The 2015-16 high school basketball season was a learning experience — sometimes a painful experience — for three freshmen players in Evanston’s cage program.
Now Lance Jones, Ryan Bost and Jaheim Holden are a year older and wiser and hoping to apply those lessons learned on a bigger stage.
The progress of that trio was one of the highlights of a summer campaign that included trips to team camps at Michigan State University and Ohio State University for players hoping to earn spots on the varsity roster for a squad that figures to have Final Four potential again this winter.
Four seniors graduated from an ETHS team that captured another Central Suburban League South division championship and finished 23-6 after losing to Notre Dame in the Class 4A sectional semifinals. And two underclassmen have apparently transferred to other programs, leaving head coach Mike Ellis with some spots to fill.
Ellis didn’t need this summer slate of games to find out just how talented his trio of young guards is. They spent all of last season practicing with and against the varsity players, as the veteran coach has continued a policy at ETHS that began back in his days at Peoria Richwoods.
Where most varsity coaches have a dilemma when they have a group of talented underclassmen — the choice is to promote one or two players to the varsity, or let them all remain to play and gain experience at the lower levels — Ellis takes a different approach. He usually lists 17 or 18 players on the varsity roster and includes the top underclassmen in varsity practices on a daily basis.
That can lead to chemistry issues on the lower levels, but having Jones, Bost and Holden practice with the varsity and play in sophomore games didn’t have an adverse effect on the Wildkits last winter. The sophomore team compiled a perfect 27-0 won-loss record with that trio showing the way.
“With the spots we have to fill, I think it affords those 3 sophomores in particular an opportunity and we have a bright future because of that,” Ellis said after the Wildkits wrapped up the summer season with an overall record of 23-13. “Having practiced with the varsity all last year, they know what it takes to compete every day at the varsity level. Being able to go up against a Nojel Eastern or a Dylan Mulvihill in practice is tough, and then when you turn around and go play in a sophomore game, it should feel like you’re on vacation.
“Having them with the varsity every day gives them a vision of where they should be going, I think. It gives them an advantage when they do make the transition to the varsity. We try to put our most competitive players in the varsity practices, and then on game nights we put them where we can maximize their (playing) minutes, because we don’t want them watching on the bench.
“For me, it’s about learning about how we run the program and about our system, and if they’re talented enough to compete against the best athletes in the school.”
Jones, Bost and Holden were all promoted to the varsity full-time when the regular season ended and did play in a handful of postseason games. Jones scored 12 points in the 6 games he played in and was on the court long enough to also chalk up 5 steals.
“I was actually disappointed at the start of the year because I felt if I practiced with the varsity, I should be playing with them,” Jones admitted. “But then I was surprised when I got called up for the regional tournament. I didn’t think I’d play varsity once the playoffs started.
“I think I’ve grown a lot as a player because of the competition at the varsity level. It was way better than what I was used to, and I think I adjusted to it pretty well. I have played ‘up’ an age group ever since I started playing basketball, but it was really difficult going up against guys who were faster and stronger and more athletic, and who had more experience. I think I made more of a gradual improvement every day against them.
“Tre Marshall (graduated all-conference selection) was the toughest matchup for me because he’s such a great defender and he’s very quick. I got scratched up and elbowed in the face a few times, but after awhile I got used to it. And now I think I’ve improved my basketball IQ. I’m making better decisions playing both on and off the ball.”
Jones had games on the sophomore level where he appeared to score almost at will against foes closer to his own age. But it was his on-the-ball defense that caught Ellis’ eye, not really a surprise considering that the Wildkits have established a strong defensive identity since the coach came north from Peoria.
“On offense, Lance plays at such a high pace and he has a great burst,” Ellis pointed out. “He can get to the basket, he can shoot and he can defend. He’s a scorer who can create his own shot. On defense, last year at first he struggled when it came to learning the system and understanding the concept of defensive balance, how you have to make sure you don’t give up layups at the other end.
“All three of those guys create problems because of the pace they play at, with the way they really come after you on defense. They don’t make things easy for the other team’s point guards. The last player we had with the ability to make those others have to grind it out was Jordan Perrin, and we went to the super-sectional that year. When you go from the sophomore level to the varsity, you have to guard some guys who are more skilled, but we have 3 guys who are really solid for us on the ball.
“Lance is the one guy we’ve had this summer who was in the weight room every day. He’s the most dedicated player we’ve had in the off-season, more than any of the varsity guys coming back. So I won’t be surprised if Lance has a breakout year and is one of the most talked-about players in our program.”
Evanston’s 23 wins this summer included a 7-1 mark at Michigan State and a 6-2 record at Ohio State, against some of the top programs in those two states. The Wildkits also reached the semifinals of the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout for the second straight year, losing to eventual champion Hillcrest 51-50 in overtime.
Most of those summer wins were achieved without two players who are certain to start. All-American candidate Nojel Eastern devoted much of this summer efforts to attempting to make the Under 17 national team — he survived until the final cut — and only played in a handful of games for ETHS. He missed the last half of that Hillcrest contest due to leg cramps, but Evanston still pressed the highly-regarded Hawks to the wire behind junior Will Bynum’s 15 points.
6-foot-5 post player Elyjah Williams, who missed six weeks of his junior year with a broken foot, suffered a torn tear duct in his eye 30 seconds into the final day of the R-B tournament and had to sit out the rest of the summer.
Other returning players of note are senior guards Chris Hamil and Jerome Bynum and junior forward Matt Hall.
“Without our top 5 or 6 guys in the gym most of the summer because they decided to skip games and workouts, we’ve had an opportunity to evaluate a lot of the other guys. I think that was a highlight of this summer,” said Ellis. “Instead of just a three-practice tryout for some of them in the fall, I’ve had the opportunity to watch them more and that will help us to round out the back end of our roster.”