Robert Smith has continued the remarkable coaching job begun by the now deceased Bob Hambric at Simeon High School in Chicago. This past season, he had 12-15 players all playing within a team format, and they played magnificently in defeating Whitney Young in the Illinois state championship game.
With Simeon participating in the Illinois team camp last week, it gave some scribes a first chance to congratulate him on his outstanding coaching job.
"Thank you. It was a great effort by the guys down the stretch of the last seven games. Now we've got to get focused to try to repeat if possible."
Long gone are the days when top Chicago Public League teams were athletic but undisciplined. Under Smith's tutelage, Simeon this past season was the epitome of a team better than the sum of its parts. His entire bench deserved playing time and received it, and yet there was minimal drop-off in production. Teamwork is everything to Smith.
"Yeah, that's the biggest issue with us. We play as a team. When we don't play as a team, we look bad. We go individual play and the other four guys don't know what's going on. So as soon as we get that chemistry down and get a little better, we should be fine."
Simeon looked to be in midseason form at the team camp, going undefeated in four games. While all players on the team received equal playing time, it is obvious Smith has a young star in upcoming sophomore Jabari Parker.
"Yeah, (Jabari is improving) every day. It's still a learning experience for him, the team concept. You come from elementary school, you dominate play and get to do whatever you want. So he has to learn how to run sets and play with the other four people out on the floor."
Parker is listed at 6'-6", 223, and he may be still growing. Due to his diverse skills, determining his best position is guesswork.
"It's hard to tell. We've been playing him at the point a lot this summer, and he has been doing a great job with it. And he can go inside and post up as well. I'm looking at him as a 2/3, something in that area."
Point guard is not out of the realm of possibilities.
"He could be. His knowledge of the game is so high. His IQ is real high. He has an IQ like Derrick (Rose) did. That helps a lot out on the court. He's making plays other kids don't know anything about. So it's a possibility he could play the point.
"He loves to handle the ball. He loves to pass...he passes too much for me. It's something that down the road could possibly happen."
Parker has great guidance from his father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, so his recruiting thoughts might differ from Smith's interpretation. But he cares about his teammates enough to prolong the process for their sake.
"He's gonna soak it all in. He's a very humble kid. One thing that he's learned so far is that he's getting other kids scholarships because of people coming in to see him play. One kid has already been offered by somebody else just because they came to see Jabari and saw him in the gym.
"It's probably gonna be a late process because he understands that situation. And maybe he doesn't know what he wants to do. He's so intelligent when you talk to him about basketball. But when you talk to him about other things, he's still a 15 year old. He's still playing with the little kids. It's gonna be a process."
Parker has a strong attraction to Illinois and especially assistant Jerrance Howard. And Smith has brought his team to Champaign to work out on campus. What does Smith think about the possibility of Parker becoming an Illini down the road?
"Coach Weber does a great job of using guards of his caliber. He can play multiple positions. That's what's so great for us right now. I think it would be a great fit with their motion offense, but he's still only a sophomore. We have a ways to go."
The Illini are following the progress of Jelani Neely as well. The junior point guard is short and slender, but he knows how to set up teammates and can score when needed. As he gets stronger, he is becoming more assertive penetrating for dishes or short shots.
"Oh yeah, he's maturing. He's doing the things we want him to do. He's learning how to run a ball club. His execution IQ is real high out there too. Having those two guys out there is definitely a good thing to have. He's growing up and getting a little bit stronger. That's something we've been working on with him.
"He's getting towards the rim and finishing, so things are good. We need that. The bigs are doing very well, but we need someone else to get to the basket and get some fouls and easy baskets for us."
Sophomore Kendrick Nunn showed nervousness at times, but he dominates at his age group on the AAU circuit. In a late game at Ubben Basketball Complex last week, Nunn went in for an explosive left hand jam over defenders. Smith sees good things in his future.
"Yeah, Kendrick is doing well. He's adjusting to the varsity's speed. He's doing a great job defensively. Today in the first game, we didn't shoot the ball very well from the perimeter, and I don't believe he took a shot. But he rebounded the ball and played defense for us, which was great."
With Parker and other good players on the team, some scouts are overlooking a good-looking forward Smith believes has a bright college future as well. He'd like to see Illinois show interest.
"Steve Taylor. He's a guy like Jabari who can create match-up problems because he can create and shoot the ball from the perimeter. Today he got almost every rebound. He's 6'-7" to 6'-8", can shoot the ball from the perimeter and can post up.
"I think that's somebody they should be looking at. Michigan State is definitely looking at him. He was just down there and had a great performance. He'll be a junior."
Given how well the Simeon players work together for a common goal, it is a shame anyone should be singled out. Smith has them on a roll, and there is no end in sight.