As a high school basketball player, Abel Schrader once averaged 28 points per game. But Belleville East's first-year coach admits he isn't in the same league with his star player, 6-foot-7 senior guard Malcolm Hill. One-on-one in the gym after practice? No thanks.
"I know he was a very good player. But he won't play me. He claims he's out of shape now," Hill said. "I didn't want to hurt him or get on his bad side. But I figure I could handle him."
Schrader, 32, comes from good stock. He played at Okawville, one of the most successful small-school programs in the state. His sister Jamie was runner-up to Illinois' Ms. Basketball in 2000. He played for Bruce Weber and Matt Painter at Southern Illinois.
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But Schrader hasn't seen a better player than Hill since Darius Miles, who played at East St. Louis and was an NBA lottery pick in 2000.
"He should be looked at for Mr. Basketball," Schrader said. "He is scoring a lot of points but he is playing harder for more of the game than he ever did before. He is more of a leader."
Hill is all of that and more. Ironically, he works with the same AAU coach that Miles did. But he credits his father, a former coach, for his development. He originally committed to Illinois and coach Bruce Weber, then remained loyal to new Illini coach John Groce and chose Illinois over Kansas State and its new coach, Weber.
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"Illinois is a great environment to be in," Hill said. "It has great diversity and it's a good school to be part of as a student. I met coach Groce and looked into his history. He did well at Ohio University. He runs a four-guard set and likes high-tempo basketball, my style of play.
"I felt comfortable every time I visited the campus. It's like a second home. It's a big campus. You can't get bored just walking around there. Sometimes I even get lost. But I like a lot of people, a lot of diversity. I like to meet people with different backgrounds than me."
"He takes pride in his state. He wants to play for his state school. Groce did a good job of keeping him at Illinois. It was the place he wanted to be," Schrader said.
Hill is just what the doctor ordered to boost the talent level in Groce's program.
"I will be a playmaker and shooting guard in college," Hill said. "I'm a slasher first and foremost, an aggressive player. I always look to make the right play, to score or find the open man. And I'm a competitor. I like to compete. I hate to lose."
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He is a two-time All-Metro selection in the St. Louis area. As a 6-foot-5 junior, he averaged 23.8 points per game for a 19-10 team and shot 44.5 percent from three-point range and converted 85.6 percent of his free throws.
As a 6-foot-7 senior, he averaged 25 points per game for a 24-4 Southwestern Conference champion and converted shots at about the same regularity as a year ago despite being confronted by every conceivable defense from box-and-one to triangle-and-two to 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones that are shifted to prevent him from getting the ball.
Not bad at all, considering he underwent major surgery last summer to repair a blood clot in his upper left arm. He was sidelined for three months with what was diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare condition that can involve pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness and tingling of the fingers and a weak grip.
The injury is similar to the one suffered by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter. He underwent surgery in July and was lost for the season. Hill didn't return to full-time competition until three weeks before the season opener in November. And, by his own admission, it took him halfway through the season "to get back to where I thought I ought to be."
However, the season ended in an inglorious fashion last week when Belleville East, the No. 1 seed in the Pekin sectional, lost to 19-game loser O'Fallon 70-59 in overtime in the semifinals of the Class 4A regional at O'Fallon. On Feb. 8, Belleville East defeated O'Fallon 67-61.
"Coach always told us that every team was going to give us their best game, no matter who it is," said Hill, who finished with 24 points. "We just weren't ready to play today. We were looking too far ahead of ourselves. We weren't really focusing."
Last week, they swept Collinsville 55-42 and Granite City 52-47 to clinch the Southwestern Conference championship. They had won 12 of their last 13 games and were ranked No. 4 in Class 4A behind Whitney Young, Simeon and Proviso East.
Darreon Reddick, a 6-foot-3 junior point guard, averaged 14 points and three assists per game. He has a Division I body and has been offered by Indiana State and Missouri State. Cameron Hunter, a 6-foot-4 junior, averaged 10 points per game.
In recent games, Hill scored 36 while Reddick had 19 in a 69-62 victory over Alton. Reddick scored 16, Hill 14 and Hunter 11 against Collinsville. Hill scored 30 against Granite City as Belleville East won its first undisputed conference title since 1997.
"It was frustrating at first, playing against all those gimmick defenses that were designed to stop me," Hill said. "But I got used to it and I told the other players to get aggressive and start shooting so the defense will respect them."
Hill was born in St. Louis. His father, who played basketball at old East St. Louis Assumption, coached at Normandy High School. They moved to Belleville when Malcolm was 4. He played baseball, soccer and basketball but dropped the other sports in fifth grade when he realized that basketball was the sport he wanted to focus on.
He made an instant impression. He became a starter on the varsity midway in his freshman year. As a sophomore, he averaged 16 points per game and attracted attention from Illinois, Ohio State and Missouri. Illinois was the first school to visit his school.
"It showed that I had talent to be a Division I player," he said.
He became involved with coach Patrick Smith and the Southwest Illinois Jets' AAU program. Smith had coached Darius Miles.
"He knew what it takes to be a Division I player. He pushed me at practice," Hill said.
But he credits his father for providing the drive and inspiration that has made him one of the leading prospects in the class of 2013.
"He knew I had the talent. He believed in me before I did. He always worked on my ball-handling skills," Malcolm said.
But Illinois' Mr. Basketball? He thinks Simeon's Jabari Parker is the best player in the country.
"I am playing well this year, considering I went through major surgery and was out for three months last summer," Hill said. "In fact, I'm a much better player this year. I've added other elements to my game. I'm better on defense and trying to improve on rebounding. I have had more double-doubles this year.
"The big thing that I have improved on is leadership. I've taken on a role to make my teammates better. I've also learned to pass better and hit the open man. I get other players involved more. The great thing about our team is we all know our roles."
But is he in a class with Parker and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor in the balloting for Mr. Basketball?
He scored 18 points against Okafor's AAU team as a sophomore. "That's when my name began to blow up and big schools began to recruit me," he said.
He met Parker and saw him play at the NBA camp last summer. "He came up to me and we talked. I was impressed with him. I think he is the best player in the country. His skill set for his size is incredible. He helps to motivate me to work harder. I feel I have a chance to be as good as him. He has more maturity. I skipped a grade. I'm a year younger than anyone in my class. I will be 18 in October," Hill said.
How good is Hill?
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye said Hill deserves strong consideration for Mr. Basketball in Illinois. But they concede he probably is a long shot. While he figures to draw huge support from Downstate media and Illini Nation, he suffers from a lack of exposure among the Chicago media and Chicago area voters.
"There is no question that he is the No. 2 prospect in the state in the class of 2013, behind only Jabari Parker," Roy Schmidt said. "He is a tremendous scorer and can do so in a variety of ways. Not only is he a great slasher but his mid-range game is outstanding as he can consistently pull up and convert shots off the dribble.
"He also has great instincts off the glass and with his long wing span absolutely thrives in the open court. To top it all off, he has also shown considerable toughness and has battled through adversity, having missed the entire summer evaluation period due to a blood clot. We think he will make the most immediate impact of any of the recruits that Illinois coach John Groce has landed in 2013."