When you throw all the talent in the state of Illinois together, who’s the best college basketball prospect?
Regardless of age, regardless of class, regardless of city, town, suburb, high school or AAU affiliation, where do the various top talents currently line up as prospects as we look ahead?
Remember, we’re talking prospects. Remember that word: prospect. We’re talking projection and the future rather than who the best player is right now in high school basketball.
We’re going to go ahead and tier our top talent in the state –– again, regardless of class –– with categories of quality represented by the best basketball sports movies and characters in movie history.
Let’s have some fun with a look back at some memorable movies and characters.
Tier I: THE JIMMY CHITWOOD TIER
Connection: Is someone going to really debate there is a better basketball movie than Hoosiers? There are some who would argue Hoosiers as a no-brainer, no-doubt-about-it best sports movie of all time, so why not place the state’s very best prospect(s) in this Jimmy Chitwood tier?
Maybe Maris Valainis, who played Jimmy Chitwood in the movie, isn’t the best sports movie actor of all time. (Well, we do know this because Valainis isn’t even in acting anymore.) But is there a more iconic or more recognized basketball movie name than Jimmy Chitwood?
Plus, the famous scene when coach Norman Dale went to the farm and talked with Jimmy while he shot at an outdoor basket was reportedly done in one take. Love it. How many shots in a row did he drop in that scene?
Then when shooting both takes for the buzzer-beating state championship game, Jimmy made both shots he took in both takes.
Way to go, Maris Valainis!
So this is the best of the best right here.
The player …
■ Patrick Baldwin, Jr. Haven Middle School
When I first began putting this column idea and piece together, it was about the creative aspect of it, from the different categories to having fun with the comparisons and titles for the tiers. Initially, there was no thought into what players would eventually fall in what tiers. That would come later.
But here we are, with the youngest of kids in the top tier. All alone. He hasn’t played a game of high school basketball yet and just went through his graduation ceremonies at Haven Middle School in Evanston Wednesday night.
Alright, I know I’m setting off alarms here with this whole 8th grader thing. I can count on one hand (maybe two hands) the amount of players I’ve written or talked about publicly over the past 20 years who haven’t even stepped foot in a high school. The overhyping of a young basketball player is not something to take lightly. The last was Jalen Brunson, the summer before he began his freshman year at Stevenson.
But in my heart of hearts, there was no way around this.
Remember, this is the question: Who is the best basketball prospect in the state of Illinois, regardless of class and age? The key word, remember, is prospect.
And my answer: Patrick Baldwin, Jr.
A part of the reason the answer is Baldwin is due to the lack of a basketball prodigy in the three classes ahead of him. There is no transcendent prep hoops star like a Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis or Jahlil Okafor in the to-be senior, junior or sophomore classes.
But make no mistake about it, this 8th grader is a special, unique talent for his age. Baldwin is already a skilled, smooth, multi-faceted player who is a fluid 6-6. Whether it’s his handle, passing ability, perimeter jumper or advanced approach to the game, it’s all ridiculously mature.
Baldwin isn’t the big, bad, over-developed 8th grader who will tap out in a year or two. No basketball evaluator or coach really falls for that type. Baldwin is still so far away from being fully mature physically and where he will be as a player.
The long, lean basketball body that is primed to fill out years down the road is a basketball player’s blessing. Then there is the skill level, feel, demeanor and basketball bloodlines as the son of a former player and a current coach, Northwestern assistant Pat Baldwin.
Throw in a secure support system he has in place, both with his family and what he will receive at Loyola Academy, and you don’t get the sense any early hype that is surely coming his way will derail him. And this is the start of it right here. Fair or not, there will be target on his back going forward.
Like any young player he’s going to take his lumps and have his struggles always playing against older, more physically mature players. But simply put, when looking at all the players in the state of Illinois and then projecting which one is the very best college basketball prospect, the City/Suburban Hoops Report can’t seriously go with anyone other than Baldwin.
Tier II: THE JESUS SHUTTLEWORTH TIER
Movie: He Got Game
Connection: Has it really been nearly 20 years since this classic Spike Lee film?
There was some debate whether to put the Jesus Shuttleworth Tier at the very top, simply because Shuttleworth was the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country in this movie.
Ray Allen’s acting career didn’t go anywhere beyond being Jesus Shuttleworth, the son of Jake Shuttleworth, played by Denzel Washington. But that name, Jesus Shuttleworth, resonated for years. And the outlandish but fun storyline –– I mean how great of a storyline is it where Jake Shuttleworth is released from prison for a week to try and convince his son to play for the governor’s alma mater? –– makes this a basketball movie classic.
The players …
■ Adam Miller, Peoria Manual
■ Ayo Dosunmu, Morgan Park
■ D.J. Steward, Fenwick
We have a senior-to-be, Dosunmu, and a pair of players in the Class of 2019, Miller and Steward, who all look the part of high-major prospects.
Obviously Dosunmu is there already and is prepared to be “the guy” in the senior class next season, which was highlighted in this City/Suburban Hoops Report story HERE.
But it’s a little more projection when it comes to Miller and Steward, but there’s no denying their combination of pure talent, production and that not-yet-reached high ceiling. That’s really the combination you’re looking for when looking at players this young.
Miller is a dazzling point guard prospect. He shoots it, passes it and plays with imagination. He was a big name coming into high school and has lived up to the early hype. More importantly, Miller’s arrow is still pointing straight up.
Steward did things this past season we haven’t seen from a freshman in years, including leading a team to Peoria as the team’s leading scorer. The City/Suburban Hoops Report highlighted the rise of Steward in a story earlier this spring.
Tier III: THE JIMMY DOLAN TIER
Movie: The Air Up There
Connection: Remember Jimmy Dolan (played by Kevin Bacon), the college basketball assistant coach searching under every rock for a player? He found one in Africa, of all places, and traveled to the continent to try and bring the 6-10 Saleh back to the States.
No, it’s not some village in Africa, but this tier involves two players you’re going to have to travel outside the heavily recruited and combed over basketball hotbed of the Chicago area to find. They just happen to be the two best prospects in the state in the Class of 2019 –– one in central Illinois and one in the southern part of the state.
The players …
■ Francis Okoro, Normal West
■ E.J. Liddell, Belleville West
Here are a couple of highly-touted prospects with different basketball pedigrees up to this point.
The 6-10 Okoro is a raw player with an enormous upside. He’s the coveted physical specimen college coaches need in their never-ending search for big men. Okoro is learning by the day and far from where he will be two or three years from now. But he’s massive, very coachable and plays hard.
Liddell is an advanced, highly productive 6-7 forward who gets things done at an extremely high rate. You fall in love with how Liddell approaches the game and the way he impacts it. Look no further than his postseason run where he put up 43 points to beat Belleville East and Javon Pickett and then scored 34 points in a win over Jeremiah Tilmon and East St. Louis.
He finished his sophomore season averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists per game.
Tier IV: THE NEON, BUTCH McRAE AND RICKY ROE TIER
Movie: Blue Chips
Connection: How can you not have a column on top prospects and basketball movies and not include “Blue Chips?”
Passionate coach Pete Bell, played by Nick Nolte, provided some memorable basketball-themed lines in the movie as the head coach. Heck, Bob Cousy –– Bob Cousey!!! –– played the role of Bell’s boss, the school’s athletic director.
There are cameos in the movie from Larry Bird, Jerry Tarkanian, Bob Knight, Rick Pitino, Dick Vitale, Jim Boeheim and a host of others.
But who could forget Shaquille O’Neal playing Neon, Penny Hardaway as Butch McRae and little-known Matt Nover as Ricky Roe, the trio I found strangely believable in their roles?
We’ll include a pair of trio of prospects from the Chicago Public League in this tier. You never knew just what direction Neon, Butch McRae and Ricky Roe would head or end up, and there is still some mystery with Horton-Tucker, Burnett and Robinson.
The players …
■ Talen Horton-Tucker, Simeon
■ Nimari Burnett, Morgan Park
■ Shon Robinson, Morgan Park
There is some skepticism in the voices of a few high-major college coaches when talking to them about Horton-Tucker, with questions concerning how athletic he is and just what position does he play?
Dribble? Check. Shoot? Check. Pass? Double-check. Basketball I.Q.? Check.
Horton-Tucker may not be your typical No. 2 ranked prospect (in the Class of 2018) in Illinois as far as historical comparisons, but he’s a high-major prospect, nonetheless.
Burnett burst on the scene this past season as a freshman, showing an ability to play on a big stage as a young player. He can shoot it and is poised for bigger things this season as a sophomore.
Robinson is still a relatively unknown prospect as his time will come as a player. He’s a young, still developing big at 6-8 who boasts a huge upside in the Class of 2020. Time will tell, but the potential is enormous.
TIER V: THE JAMAL WALLACE TIER
Movie: Finding Forrester
Connection: Raise your hand out there if you’ve actually seen this movie? Now raise your hand if you’ve ever heard or seen the lone player listed in this tier of prospects? So there you go: A couple of unknown talents.
Overall, this is a fantastic, underrated and overlooked movie and storyline, focusing on the relationship between Jamal Wallace, a star high school basketball player in New York City, and William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, who is a recluse and has given up on writing.
The player …
■ Amari Bailey, Chicago Skinner West Elementary
Bailey, a silky smooth 6-2 lefty guard, will only be in 8th grade next school year. That’s right, he’s in 7th grade. Yes, yes, yes, another pre-high school player on the list. But you know what? It was tempting to put Bailey in an even higher tier.
Again, placing players this young in any prospect category isn’t done for the sake of just hype. Rarely has the City/Suburban Hoops Report highlighted players this young. But it’s impossible to keep him off the list. He already brings a “Wow” factor for a player so young with pure, natural basketball ability and unique physical tools. His passing ability is off the charts and he calmly and cooly plays the game while featuring a legit jumper with three-point range.
Tier VI: THE BILLY HOYLE TIER
Movie: White Men Can’t Jump
Connection: Please refrain from any eye-brow raising or thinking that the only player listed below in this tier, Tim Finke, is white and can’t jump. Yes, Finke happens to be the only caucasian listed in the Billy Hoyle Tier, but he can jump.
But again, you have to have this classic Woody Harrelson/Wesley Snipes film included in a column like this, so we squeeze it in right here.
The player …
■ Tim Finke, Champaign Central
As noted, the 6-6 Finke has some athleticism and pop off the floor. He can impact the game with intangibles that are sometimes overlooked, including a toughness, competitiveness and rugged style the City/Suburban Hoops Report loves. You see it with his underrated success playing around the basket. Plus, he’s smart, coachable and plays with a basketball knowledge you can’t teach.
He is one of a very few who are being recruited at the high-major level in the Class of 2018 in Illinois.
There are those who certainly have questions concerning Finke at the highest level, including the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands on the perimeter and his lateral quickness and foot speed. And there has actually been a stereotype following Finke for years, with the assumption the white kid from central Illinois is this pure, spread-the-floor shooting threat.
Finke can and will knock down shots. But the mechanics and efficiency must become more consistent going forward to impact the game to the fullest at the high-major level.