
There has never been an issue when it comes to the pure talent and athleticism of Downers Grove South’s Jerron Wilbut. That talent was often of the untapped variety, especially 12 months ago, but the 6-3 guard has come a long way and shined for the Wolves in Merrillville.
After playing limited time in St. Louis last weekend, Wilbut was at his absolute best in Merrillville as far as showcasing his greatest qualities. He shot the ball well and with range, showed his underrated strength in passing the ball and played at a high level athletically on both ends of the floor. Plus, he played within himself and in the flow of the game.
While Wilbut has been a fixture in the Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the Class of 2012 for the past year, he’s without question one of the top five heading into the summer.
State’s most underrated?
There are varying degrees of underrated. And when it comes to individual players there are always a number of them who can be tagged with the “underrated” label. But through the April events the two players in the Class of 2012 who have really been consistent forces for their respective teams and impressed the Hoops Report — but with little fanfare and far too little college attention — are Winnebago’s Marcus Posely and Peoria Manual’s Jeff “Keke” White.
These two seniors-to-be are actually very similar in many ways. Posely and White both play with an extremely high motor, get after it nearly every time you watch them play, are tough and play to win. It’s impossible not to love how both these kids play and carry themselves on the floor.
Posely, a bit of an undersized 2-guard, plays bigger than he is and is sneaky athletic with a first step that allows him to get by people. Before you know it he’s blown by the defender and is at the rim finishing with his strong body. He’s relentless and persistent when taking it to the basket. What he has also shown is an improved ability to knock down perimeter shots. While he will need to get his shot off a little more quickly, his release and mechanics look cleaner than a year ago and he’s certainly more efficient with it. We’re talking an ideal mid-major prospect who has moved himself into the Hoops Report’s top 20 players in the Class of 2012.
The fact White has just one offer — from Southern Illinois a while back — says two things: White is clearly the most overlooked player in Illinois right now and kudos to SIU. There is plenty of college interest percolating around White, with offers surely to start flowing in sooner than later, but the Hoops Report can’t say enough about all that White brings to the table as a player for his team and as a prospect.
The 6-0 combo guard’s shiftiness and change of speeds allows him to get where he needs to with the ball. While his three-point shot is a work in progress, he now has a nicely developed mid-range game to go with his ability to find his way to the basket and finish. White anticipates so well, both defensively and what the defense gives him on the offensive end. Like Posely, White is a classic mid-major guard who is also now among the top 20 prospects in the class.
And 2013’s most underrated?
Again, the underrated list could include many as several players in this class are just beginning to be noticed and get their names out there. While the Hoops Report loved what it saw from Hyde Park’s Kyle Davis last summer and this past season, he’s worth mentioning again as he continues to show he’s a top-level prospect in the Class of 2013 and better than some of the more ballyhooed, more-talked-about players in the class.
Davis, who helped lead the Mac Irvin Fire 16s to a tournament title, is an extremely quick and explosive player. The 6-0 guard is a blur in the open court and a big-time finisher, especially for his size. He’s quick and a pest on the defensive end who looks like he enjoys pressuring opposing ballhandlers. Another couple of years with Lamont Bryant at Hyde Park, whose system certainly won’t tame his strengths, and it’s easy to see how Davis will put up some staggering numbers and gain a whole lot of attention.
Mac Irvin Fire 16s win title
The aforementioned Kyle Davis of Hyde Park played a key role in the Mac Irvin Fire’s run to the 16-and-under tournament title, but the focal point remains 6-9 Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young. By now everyone forgets the big, talented kid is playing up an age group and still impacting each game he plays with his talent and presence. There is nothing more to say other than Okafor is a special prospect when you consider his overall talent, age and size. In addition, Proviso East’s Sterling Brown, a 6-4 wiry wing, gets better and better and is one of those players with an enormous upside. He’s quietly putting together a terrific spring. Brown, Davis and Bogan’s 6-7 Moshawn Thomas are a trio of Fire 16s who are all among the top dozen players in the impressive Class of 2013.
Shout out to D-Rose All-Stars
In what was perhaps the best and most intense game of the day on Saturday, the D-Rose All-Stars pulled off a shocker in knocking off the highly-regarded Meanstreets 16-and-under team. Meanstreets has been one of the premier teams this spring, with Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn and the De La Salle trio of Alex Foster, Jaylon Tate and Alvin Ellis leading them to a pair of tournament titles.
But the D-Rose All-Stars played fearless and just got after it in an overtime win, highlighted by Kendall Pollard’s driving layup in the closing seconds for a dramatic one-point victory. The 6-4 Pollard, by the way, will certainly add to coach Rob Smith’s depth at Simeon next year. Marist guard L.J. McIntosh, who was huge for D-Rose in the win over Meanstreets with his shooting and scoring, was another sophomore who impressed this weekend in Merrillville.
Hoops Report’s Tournament (Illinois) MVP
While there were many out-of-state standouts in Merrillville who probably showed they were the best prospects and most productive players in the event, from an Illinois perspective there was no player who was more impressive or did more for his team than Fred Van Vleet of Rockford Auburn. There were higher level prospects in the gym from Illinois, but Van Fleet, who led Pryme Tyme to surprising upsets and a 17-and-under title game appearance, was the Hoops Report’s tournament MVP.
The 5-11 junior is as savvy and as pure of a point guard as there is in the Class of 2012. His vision and passing, along with his feel and basketball I.Q., are off the charts. But those are the attributes anyone and everyone has come away with after watching the extremely skilled lead guard.
More importantly, Van Vleet shot the ball better than any other time the Hoops Report has watched him over the past few years and played with consistent energy. If Van Vleet can kick those two particular knocks to the curb, then the lack of ideal quickness and athleticism won’t be nearly as big of an issue as high-major schools try to determine if he can truly play at that level. As of now, he’s a no-brainer mid-major/mid-major plus talent as a pure point guard.
A quick thank you to Brian Stinnette and the Nike Spring Showdown staff as the 3rd Annual event brought an enormous amount of talent together and kept them local.