Gene Pingatore has been coaching basketball at St. Joseph High School in Westchester since before the Internet, ESPN, blogging, the 3-point line, club teams and summer leagues. He thought he had seen it all, but he hadn't seen anything like Jordan Ash.
Ash, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard, is being touted as one of the leading prospects in the class of 2015. Pingatore is constantly being asked how good he is, if he'll start on the varsity team as a sophomore, and if he projects Ash to be one of the best players that he's produced. Another Isiah Thomas?
"I don't understand the whole thing. He hasn't played one minute for me," Pingatore said. "People are offering scholarships. He was offered by DePaul in the summer before he enrolled. But he hasn't played a minute on the varsity.
"Not too many kids came in here with the reputation that he has. He is going to be one of the best players to come out of here if everything goes the way it has gone for him. If he continues to grow and develop, he has all the physical attributes to make him one of the top players in the state.
"But what is hard for me to evaluate are his intangibles. You have to know a kid. Does he have mental toughness? Personally, I hate all this early publicity. It puts more pressure on a kid to excel rather than work hard to get to that position. And if he doesn't start for me, then I'm a jerk."
Even before Ash plays his first varsity game at St. Joseph, the press clippings precede him. "Ash clearly is among the top two or three prospects in Illinois in the class of 2015. It is downright scary to think how much better he will continue to get," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.
"However, when one considers the rich tradition at St. Joseph and all of the outstanding college products that have come through there, we are going to reserve judgment before we call him the next great player to come out of that school."
Remember Isiah Thomas, Ken Williams, Tony Reeder, Daryl Thomas, Tony Freeman, Deryl Cunningham, Sterling Mahan, Brian Molis, Cliff Scales, Carl Hayes, Brandon Watkins, Amal McCaskill, Demetri McCamey and Evan Turner?
"Ash is a stellar athlete with tremendous quickness. He is creative with the ball and has a first step that can leave defenders in their tracks. In addition, he plays with tremendous poise and confidence," Roy Schmidt said.
"As good as he is, there are still some areas of Ash's game that need continued improvement and refinement, namely the consistency of his perimeter shooting and learning to play more under control. But make no mistake about it, Ash is an elite-level talent which is why high major Division I programs are already in hot pursuit."
It's too early to proclaim that the class of 2015 is blessed with the caliber of talent of the classes of 2013 and 2014. But Ash is at the top of the list with guards Prentiss Nixon of Bolingbrook, Jalen Brunson of Stevenson, Martez Cameron of De La Salle, Glynn Watson and Joffrey Brown of St. Joseph and Luwane Pipkins of Bogan, 6-foot-6 D.J. Williams and 6-foot-4 Brandon Hutton of Simeon, 6-foot-3 Roosevelt Smart of Palatine, 7-foot Tyler
Jackson of Nazareth, 6-foot-7 Evan Boudreaux of Lake Forest and 6-foot-3 Charles Matthews of St. Rita.
Ash, 15, lives in Bolingbrook. His father Jimmy, a Westinghouse graduate of 1981, played with Mark Aguirre in the late 1970s. He chose St. Joseph over Bolingbrook, Nazareth and Benet.
"My father told me: 'Go where you can see yourself going everyday, somewhere you can succeed in the classroom and on the court, where you can progress.' You can always count on getting a good education at St. Joseph," Ash said.
"But there are other things...the tradition, coach Ping, all the better players who came out of there who worked hard and went on to be successful, with hard work and coach Ping's teachings, I can be one of those players.
"I watch Hoop Dreams (the award-winning documentary) all the time. That's how I learned about St. Joseph. Everybody knows about Isiah Thomas and Evan Turner. People go through there and go on to be great and they come back to coach and help kids in their journey and that says a lot about the program. Obviously, something was done right."
Ash started playing basketball at age 3. He played football, too, but basketball became his passion. He played the game year-round. It became part of his life. In sixth grade, at Humphrey Middle School in Bolingbrook, he realized for the first time that he had a special talent for the game.
"It was the first time a lot of kids began to tell me how good I was," Ash said. "Close friends and family said it but people around town were finding out who Jordan Ash was. It motivated me to keep working hard and getting better."
He has offers from DePaul and Purdue and interest from Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan and Xavier. He carries a 3.5 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale) and has a terrific support group that keeps him humble, grounded and level-headed. His mother always checks his grades. Receiving a "C" in Spanish wasn't good enough.
"I haven't done anything major yet so I have to keep working hard and progressing in class, too," he said. "My dad always stressed to be a student first, athlete second. He taught me that many players who are talented but didn't get in the classroom ended up wasting their talent and chance to go to college."
To prepare for his first varsity season--and to pass Pingatore's muster and always skeptical eye--Ash is working to improve all of his skills so he can become an better all-around player. As a point guard, he must be trusted to handle the ball and make the right decisions.
He wears No. 23. His AAU coach, Mike Mullins of the Wolves, issued him the number, mainly because it was Michael Jordan's number. A special number for a potentially special player, Mullins said. And Ash hopes to make it very special before he graduates from St. Joseph.
"No. 11 is hanging in the rafters at St. Joseph. That's Isiah's number," Ash said. "Daryl Thomas' No. 24 is retired, too. My goal is to retire No. 23. In fact, I want to win the state title and see the whole team in the rafters.
"I just see that I am blessed. I'm glad I'm in the position I'm in. I'm motivated to keep working hard and progressing. I'm glad that coach Ping is starting to have trust in me. I want to prove to him that I can play."