When it comes to high-level, elite talent in this state we are in the midst of a drought.
Here is what we know from a talent perspective in Illinois:
■ The Class of 2016 was extremely weak. It rivaled the Class of 2009 as far as being one of the weakest classes of talent in state history, both in the number of Division I prospects and high-major players.
■ The Class of 2017, while solid and certainly stronger than the Class of 2016, still isn’t anywhere near among the great classes of the past.
■ Now comes the Class of 2018, next year’s seniors, and it’s more on par with the Class of 2016. The pool of Division I players will be shallow and there is certainly an very low number of high-major prospects in the class.
That’s two out of the last three classes –– the Class of 2016 and Class of 2018 –– where we simply don’t have the overall talent this state is accustomed to having, both in sheer numbers and big boy talent depth at the very top.
What we do have, however, after watching this past high school season play out, are some young players who are quickly maturing into high-major talents, particularly in the Class of 2020.
There were many impactful freshmen in the state this season, whether it was the highly-productive Elliot Sieger of DePaul Prep, big-game difference-maker Nimari Burnett of state champion Morgan Park, or the Hoops Report’s No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2020, Adam Miller of Peoria Manual.
Fenwick’s D.J. Steward, however, has asserted himself and produced more than any freshman in the state.
Think about this: Steward was the leading scorer for a 30-win Class 3A team that fell in the state championship game. He scored 23 points in the state semifinal win over Bloomington and then shot 10 for 10 from the field in the title game loss to Morgan Park and finished with 26 points. He also pulled down 15 rebounds and had seven steals in the two games in Peoria.
There have been many highly-productive freshmen over the years in this state. But the last highly-regarded freshman to lead his team to Peoria as the team’s leading scorer was Glenbrook North’s Jon Scheyer. That’s saying something.
Numbers and overall production are head-turners when it comes from such young players. It grabs the attention of fans and the name is on everyone’s radar the moment they start their high school careers. But those early fabulous results don’t always translate to high-level college prospect.
That’s clearly not the case with Steward, who boasts the coveted upside and high ceiling you look for in a prospect.
When you combine the poise and production as a freshman with the easiness of his game, along with the tremendous upside still left in the tank, it can be argued Steward is the best prospect in high school basketball right now regardless of class.
The last freshman player the City/Suburban Hoops Report has tagged with that label –– best prospect in the state, regardless of class, as a freshman –– was Young’s Jahlil Okafor. Again, some impressive company right there.
Steward is obviously not anywhere near the projected prospect Okafor was at the same stage. Okafor was approaching 6-10 with a college-ready body at age 15 and a must-have recruit for all the Blue Bloods. Steward’s physical dimensions –– just a shade over 6-1 and 145 pounds –– are nowhere near where they will be in a few years.
Steward, though, is so smooth and brings great versatility. He was already the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 2 ranked freshman prospect when the season began. So we’re talking a well-known prospect who had a rep in the high school basketball world before he even began his freshman season.
Fenwick coach Rick Malnati wasn’t even sure Steward would make an impact or even play at the varsity level when we spoke last fall. When Steward played minimal varsity minutes in the early part of the season, the family didn’t pout or complain; they instead simply said if the minutes aren’t there at the varsity level then lets play at the sophomore level.
Malnati, however, had seen enough to know that the minutes and impact would come sooner than later. Steward’s length and activity blended in perfectly when Fenwick started playing its 1-3-1 zone, which the Friars began to use more and more.
Steward took a major step forward during the Proviso West Holiday Tournament in December, particularly with a signature performance I took in during a third-place game against Uplift.
“That was his coming-out party,” Malnati said. “That’s a big stage at Proviso West and he responded.”
Steward was sensational in the loss to Uplift, scoring 20 points while dropping in a pair of three-pointers, transition baskets and flashy drives to the basket.
That performance against Uplift seemed to be a confidence-builder and proved to be the springboard to an impactful second half of the season. Steward ended up averaging 15 points a game while shooting 55 percent from the field and 43 percent from three (31 of 72).
What strikes you with Steward is his composure, especially for a young player. Although he had his freshman moments here and there –– Steward did have eight turnovers in two games in Peoria –– there was no moment that was too big.
“He plays with so much poise,” says Malnati. “Plus, there isn’t a selfish bone in his body. As talented as he is on the floor, he’s a special kid off of it.”
From a player comparison standpoint, I have to go old school and think former Georgetown star Reggie Williams whenever I watch Steward play, though he’s a miniaturized version of the 6-7 Reggie Williams.
Steward has that bounce in his step and unique smooth glide to his game. He scores the ball in a variety of ways for such a young player, capable of spot-up shooting from the three-point line, scoring off the dribble or with a pull-up, mid-range jumper or floater at the basket.
Oh, there’s plenty of work to do, and the freshman star is going to have to handle the hype coming his way and not let it become a distraction. Even Malnati wants his prized young player to just be a kid and keep him sheltered from stories just like this.
“He’s going to have to get stronger, play faster and continue to work,” says Malnati. “The goal now is to try and make everyone else better around him. Everyone else made him better this past year. He was the third player opposing defenses worried about [behind seniors Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon] this year.”
After a stellar freshman season while playing on a big stage, Steward is ready to be that player.