Jaylen Drane is leading Simeon with just over 14 points a game and was the best player at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the best player on the floor in a Kenwood game loaded with Division I prospects.
No, Simeon didn’t exactly enter the season as an unknown; the Wolverines are never under anyone’s radar. They were ranked No. 5 in the Super 25.
But any conversation regarding Simeon in the preseason felt different for many reasons. There was plenty of negative chatter and unflattering views in the high school basketball world heading into this season when it came to coach Robert Smith’s team.
Simeon was fresh off a tough summer. There weren’t any big names in the program. There wasn’t a single player committed or who signed with a Division I program. There weren’t any shooters and the bigs were unproven. This was the year the super giant Simeon program would be so much less, so they thought.
Smith heard it. His players did, too. But it wasn’t addressed, talked about or used as a chip or motivational tool. Simeon, regardless of the expectations each year, is accustomed to being hunted. This year it was going to be more about knocking Simeon off its pedestal rather than hunting down a No. 1 team.
“We’re Simeon,” said Smith. “Everyone is always out to get us.”
The Wolverines looked fine last year during the Covid-shortened season, but it wasn’t anything special –– at least not for Simeon’s standards. They finished 9-1 but ended their season with a loss to Evanston in the semifinals of the Chipotle Clash of Champions.
The program’s biggest names and prospects, Ahamad Bynum and Isaiah Barnes, departed for DePaul and Michigan, respectively. Dylan Ingram was a third starter who graduated.
Then Simeon lost to both Glenbard West and New Trier by double digits at the biggest summer event, going a combined 0-4 at the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout with losses to St. Rita and Lyons.
Simeon looked not just beatable but out of sorts.
But Smith wasn’t worried about the summer results or how his team looked. He was just anxious about getting his players in the gym and working.
“Everyone was stepping into new roles, so we had to figure out those roles before we were ever going to become a team,” said Smith. “That was going to take time. I thought once we solidified those roles that we would be fine.”
Now? Simeon hasn’t lost to an in-state team yet this season, winning the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and just went on the road and had its way with powerful Kenwood.
Part of that maturation as a team and identifying roles included being able to go from playing with a ball-dominant Ahamad Bynum the past two years to playing with three point guards on the floor together this year –– seniors Jaylen Drane and Aviyon Morris and junior Jalen Griffith. And those two seniors, Drane and Morris, have been crucial in leadership roles.
Morris is the vocal leader who teammates feed off and gets everyone going in the right direction. Drane is the leader on the floor with the way he plays. No one is concerned about the accolades and only about winning.
In addition to the splendid three-headed point guard play of Drane, Morris and Griffith, there is size and presence inside with 6-7 senior Lance Rogers and the rapid development of 6-8 juniors Miles and Wes Rubin, twin brothers who transferred in last summer from Homewood-Flossmoor.
There is quality depth with 6-5 senior Nicholas Robinson, 6-5 senior Jayquan Adams and junior guard Michael Ratliff providing unsung play.
And Smith admits the defense his team is playing sets the tone.
But the head coach is also quick to give credit for his team’s improvement and rise to two not-so-normal areas of a team: Smith’s assistant coaches and his players’ parents.
“One of the biggest things for us has been our parents and how they’ve bought in,” said Smith. “Every coach will tell you how important that is –– to have parents on board with what we are doing and how we’re doing it. These kids aren’t running home to mommy and daddy and complaining they didn’t get this many minutes or enough shots, because this group of parents just want to make sure they’re kid is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and to see their kids winning. That’s been a huge part for us.”
A couple of former players, Tim Flowers and Jaleni Neely, have also been instrumental in nurturing and developing the current players, now as assistant coaches.
Flowers, who won two state championships as an inside force playing alongside Derrick Rose, is in his second year as an assistant coach. Neely, as pure of a point guard as you will find who was a part of three state title teams with Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn, is in his first year on staff.
“Those two have been big for our program,” Smith said of Flowers and Neely. “If you look at how our post players have developed and the work our point guards are doing and how they’re playing? That’s a credit to those two as assistants. The bigs are playing like Tim and the point guards are playing like Jaleni did.”
While Simeon isn’t accustomed to playing the darkhorse role, neither are the players in the program. Simeon players are always going to be seen and have a platform. But the once ballyhooed Drane had become a bit of an afterthought.
Following his freshman season, the senior guard was among the top five prospects in the Class of 2022. Now he’s far removed from the ranking that warrants high-major college interest and remains uncommitted. The good news is that following two months of highly-productive and consistent play, Drane is now the best uncommitted prospect in the state.
Drane is leading Simeon with just over 14 points a game and was the best player at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and the best player on the floor in a Kenwood game loaded with Division I prospects.
Smith has been very proud of how Drane has handled himself throughout his career, saying “every path is different for every player.”
“He faded away and back now,” said Smith of his four-year varsity guard. “He’s a teenager and at the beginning, when things weren’t going exactly the way he planned, it was a struggle.”
Then when Drane was finally able to showcase himself again on a big stage, post-Covid shutdowns and just before his senior year, the injury bug hit. Smith says he actually encouraged Drane to sit, rest and get healthy. But Drane wanted to play in front of coaches and toughened it out.
“He played the spring and summer hurt,” said Smith. “Just like any kid would, he was trying to play for that scholarship. Things just didn’t go right for him.”
There were some heart-to-heart talks when college interest was minimal. Smith told Drane to focus on what he could control: getting healthy and buying in. Everything else would take care of itself, Smith reiterated over and over, and everything will turn out how it’s supposed to.
Drane’s jumper has become more consistent. The 6-3 guard is getting to his spots, pulling up and taking makeable shots. He still attacks the rim, which has always been a strength, but the jump-shot has opened up so much more for himself and, especially, the big men.
“Jaylen has been tremendous since the start of practice,” said Smith. “He’s having more fun, just going out and playing basketball and not worrying about other things. They [college coaches] know how to find players. He keeps playing like this, producing, and he will be fine. The better he plays, the better we play.”
And Simeon is playing awfully well as it gets set for the stretch run. There is a showdown with No. 4 Glenbrook South this Saturday, followed by No. 5 Curie later this month, national power Sierra Canyon out of California in early February and the return of the Public League playoffs.
“We are still a work in progress,” said Smith. “We still have so much room for improvement. But what I like so much about these guys is that I’m finding out these kids are winners.”
Those winners could lead Smith to his seventh state championship and the eighth in program history.