Young’s Tyler Beard is a freak athlete. The junior is strong and fast and probably the best leaper in the city.
That’s why he refused to back down from Belleville West’s EJ Liddell in the Class 4A state championship game last season. Beard kept attacking the rim and Liddell, 6-7 with long arms, kept blocking his shot.
“Six times,” Beard said. “I’m used to going over the top of people. I had to learn, watching the film over and over I saw I could have mixed it up with some floaters and some jump shots. I just kept going at him. You live and you learn.”
Beard buckled and down and focused on his jumper over the spring and summer. He put up at least 1,000 shots every day and that dedication has paid off. Beard is one of the best juniors in the country and poised for a breakout season for the Dolphins, the Sun-Times’ preseason top-ranked team.
Beard is part of what senior Myles Baker calls the “three-headed monster.”
Baker is a crafty player that can score and rebound. He isn’t flashy, but he also isn’t streaky. High-flyers like Javon Freeman and Lucas Williamson received most of the attention at Young the past few years, but Baker has been a dependable rock.
The third monster arrived over the summer when junior DJ Steward transferred in from Fenwick.
“His transition has been seamless because he plays the game the right way,” Young coach Tyrone Slaughters said. “He has tremendously high basketball IQ. He has the respect of his teammates and they play well together.”
Talented players from the suburbs and other areas often struggle initially in the Public League. Steward, a consensus top five player in the state’s class of 2020, doesn’t except there to be any adjustment period.
“No, that won’t be a factor in the season,” Steward said. “I’ll come out and play hard. This is a pretty good team and they will help lead me.”
The Dolphins lost to Belleville West in the state title game last season. Several key players graduated, but Slaughter thinks this group may be even more difficult for opponents to handle.
“We have the ability to score from multiple positions this season,” Slaughter said. “Last year we relied on Javon and Xavier to do a lot of the scoring and people were able to zero in on them.”
Senior guard Justin Warren and 6-5 Keenan Jones are back. Grant Newell, a 6-6 forward, earned rave reviews over the summer and is one of the state’s highest-rated sophomores.
“We’re hungry right now,” Beard said. “That was a tough loss for the whole team. Everyone was down about it. We just have to get back there.”
Sangolay Njie, a 6-6 junior, didn’t log many varsity minutes last season but was excellent in the state title game. Slaughter says his game has evolved tremendously.
Slaughter has always maintained that Simeon is the gold standard when it comes to high school basketball in the state. But on paper, the Dolphins are starting to catch up. They’ve won two state titles since Simeon’s last title in 2013.
“[Simeon] still holds the tiebreaker with more total state championships,” Slaughter said. “They have had more of the high-end players and we can’t take that from them. We are trying to compete against ourselves and not them. It’s about the players in the program more than me. I’m just the ringmaster to the circus.”
Young has a national level schedule again this season. It has games scheduled against high-quality opponents from eight different states. They open on Nov. 24 against Fort Bend Elkins, Tex.
Want to hear all about the Sun-Times’ preseason Super 25 basketball rankings? Michael O’Brien and Joe Henricksen go in-depth on all 25 teams in the latest episode of No Shot Clock, the Chicago high school basketball podcast. LISTEN HERE.