Isaiah Holden’s goal is to play in the Evanston backcourt next to his brother. Jaylin Gibson’s goal is NOT to play for his father. And Blake Peters? He’d like to replace record-setting Chris Hamil as a legitimate 3-point field goal threat.
Those three freshmen have already shown the Evanston basketball coaching staff that they can be impact players — maybe sooner, rather than later.
Considering that the Wildkits graduated 7 players from one of the best teams in school history, there are plenty of opportunities for playing time next winter.
Of course, the fact that all 3 played with the returning varsity players this summer is no guarantee that all of them — or even any of them — will take a spot on the varsity as first-year players. But head coach Mike Ellis doesn’t flinch when it comes to relying on younger players, and if all 3 earn spots on the varsity roster following fall tryouts, Ellis might field his youngest team ever.
That’s OK with the veteran coach, whose first glimpse of the trio in a varsity environment has definitely left a good impression.
“With 7 seniors graduating for us, this could be a perfect storm for those young men,” said Ellis as the Kits wrapped up their competitive schedule with a three-game sweep of Waukegan, Saint Patrick and Chicago Simeon at the Saint Patrick Shootout on June 24. “We have spots that have opened up and we’re looking for the underclassmen to move up and fill those spots.
“Those three were three of the most competitive players we saw in our first week of summer camp (at ETHS), and they made the commitment and the effort to work hard. They’ve proven their worth already. Their strength is their coachability, and their willingness to learn. They have the will to improve and love for the game you need to succeed.
“Like my old coach in Peoria, Bob Darling, used to say, it will all come out in the wash (next season). Everyone will be in that same load. After tryouts we will pick the best 15 players in the program and it will be up to them to earn their spots then. We could end up playing 4 or 5 guards at a time this year, if that pace and style of game are successful for us, so the opportunities are there.”
There’s a family connection for two of the varsity newcomers. Holden is the younger brother of junior guard Jaheim Holden, who last winter shared a starting job with classmates Lance Jones and Ryan Bost. And Gibson is the son of ETHS freshman A coach Jetter Gibson, who also played at Evanston.
Joining them in the Class of 2021 is Peters, a move-in from Highland Park who chose the Evanston program over a couple of private schools.
Before the ink was completely dry on their middle school diplomas, the trio helped the Kits compile an overall won-loss record of 18-9 and three of those summer losses came against defending Class 4A state champion Whitney Young and Chicago Public School power Curie.
All three gained experience in close games against All-State caliber players and were on the floor in the closing minutes of some one-possession contests.
“Twenty or thirty years ago you wouldn’t have players with their kind of experience coming into high school, but these guys have played AAU ball in front of Division I coaches already,” Ellis pointed out. “As a staff, we’re really cognizant of the students’ confidence level, and we won’t put them in situations that will diminish that confidence level. Our job in the summer is to challenge them and at the same time give them maximum opportunities to work on their individual skill levels.”
For the 6-foot-3 Gibson, part of the transition to the next level has been learning how to play off the ball. He has played AAU ball for his father (on the Hoop Avenues Elite team) but he and the other incoming frosh could end up playing sophomore ball as high school freshmen — like Jones, Holden and Bost did — if they can’t crack the varsity roster.
Gibson has usually been the primary ballhandler for the teams he’s played on, but that will change in the guard-oriented high school program.
“I’d love to play for my Dad again, but I know that if I make the varsity, he’ll be on the sidelines helping me,” said the younger Gibson.
“I’ve always been the guy with the ball in my hands, trying to get other people open shots and attacking the basket. Now I have to get used to things like setting screens off the ball and learning a lot more plays. Learning all those plays is the No. 1 thing with Coach Ellis. It seemed like we ran plays 50 percent of the time this summer.
“I do feel like I belong now (at the varsity level). It’s like playing with my big brothers, they have my back and I have theirs. All three of us (freshmen) played AAU together and we know our limits, and we know what we’re capable of. We’re gonna push each other to see if we can get to the next level and play.
“I think we can go far together. I remember playing against Blake when I was in second grade and he didn’t miss a shot. After the game, I told our coach we needed to get that guy on our team. We’ve had a great connection playing together ever since then and we’re used to doing a lot of damage together.”
“What’s special about Jaylin is his flexibility. We’ve talked about what it will take to replace a (graduated) Malcolm Townsel, what it takes to improve and have that kind of value at both ends of the floor,” said Ellis. “I told him that if he’s looking to get on the floor for us this year, that’s the path he should follow.
“He didn’t back down or shy away from contact this summer, and he took a big charge against Simeon in that game. His willingness to get out there and compete with some All-Staters was very impressive.”
Peters, a 6-foot guard, showed some impressive toughness and sizzling perimeter shooting in his summer outings, including a 19-point splurge versus Cissna Park at the Hoop Mountain Shootout at Batavia on the third weekend in June. His family’s decision to move to Evanston this summer was largely based on the chance to play for Ellis and his staff.
“I think the work I’ve put in this summer will really help me be an impact player next year,” Peters proclaimed. “There’s some nervousness when you’re playing against the Simeons and Whitney Youngs of the world, but I have a real family feeling playing here. You know they have your back if you make a mistake.
“My goal this summer was simple, to say that I’m here and ready to play varsity basketball. Playing in the open gyms helped me adjust and I’ve put in a lot of work to get to this point. Basketball was a big part of the reason we moved to Evanston, and my ultimate goal is to get a Division I scholarship. But right now, to be honest, I just want to be part of the system and do my job. Whatever I can bring to the table, that’s what I’ll do.”
Peters didn’t blink when asked to take what would have been a game-tying 3-point shot in the final seconds of a 47-44 loss to a Whitney Young team that eliminated the Wildkits in last year’s supersectional. With blood streaming down the side of his face because of an errant elbow, his shot went long and the Dolphins held on to win in the title game at the Loyola Academy Super Shootout.
“I’d only seen Blake play here and there at some FAAM (Fellowship of African-American) games, and I knew he was a guy who could fill it up and shoot it,” said Ellis. “What I learned about him this summer is how smart and how tough he is.
“He works the hardest of any of our guys, whether they’re freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors. He’ll come in and lift (weights) in the morning, then he’ll put up 500 (practice) shots, work out again in the afternoon and then come back for more work. He’s devoted to the game. He’s such a good 3-point shooter that he’ll probably win every shooting drill we have (in practice), but he has a lot of other positive attributes. He’ll do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s defending the other team’s best player or taking a charge when we need it.”
At 5-6, the younger Holden is already bigger than Jaheim was when the older brother played for Ellis in the summer as an incoming frosh. He goes by his nickname “Itchy” and said fitting in with older players wasn’t an issue after playing on a 3rd-4th grade team as a 2nd grander.
But he also indicated that Wildkit fans won’t confuse the two brothers if they’re on the floor at the same time.
“Once I got the hang of being a varsity player this summer, I think things went pretty smooth and I think I fit in well,” Holden said. “The older guys have really helped me out and have helped me figure out the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. It’s good experience because there are so many plays you have to get down and understand. It’s hard to remember the names for some of the sets we run.
“It’s been a good experience playing with Jaheim, but we’re really two different players. I’m a passer type — and he’s the one who likes to score.”
“Itchy has a good shot, and he’s a very skilled playmaker with great awareness of the game,” Ellis praised. “He could play significant minutes for us off the bench if he makes the varsity.”
Ellis also discovered a hidden gem in 6-2 junior-to-be Rasheed Bakare, whose hustle and willingness to stick his nose into physical situations and compete against bigger rebounders has also drawn notice from the ETHS staff.
“We’re such a guard-oriented team and Rasheed plays a position of need (small forward), and he’s a good post player, defender and rebounder. That gives him an edge over some of the other guys,” Ellis suggested. “He’s another one who will do whatever it takes to win and that’s a tribute to his character and to his unselfishness.
“In the summer we look at the individual progress and team growth. It’s basically about developing and the lessons you learn, but we don’t really know what will happen until we get into the season. Some guys will take advantage of their opportunity — and some guys will let that opportunity pass.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.