North Chicago's Aaron Simpson is a contradiction in sneakers. The 5-foot-11 senior guard averages nearly 30 points per game but insists he doesn't want to be the star of his team. He is described as a quiet and humble kid who declined to be team captain because he is "too nice a guy" and doesn't like to yell at other players.
But when the lights go on and the gym is filled with people, Simpson performs like Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. It's Showtime. Coach Gerald Coleman insists he could average 40 points per game if he didn't try to turn every drive to the hoop into a Michael Jordan poster, if he didn't judge some shots by degree of difficulty.
"The coach is right," Simpson said. "I try to make the game harder than it is. I love to put on a show in front of a big crowd. It makes me play better. I go to the basket and do an up-and-under with my left hand and sometimes it won't go in. I could average 40 points per game. But I'm having a good time this year.
"It isn't all about winning games as long as we win in March. I'm having fun right now. In March, we'll get serious. This team has more offense and is more focused that last year's team (that finished fourth in Class 3A despite a 13-16 record). We think we're good enough to win the state championship this year."
How good is Simpson? Is he only a scorer, a one-dimensional player? Will he be a good fit at his chosen school, Illinois State? Or is he capable of playing at a higher level? How much better can he be? Can he accomplish his goal of being Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2012? Is he in a class with Simeon's Jabari Parker?
"As an offensive player, on a scale of 1 to 10, he is probably a 9," said North Chicago coach Coleman. "He must get stronger on defense. He needs more body strength and needs to hit the weight room. But his offense will take care of itself at the next level.
"What people don't know about him is he would prefer to have 30 assists and 10 points per game. He is a better passer than a scorer but nobody knows it in high school. The real Simpson is seen in AAU competition...the total game, better defensive player, better assist player. But you see his offensive side in high school because he has to score for us to win."
Simpson credits former Chicago Bulls player Dickey Simpkins of the Next Level Performance training company in Lincolnshire for his development. He has been working with Simpkins since seventh grade and playing with and competing against some of the best high school players in the country on the AAU circuit.
"I went to (NLP) to learn more about the game," Simpson said. "When I went there, I only knew how to score. I didn't know anything about defense. I wanted to learn how to dribble, how to be a better person, to be a man instead of just a basketball player.
"It has been a great experience, like family forever. I have improved on my attitude with referees. I've gotten better with my decision-making on and off the court and I've become a better player on defense.
"If I could be a person that isn't on everyone's scouting report, I'd like to be a role player. I don't want to be the star of the team. I prefer to be an assist man. I like to see my teammates score. It shows it isn't all about me.
"Sure, they are recruiting me as a scorer in college. But I want to be an all-around player. I don't like to be labeled as a scorer. People think that is all I can do. I want people to say that I'm an all-around player."
Simpkins has helped to train and develop Simpson into an all-around player. He believes he could play at a higher level but insists Illinois State is a good fit and provides an excellent opportunity for Simpson "to make a name for himself in the Missouri Valley." He also believes Simpson and Jabari Parker are the two leading candidates for the Mr. Basketball prize and Simpson "is putting in a good campaign for it."
"He is definitely a high-major player," Simpkins said. "He is a scorer who can put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways. He has to score in high school. But he can do everything. He has a good feel for the game. He has a high basketball IQ. He was doing things in seventh and eighth grade that most juniors and seniors in high school couldn't do at the time.
"He has an Allen Iverson-type body structure and that type of game. He has grown into his athleticism. He can score and pass and defend. He can play point guard or shooting guard. He can play in the NCAA for any school. But ISU is a good fit for him across the board."
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye also have been impressed with Simpson and also believe he made the right college choice.
"Simpson is a scorer first and foremost and there is no question that he can put points on the board in a hurry," they said. "He is capable of scoring in a variety of ways, whether driving to the basket, getting out on the break or shooting from behind the three-point line. He also has great speed from baseline to baseline and we like the fact that he is a tough and competitive and has a winning edge.
"If Simpson had the playmaking skills to match his scoring ability, he would be a high major player. Nevertheless, he is perfectly suited for the Missouri Valley and has the potential to provide Illinois State with the same offensive punch that (former Phillips star) Osiris Eldridge did."
Simpkins and Coleman advised Simpson not to get caught up in big-name college programs or high-profile coaches or Dick Vitale-type hype, to pick a school where he can make a name for himself and achieve his dreams. When Simpson chose ISU, everyone felt he had made the right decision.
"Kids understand that if you are good enough, it doesn't matter where you play, mid-major or major or NAIA, you will be seen wherever you play if you have the ability to play," Simpkins said.
"When he came to us in seventh grade, everybody connected with AAU wanted him to play for them. But he understood and bought into what we taught him and he benefited from our mentoring and believed we had his best interest in mind. He was loyal to our program all the time."
Simpson is loyal to Coleman and the North Chicago program, too. As a sophomore he wore No. 23, Michael Jordan's number. But he broke a finger and was devastated when he couldn't help his brother Michael and his team qualify for the state finals. His brother wore No. 1. Now Aaron does.
"This is all for Michael," Aaron said. "Everything I do is for him."
North Chicago is 6-1 going into its game against Culver (Ind.) Military Academy in the opening round of the State Farm Classic in Bloomington on Dec. 27. The Warhawks, whose only loss was to highly rated Warren on a last-second shot, are the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Along the way, he could surpass Josh Allen as North Chicago's all-time leading scorer.
Even though he is averaging nearly 30 points per game, Simpson knows he can't win a state title all by himself. This year, he has plenty of help.
Eight other players returned from last year's Final Four squad. According to Coleman, they are quicker and closer and more athletic than a year ago.
Other major contributors are 6-foot-2 senior Marszhon Bryant (13 ppg, 10 rpg), an outstanding rebounder and defender who had 20 points and 16 rebounds against Lakes in a recent game; 6-foot-4 sophomore Amos Mays (15 ppg), a transfer from Zion-Benton; and 6-foot-5 sophomore Kurt Hall (6 ppg, 7 rpg).
"We were 0-5 at this time last year; now we're 6-1," Coleman said. "We are very talented. We think we can win Class 3A this year. But we need Simpson to be our leader. This team will go as far as he plays. He has to take every game as though he is going to the next level.
"He is too nice a guy. He doesn't like to be in the limelight but he wants to put on a show. He is the only player I have had in six years that I allow to have fun on the floor. He gets away with things this year that I normally wouldn't let him get away with. But my job is to prepare him mentally to handle coaches at the Division I level and we've done that."
"I want to put up a performance for fans and win a game," Simpson summed up. "We want to go Downstate again this year. But we don't want to go for a vacation, which is what people thought we did last year when we lost, that we didn't go to take care of business. This year, we'll be all business."