Our Q&A series continues with Jeremy Woo, a writer for PurpleWildcats.com of the Fox Sports Next network. Jeremy has spent a lot of time scouting the Chicago prep basketball arena and has worked for SwagAir as a scout. This year, he will be on the Northwestern basketball beat for Purple Wildcats and also covers basketball recruiting for the site. Jeremy is a native of Hyde Park.
Has Northwestern started to become more of a player in recruiting Chicago than it was previously?
Without a doubt, yes. A lot of it has to do with the fact that NU is taken seriously as a basketball program now, particularly over the past few years. Living in Chicago, you see NU coverage in the papers and on TV; that success doesn’t fall on deaf ears. There are a lot of Chicago-area guys (extending to the suburbs) that have starred for Northwestern; Juice Thompson, John Shurna, Drew Crawford, who kids know and respect. Because of the leap the program has taken, I think kids look at it as a very legitimate destination, and they should. Will this necessarily bring results in the form of commitments? Not necessarily right away, but I expect Northwestern to be right in the mix with a lot of kids for years to come. They may not seriously contend for many Jabari Parkers, so to speak, but the thing a lot of people don’t realize is that they don’t need those first-tier type of players to be successful. Based on the system they run, NU can get by just fine with a second-or-third tier player, from Chicago or even nationally. So yes, they are definitely present in Chicago, but to the naked eye looking for results, it just might not be visible right away.
How has Tavaras Hardy helped NU get in the mix with Chicago kids?
Tavaras is an extremely affable guy, kids and parents love him. He’s from the area and starred for Northwestern; I don’t think there’s anyone out there who epitomizes Northwestern basketball more than Tavaras Hardy. He can talk about the school on such a personal level-he even met his wife there-that anyone with a pair of ears wants to listen; in that respect he’s similar to Coach Fitz. Tavaras is almost like an older brother to the guys on the team, and the players love that. He forms strong relationships very quickly, and he’s really done that around the Chicagoland area in particular, you see him around the high school circuit as well as AAU play.
What top Chicago players are NU in the mix for?
Their biggest target is Alvin Ellis, a senior shooting guard for De La Salle. Ellis is a versatile scorer and great in the open-floor, and Northwestern wants to pair him with Sina in the 2013 class. If that happens, we could be looking at one of the most dynamic backcourts from an offensive standpoint that the school has ever had. Another kid they love is Sterling Brown, a senior wing from Proviso East. Sterling is Shannon Brown(of the Phoenix Suns)’s little brother and he can do a bit of everything on the court. He’s really developed offensively and can really defend well. He’s really been on a tear since the state championship game in March, and really increased his stock this summer. NU is also involved with senior guards Kyle Davis from Morgan Park and Jaylon Tate of Simeon, who could both be nice additions. However, I think with the addition of Jaren Sina, Ellis and Brown (who are bigger guards) are the priorities for 2013. NU is looking at a number of kids in the 2014 and 2015 classes, but I think it’s too early to tell who they really want yet.
From the most recent class, which player do you see being the most productive right away?
Not counting Jared Swopshire, who transferred, I think Alex Olah has a decent chance at contributing this year at some point. I’ve heard good things about him, and certainly his size will come in handy. Right now he’s behind Nikola Cerina and Mike Turner (a converted forward) at the center spot, and both of those guys sat out last year and are thirsty for minutes. The biggest block for most newcomers at NU is learning the offense, and those two have a year of it under their belt. If Olah grasps it quickly, he could definitely be part of that mix at center. I’ve heard Chier Ajou is more of a project right now and it wouldn’t surprise me if he redshirted, though that’s totally a hunch. Kale Abrahamson and Sanjay Lumpkin have the more difficult task of learning the system from a wing standpoint, and also have Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio ahead of them at the 2 and 3 spots. It’s early to call, and I don’t think it’s a given that any of the freshman make big impacts this year, but I’ll roll the dice with Olah here.
How do you sense Carmody and his staff have responded to being on the hot seat from a recruiting standpoint?
That’s tough to say, but I think their results and work ethic on the recruiting trail speak volumes. I don’t think the Brzoja debacle was really their fault, and they went right out and pulled Sina and Taphorn, two guys at the top of their list. I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to panic.
Do you think getting top recruits like Jaren Sina will help lead more elite players to pick NU?
Yes, anytime you get a kid with a national reputation other kids notice, especially with Twitter and the speed of information nowadays. It’s still tough for NU, because their pool of “elite” kids to draw from is obviously much smaller based on their academic standards, but recruiting success goes hand-in-hand with success on the court, and like I mentioned earlier, Northwestern is clearly a program whose stock is rising, and people take notice.
What can NU fans expect from Nate Taphorn, an Illinois kid who recently chose NU?
There have been a lot of Shurna comparisons made for Taphorn, and I don’t think that’s a bad match necessarily, but Taphorn has a way to go before filling those shoes. It’s not fair to expect that out of him right away, but he’s one of the best shooters I’ve seen at the high school level and is more versatile than a lot of people are pegging him for; he’s working to add more weight and has become multidimensional as a willing rebounder. He needs to get more comfortable off the dribble, but he’s got time. I certainly have high hopes for him, and without a doubt he’s a great fit for NU, and vice-versa.
Are there any Chicago players left in the 2013 class that you think could end up at NU?
I think NU has a real chance with Alvin Ellis at this point in time. I have a feeling he could be sitting on a couple more offers, but NU was the first school to extend a scholarship and ought to be in the mix until the end. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think it’s a great fit for him and I agree; it’s definitely possible they get him. Sterling Brown’s stock rose so much over the summer that I’m not sure where they stand with him, but I expect them to be on his final list. If Michigan State (where his brother Shannon went) offers, I don’t think NU will beat them out, but that could be contingent on Jabari Parker’s decision, so there are a lot of balls that still have to fall. Ellis and Brown are the two kids I think NU has the best chance at, and if they get one, not to mention both, there will be a lot to get excited about.