Evanston’s basketball players spent most of the month of June in a state of shock.
Thirty days later, head coach Mike Ellis has seen significant signs of improvement after the Wildkits concluded the summer school development session by winning 3 of 4 games at the Ridgewood Live Event shootout this weekend.
Losing senior guards Lance Jones, Ryan Bost and Jaheim Holden to graduation after the trio led Evanston to a runnerup finish at the Illinois High School Association Class 4A state tournament last March — as part of a record 32-win campaign — wasn’t a shock. High school basketball teams, even at the elite level, must regroup in every off-season.
But for ETHS, the summer of 2019 meant old players like returning starters Jaylin Gibson and Blake Peters must adapt to new roles. New players must find out where they fit, too, and there’s still a question of just who will assume the leadership mantle for the 2019-20 season since only one senior, guard Jerome Smith, was a regular participant in the approximately 30 games the Kits played in June.
Plenty of question marks still remain for Ellis and his staff, who have created a championship culture within the program and won’t ease off when it comes to keeping players accountable on and off the court even if a third straight run to the Final Four doesn’t seem likely right now.
“We did begin the summer in a state of shock, with new teammates and new roles for people to play,” Ellis said. “But I really did see improvement throughout the month of June. Now we want to be able to build on that. We got good looks at a lot of kids and we wanted to give them all as much of an opportunity as we could. We saw their weaknesses and we saw their strengths.
“Your won-loss record in the summer (around .500) is irrelevant. It’s all about what you’ve learned. With only one senior, we didn’t really have a lot of leadership this summer and I think it showed. By default, that may fall to the junior class. We do have two (potential) Division I players back in Jaylin and Blake and it may fall to them.”
Gibson, who averaged 8 points per game as a sophomore, and Peters (12.7 ppg) did most of the heavy lifting this summer and will have to up their respective games until help arrives from some of the newbies.
Six-foot-six junior-to-be Logan Talmage, sophomore guard Rashawn Bost, junior Itchy Holden and junior transfer Ashton Laude saw most of the action at the Ridgewood event on the final weekend as the Wildkits bounced back from a flat performance in the second half of a 47-40 loss to Galesburg to rack up consecutive wins over Lincoln Park (48-47), Oak Lawn (62-28) and Marist (42-30).
ETHS actually tied for first in pool play at Ridgewood but settled for third once tiebreaker rules were put in place. That denied the Kits a chance to play in the championship bracket of the whopping 72-team event that was played a three different high school sites to allow college coaches (like Northwestern’s Chris Collins and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who were in attendance Saturday) a chance to make “live” contacts with potential recruits under new NCAA guidelines.
“Spots have opened up now on the roster and spots have opened up for starters,” Ellis pointed out. “A lot of these kids are coming in with the mindset of grabbing those spots and taking advantage of their opportunities.
“Jaylin had a great, great summer — I think he’s playing the best basketball of his life — and Blake has continued to evolve, even without the guards (Jones, Bost, Holden) who could create openings for him. We’ll need him to get more shots this year and as a staff, we’ll need to find ways to get him open, because other teams we play know by now not to leave him open.
“In my opinion, though, Rashawn Bost had the best summer for us. He was the most consistent player we had. He has a lot of good, natural instincts and really plays with a lot of poise. I’d like to see him play more aggressive at both ends of the court, but he’s always out there making positive plays and taking what the defense gives him. He reads the defense well and really has great court awareness, especially for a sophomore. And even though he led the sophomores in scoring as a freshman, he’s not out there trying to be our go-to guy and counting his shots. He just goes out and plays.”
Laude played his first two seasons at Hope Academy in Chicago but is an Evanston product who came up through the ranks with Evanston’s current players at Haven Junior High. He showed the ability to knock down 3-point shots and seemed to grow more comfortable with his role in the final two weeks of June.
“I think he’s got the talent to help us on a nightly basis,” Ellis praised. “He’s another guy who won’t make negative plays, like Bost.
“We still have two Divison I type players, and typically if you have that, you’re going to be a good team. We just need to round out the complimentary component to this team because everyone is shifting into a new role. Our level of success will come down to how good they are in those new roles.”