PEORIA—Nothing in high school basketball is quite as tantalizing as a star freshman. Flashes of skill and promise from a player with so many years ahead of him gives fans a reason to dream. Yet somehow, Fenwick freshman DJ Steward sort of slipped through the cracks this season. He’s been noticed and written about, but definitely not hyped.
The 6-1 point guard is an Oak Park native, he still wears braces and has a long, gangly frame. The kid did his thing in the Class 3A state semifinals on Friday, scoring 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds to lead the Friars to victory.
“He took 21 shots, that’s a record for a freshman in the state playoffs,” Fenwick coach Rick Malnati joked.
Malnati wasn’t sure at the beginning of the season if Steward was even going to play on varsity. But the Friars’ deep run in the football playoffs allowed Steward a chance and he took advantage of it. He’s the leading scorer on the team, averaging 15 points per game.
Steward has been remarkably poised all season. He hasn’t seemed flustered at all, but it may be that he just hides it well.
“I’d like to thank my teammates for distributing the ball and encouraging me before the game,” Steward said. “I had a lot of nerves coming in to the game and they talked to me.”
Jamal Nixon and Jacob Keller, Fenwick’s best players and senior leaders, deserve credit for letting Steward emerge this season. That doesn’t always happen.
“[Steward] is 15 years old,” Malnati said. “He’s been such a big addition to us. A freshman doesn’t play like DJ played unless he has great leadership that allowed him to play like he played. Another shoutout to the group of guys that we have.”
“We have a team full of character guys, that’s great,” Nixon said. “It makes it easier to lead these guys and rally them. It shows on the court, we’ve been doing that all season.”
It’s always easier to be a complementary player. Opposing defenses focus on Keller and Nixon, allowing Steward to play freely. That won’t be the case next season. It might not even be the case in the title game on Saturday.
Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin is well aware of Steward’s scoring ability. He’ll be hampered by junior point guard Ayo Dosunmu’s injury though. Dosunmu’s absence means that freshman Marcus Watson will start for the Mustangs.
“[Watson] will be fine in the state championship,” Irvin said. “I knew he would make a few mistakes [on Friday]. But he recovered. That’s the Marcus Watson I know and love. He’s fierce, he’s tough.”
How about that? The Class 3A state title on the line and two freshmen will start. Nimari Burnett, Morgan Park’s star freshman sixth-man, will also play plenty of minutes.Tags: Fenwick