Huntley coach Marty Manning projects Amanze Egekeze as a future star, another Scottie Pippen at the next level or beyond. The 6-6 sophomore already is attracting interest from several Big Ten schools.
In the wake of his 21-point performance in Huntley's 55-49 victory over previously unbeaten Crystal Lake Central in the championship game of the Jacobs Holiday Tournament, his popularity will continue to soar.
Manning is cautious, however. "I thought Derrick Rose would be a flop in the NBA because he couldn't shoot. I think college coaches will have a better understanding of where Amanze will fit in their programs," he said.
But Amanze isn't so sure that he will be the best player in his own family. His younger brother, Uchenna, a 9-year-old third grader, is ahead of Amanze's development and projects to be the best Egekeze of all.
"It's looking that way," Amanze said. "He already has been exposed to things and knows more about basketball than me and my older brother Kemdi (who also is on the Huntley varsity) knew at the same age. He is tall for his age and will keep growing. He has huge feet for his age.
"He already is one of the tallest kids in his age group. And he is playing as a guard right now. He could be a 6-6 or 6-7 point guard, which is what I am trying to develop into now. At 16, I've just been focusing on getting better every time I go on the court."
Manning, who was a point guard on a 27-4 Hoffman Estates team that lost a one-point decision to Westinghouse in the state quarterfinals in 1996, said he started "salivating" about Egekeze when he saw him as an eighth grader.
"I saw him in feeder tryouts, shooting right and left-handed hooks, finishing at the rim, making pull-up jumpers with great form, swishing every shot," Manning said. "When you see a kid that tall (he was 6-5 at the time), you know he is something special, that he has great potential.
"What is intriguing about him is he has a base of accumulative skills -- ball-handling, passing, shooting -- and he is a straight-A student. All those qualities make him a major Division I prospect. What is holding him back is he is only a sophomore and he isn't physically overwhelming. He has to get stronger in his legs."
Egekeze is aware of his shortcomings. He is working on his guard skills, his ball-handling and his perimeter defense. He plans to get involved in a weight training program. He is constantly reminded of some sage advice his father keeps drumming into his ear.
"My fathers says: 'Bring something different every year.' I should try to get better at some aspect of my game every year, like Derrick Rose improving as a shooter," he said.
Amanze's parents -- his father is a doctor, his mother is a nurse -- immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. Born in Chicago, the family settled in Huntley when Amanze was in third grade. His father was a soccer player but Amanze preferred basketball.
"I never understood soccer. I thought it was boring, too slow compared to basketball," he said. "When I watched basketball, I understood it. I knew the basics. I liked the idea of putting the ball in the basket."
Now he hopes to combine basketball and academics into a sound college education. Maybe engineering. But he admits it is too early to be thinking about college and recruiting, not when his high school team is 10-1 and preparing for a rematch with Crystal Lake Central on Wednesday at Huntley.
"The Big Ten is what we're looking into right now but I would look at other options," he said.
Egekeze averages 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks per game. Troy Miller, a 6-foot senior point guard, averages 13 points and three assists and is a 42 percent shooter from three-point range. Justin Frederick, a 6-3 senior, averages 10 points and five rebounds and is an outstanding offensive rebounder. Bryce Only, a 6-foot junior, averages eight points and is the team's best defensive player. Jake Brock, a 6-2 senior, also is a defensive stalwart. Ryan Craig, a 6-3 junior, and Ryan Lussow, a 6-3 senior, come off the bench.
Miller, who is attracting interest from such Division III schools as Augustana, St. Norbert and Lake Forest, was the most prolific three-point shooter in the northwest suburban area last season. Only is a hard-hitting third baseman who has major league potential and is attracting interest from Division I schools.
"This team has the potential to be the best team I've had," Manning said. "It is more dynamic. It has guards who can shoot and a post player who can score in the post. You have to have good guards to advance in the state tournament. Overall, this is the most talented team I have coached."
Manning, 34, is in his sixth year as Huntley's head coach. Armed with a degree in business administration and a masters in secondary education, he teaches computer programming, advanced placement computer science and introduction to business.
He worked his way up the basketball coaching ladder, from varsity girls assistant to sophomore boys coach, then the varsity. "Even if I decided to play basketball in college at Augustana or Ripon, I still wanted to coach basketball in high school," he said.
At one time, Huntley was a doormat for high school basketball. But the McHenry County is growing faster than malls can keep up with it and the high school enrollment has increased from 1,200 nine years ago to 2,400 today with a projection of 3,000 in four years.
The quality of basketball has improved, too. "When I first got here, there were talented kids but the school tended to play teams out west," Manning said. Now the school has moved from the Big Northern Conference to the Fox Valley's Valley Division and Class 4A. Manning beefed up his schedule and hired two top-notch assistants -- Tony Jones, a former All-Big Ten player at Purdue in the 1980s, and his former coach at Hoffman Estates, Bill Wandro.
"We tried to build a relationship with the junior high school and feeder programs. But we didn't have to do too much else," Manning said. "As we grew, parents came from the northwest suburbs and wanted to get their kids involved in athletics."
His first team went 23-6 and lost to Rock Falls in the sectional semifinal. In 2008, his team lost to Sterling in the sectional final. Last year's team was 25-5 and lost to Rockford Auburn in the sectional final. So this year's goal is obvious to one and all.
"Our goal is to go beyond the sectional for the first time in school history, to accomplish something that has never been done before," Manning said. "Amanze is the difference-maker. He won't dominate for us -- maybe as a junior and senior -- but he gives us what we didn't have last year, a post presence that opponents must respect. He makes us more dynamic."
As Huntley's tallest player, Egekeze plays in the post even though Manning admits the youngster probably will be a guard at the next level. But he'll do whatever is best for the team.
"As the team's tallest player, the coach says he needs me to be more aggressive on the boards and to score inside," Egekeze said. "It clashes a bit because I'm trying to develop my game for the next level. I'm trying to find ways to score in the post but also working on my guard skills."
The victory at the Jacobs tournament showed Egekeze and his teammates what their potential is and how well they can play against a good opponent in a big game when they are mentally prepared.
"I knew I had to have that type of game (21 points) for us to win," Egekeze said. "I am getting double and triple teammed a lot so I have to work on other ways to be effective on offense.
"But I really like this team. It is more fun playing with them this year. We've grown up playing basketball since the playgrounds in seventh grade. Last year was a lesson to prepare us for this year. Rockford Auburn was a good team, a fundamentally sound and athletic team, the kind of team we have to beat to go farther in the state tournament. It was our first taste of real competition.
"So losing that game taught us how much harder we have to work. We want to do something that the school has never done before. Our ultimate goal is to go Downstate. Based on how we played at the Jacobs tournament, we learned how committed we are defensively. We surprise a lot of teams with our man-to-man pressure defense. I think we're one of, if not the best, defensive team in our area."