Ranking the Top 5 preps Player of the Year candidates

Ranking the Top 5 preps Player of the Year candidates
January 10, 2014, 10:30 am
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Since it is near the midway point in the season, it is time to start looking into potential CSNChicago Player of the Year candidates since the sample body of work for most players has now exceeded 10 games. When looking for a Player of the Year candidate, statistics certainly matter, but other factors such as team success and individual performances in big games also are factors as well.

[RELATED -- High School Lites Preview: Top two teams face major tests]

Over the next few weeks, we'll occasionally check in on the top Player of the Year candidates with a Power Rankings of the players you need to know about.

Comcast SportsNet will have cameras across Chicagoland on Friday for "High School Lites," which starts at 11 p.m. and is streamed live at csnchicago.com, and we'll have footage of many of these candidates as the year goes on.

5. JayQuan McCloud, North Chicago

The Warhawks are a legit contender in Class 3A and they're currently sitting at No. 5 in the CSN Chicago Preps Power Rankings, thanks in part to the strong play of McCloud, a 6-foot-3 guard committed to Murray State. The senior trio of McCloud, Kurt Hall and JaVairius Amos-Mays helped lead North Chicago to a Supersectional last season in Class 3A and thanks to the growth in the games of all three, North Chicago is sitting at 12-1 on the season as they're the heavy favorites to win the North Suburban Prairie.

[MORE: Ten intriguing IHSA conference races]

McCloud averaged 22 points a game in leading North Chicago to the title at the State Farm Holiday Classic and with his ability to score and play a bit of both guard spots — as well as his improved efforts on the defensive end — McCloud is a sleeper pick for Player of the Year right now.

4. Jalen Brunson, Stevenson

The lone junior cracking our Player of the Year Power Rankings is Brunson, a smooth lefty point guard for the unbeaten and No. 1 Stevenson Patriots. Alongside fellow talented junior Connor Cashaw, Brunson helped Stevenson capture the Proviso West Holiday Tournament and over the five games Stevenson won at Proviso, Brunson averaged 22.8 points, seven rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

But what you have to love most about Brunson is his ability to stay calm and deliver in big games. Brunson scored nine straight points to put Stevenson on his back in a North Suburban Lake conference scare against Warren on the road and he stepped up with big performances throughout Proviso West. Stevenson is a favorite in Class 4A and Brunson is a big reason why.

3. Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young

It might be a tad surprising to see what some call the No. 1 player in the country at the No. 3 spot in our Player of the Year Power Rankings, but it is only because the two players ahead of Okafor are playing tremendous basketball while their teams have a bit more early-season success. Since Whitney Young is playing a national schedule, sometimes the 6-foot-10 Okafor appears to get lost in the shuffle of the local discussion, but make no mistake about it, he's having a monster season for 9-4 Whitney Young.

[DRIVE: Whitney Young -- Paul White perseveres despite the odds]

Okafor and Whitney Young have already defeated the top two point guard prospects in the country in Tyus Jones (Apple Valley H.S.; Apple Valley, Mn.) and Emmanuel Mudiay (Prime Prep; Dallas, Tx.) in nationally televised games and Okafor is a double-double waiting to happen with his ability to score on the interior as well as rebound at a high clip. One thing often overlooked about Okafor is his skill level. Okafor can handle and pass very well for a young player his size and it benefits the Dolphins greatly when opposing defenses collapse and double — or triple — the Duke commit. Just because Okafor stands at No. 3 right now doesn't mean a thing. It's a long season and Whitney Young and Okafor will face plenty more high-level competition as the season progresses.

2. Tyler Ulis, Marian Catholic

The main focus on star players this season has largely been on the two big men in the area — Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor — because it is so rare for Chicago to have two Top 5 national prospects playing in the post. Alexander and Okafor are special, but so is Kentucky commit Tyler Ulis. The 5-foot-9 Ulis is completely selfless as a floor leader and point guard and the Spartans are unbeaten in Illinois and stand at No. 2 in our Power Rankings with an 11-1 record. Ulis was the MVP of the McDipper for the second consecutive year as Marian Catholic won the event for the second time in a row, as well.

[MORE: New No. 1 in preps basketball rankings]

But the impressive thing about Ulis is his focus on putting the team ahead of himself. Whenever I ask Tyler about personal accolades he is quick to pivot to the Spartans and how they're happy to be playing in big events and showcases, because this whole thing is new to Marian Catholic as the new basketball power in the area. Other basketball powerhouses across the state tried to get Ulis to transfer to their schools throughout his high school career and often scoffed at the notion that Ulis could win at a school that traditionally focuses on football.

Ulis has continually proved his doubters wrong and his teammates love playing with him. And why wouldn't they? Ulis is an unbelievable floor leader with great feel and vision and an ability to fire passes with both hands into shooting pockets with ease. The senior can score from nearly anywhere on the floor thanks to the picturesque rotation of his jumper. Marian Catholic is one of the best teams in the state and a major contender in Class 4A and Tyler Ulis is a big reason why.

1. Cliff Alexander, Curie

What do you say about Cliff Alexander that hasn't already been said before? The 6-foot-9 senior is a monster down low and currently the most unguardable big man in high school basketball because of his combination of size, athleticism and raw power, coupled with an ever-improving skill set.

Hat gate and two technical fouls against St. Rita in the season-opener for Curie clouded the judgments of some on Alexander, but make no mistake about it, Alexander is playing the best ball in the area and Curie stands at No. 3 in our Preps Power Rankings at 11-1 because of it. The Condors' lone loss this season came when Alexander was out and it was against a team from Michigan.

Although Cliff has put up jaw-dropping statistics throughout the high school season, it was his play at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament that separated him from the pack. Alexander won the AC Williamson award in leading Curie to its first title at Pontiac and averaged 27 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks over the four games that included wins over No. 19 West Aurora and No. 7 Simeon. Ever seen a game-winning, buzzer-beating tip dunk? Alexander had one in the semifinals against West Aurora in a game that saw the senior go for 37 points, 26 rebounds and five blocks. 

[MORE: What Aaron Jordan's commitment means for Illinois hoops]

Then there's the raw power on his dunks. Oh, the dunks. Ferocious and angry each time, you start to feel bad for the rim after every violent Alexander slam.

The chip on his shoulder that Alexander has each time he plays makes him unique as well. Cliff never stops playing and playing hard. While other big-name national players won't touch certain summer events, Cliff seemed to play in whatever Curie was involved in, no matter the stakes. And no matter the opponent, Alexander wants to decimate his opponent and overpower them physically. Whether is was Alexander's high-profile matchup against Texas big man Myles Turner at the NY2LASports.com Summer Jam in Milwaukee on the AAU circuit in July, or playing in local summer league games where Curie was facing neighborhood rivals, Cliff goes hard at every single opponent.

This is going to be a fun Player of the Year race to follow and we'll have more updates to these rankings in the coming weeks.