One of the many tasks for Evanston head basketball coach Mike Ellis during the preseason is to comb through past videos to provide highlights for the newest version of the video that serves as an introduction for upcoming games.
It didn’t take long for Ellis to check that off his to-do list this year.
“I only counted 3 guys, I think, who scored field goals for us last season,” said the veteran coach. “That’s why this will be the least experienced team I’ve ever coached.”
Ellis will count on just one returning starter, guard Rashawn Bost, one year removed from guiding the Wildkits to a 17-3 record in a pandemic-shortened season.
The rest of the roster? There are a lot of new faces hoping to take advantage of the graduation of a special class, the Class of 2021, that was led by the school’s all-time leading scorer, Blake Peters.
Now those 9 graduated seniors have gone their separate ways and Ellis and his coaching staff will start over again, as the Wildkits open play on Tuesday at the Saint Viator Thanksgiving Tournament at 7 p.m. against Libertyville.
The round-robin tourney continues on Wednesday against Streamwood, Friday against Prospect, and Saturday against the host team.
To be 100 percent accurate, 4 returning players actually got on the scoreboard who will don ETHS uniforms again this winter. Bost, who averaged 8.2 points per game, will be joined by 6-foot-8 Jack Tully, guard Aidan Maher and 6-5 junior forward Prince Adams. Between them, those last 3 players have started a total of two varsity games.
Everything else about practicing, competing and winning at the varsity level will be new to a roster that includes 7 seniors, 6 juniors, 3 sophomores and a freshman. Those younger players will likely start the season on the lower levels after the Thanksgiving tournament helps Ellis sort out his squad.
“The biggest challenge with that inexperience is that you’re going to make mistakes. And the essence of getting experience, is learning from those mistakes,” Ellis said. “Right now, I’m most interested to see just who’ll accept their roles on the team, whatever it is, whether it’s to be the leading scorer on this team — or just the best teammate.
“We don’t have the guys to take the ball away from the other team, like we have in the past, so now we have to find a way to get stops on defense. We still want to play fast on offense, but I don’t think you’ll see the volume of 3-point shots we’ve had over the past few years. There were times when I’d cringe at seeing our 6-footers get the ball in the paint. This year we should have better balance because we have more size.”
Both Bost and Adams will have to take big steps forward if the Kits are to compete against another rugged schedule. Bost shot 46 percent from the floor last season, mostly as a complementary option on offense, and needs to assert himself as a primary scorer even though Ellis-coached teams never run their offense through just one star player.
Adams showed his promise at the end of last year when he broke loose for a career-high 16 points in a win over Chicago Simeon at the season-ending Chipotle Classic invitational tournament. He averaged almost 1 shot blocked per game during the 20-game slate, after not really filling up the stat sheet in any other areas.
“Rashawn is probably our most skilled player. He can score from anywhere on the floor,” Ellis praised. “We need him to make plays at both ends of the floor for us to have a successful year.
“Junior year will be a big year for Prince because I know some Division I level (college) programs have an eye on him. He can stretch the floor, or play with his back to the basket, and there aren’t many players like that in high school basketball any more. He needs to be more enthusiastic and more demonstrative on the court, and that will help his game take off.
“His role for us? To dominate.”
Maher started for the sophomore team but couldn’t really find many minutes in the crowded ETHS backcourt last year. He’ll handle the point guard position to begin the season, and the starting lineup Tuesday will also probably feature Tully and newcomer David Gieser.
Gieser may be the most intriguing new face for Wildkit fans. The 6-3, 200-pounder is a transfer from Fenwick who started for the Friars before a change in the coaching ranks at the Oak Park private school led to several transfers coming in and pushed him onto the bench.
Even in a new system, he has more experience than the rest of the current senior class. And right now he holds another distinction, having broken Peters’ record for a team 3-point shooting drill, converting 20 attempts from different spots on the floor in a 2 and a half minute timed performance compared to Peters’ previous mark of 17.
Ellis doesn’t expect him to surpass a player who owns the Evanston career, single season and single game 3-point records, but Gieser’s presence will still provide a formidable threat from beyond that arc.
“David’s not just a consistent 3-point shooter. He’s solid with the ball and he makes good decisions out there,” said the Evanston coach. “But he can really shoot it.”
Darry Jones Jr. and Isaiah Moore, both 6-4, are seniors who should challenge for playing time up front. “They’re both long and athletic, and they can make plays facing the basket and with their backs to the basket,” added Ellis. “It will be a good play for us to get the ball down on the block with players like that.” Help will also come from another senior, Avery Allen.
Junior Jonah Ross opened the eyes of the coaching staff during preseason workouts and might end up answering the starter’s whistle at guard, and classmate Malachi Barrett has impressed the hard-to-impress ETHS coach with his perimeter defense. “He’s one of those players we’ll evaluate better when we see him with the lights on (game time versus practice) but he can definitely pressure the basketball.”
Another junior to keep an eye on is 6-6 Jonathan Merkin, who left the school last year to study in Germany after starting for the freshman team at ETHS. “He’s got size and he’s got good skills for someone 6-6,” said Ellis. “I’m anxious to see where a lot of guys like him go in the next 5 months.
“As far as I’m concerned, every one of them has a clean slate this year. There are no preconceived notions about what they can or can’t do. Right now, they all probably think they should start. Week by week, they will all get opportunities, and the question is, will you be ready when you get your shot?
“We’ll see how we respond to the Thanksgiving tournament this week, with 4 games in 5 days. I wish we had 3 weeks of practice (in the preseason) instead of 2. They’ve got a lot to learn.”
A quirk in the “return to normal” schedule will give the Wildkits just two home games — Dec. 10 against Glenbrook North and Dec. 21 against Loyola Academy — before the calendar flips to 2022. ETHS will return to the Centralia Holiday Tournament over Christmas and will participate in two shootout games, the Team Rose event at Mount Carmel, against Bloom, and the War on The Shore against Lake Forest at Loyola Academy.
Another highlight will be the final appearance at Gates Gym before New Trier moves into a new facility. That showdown is set for Thursday, Dec. 16. The two rivals will also resume playing at Northwestern University on February 4th. Evanston earned at least a share of the Central Suburban League South division championship last year, along with New Trier and Glenbrook South, for the 7th straight season. That’s a program record. Extending that streak will be difficult in 2022 because both the Trevians and Titans are ranked in the top 10 in one Chicago newspaper’s preseason poll.