It’s not that Simeon (Chicago) coach Robert Smith is being cocky or that he’s gotten the proverbial “big head."
He’s merely trying to implement a mindset of excellence.
That’s why when he learned his Wolverines had indeed drawn the ultimate bull’s-eye of the preseason, being ranked No. 1 in the POWERADE FAB 50, he paused for a few seconds before nonchalantly saying, “OK.”
“Well, the mindset of this team is to be the best,” Smith said. “I recognize that it’s an honor, but it’s also added pressure. We feel like we’re supposed to be No. 1. That’s how we prepare, so to get this news only means that we’ve got work to do to keep it.”
That workload will be strenuous with Miller Grove (Lithonia, Ga.), Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) and Marcus (Flower Mound, Texas) on Simeon’s heels to round out the top five.
Still, Simeon has something the others don’t – Jabari Parker, last year's ESPNHS National Sophomore of the Year and the top-ranked player in the ESPNU 60. Some even consider Parker, a junior swingman, the top player in the country regardless of class.
“He’s one of four guys you could make that case for,” ESPN director of basketball recruiting Paul Biancardi said. “Jabari has exceptional skills and he’s very capable of successfully leading this team. The thing he’ll have to concentrate on is constantly improving and not trying to prove anything. That will be the key.”
This summer, Parker, who is widely regarded as the front-runner for the ESPNHS Mr. Basketball USA honor, had to deal with the immense amount of pressure that accompanies being the top dog. He said the only way to combat the inevitable lofty, and sometimes unfair, expectations is to remain focused.
“I would get it all the time with people coming at me because of where I’m ranked,” said Parker, who led Simeon with 15.3 points per game last season. “I just stayed focused on what I was doing and it worked for me. We’ve got the bull’s-eye, but as long as we stay hungry we’ll be fine. That’s worked for us in the past.”
Simeon has won two consecutive state titles and is the overwhelming favorite to complete the trifecta with a talented roster that includes junior guard Kendrick Nunn and senior forward Steve Taylor. The Wolverines also picked up Jaylon Tate, a junior guard who transferred from De La Salle (Chicago).
“We’ll be very talented there’s no question,” Smith said. “We have the pieces to be very successful.”
Good thing too.
The Wolverines will need all hands on deck for a grueling schedule that includes games against No. 2 Miller Grove, No. 8 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) and No. 34 Whitney Young (Chicago).
“We wanted a difficult schedule,” Smith said. “This team will definitely be battle-tested by the end of the season. We plan to win every game. That’s our goal.”
Added Parker: “As good as it is to be ranked No. 1 to start the season our goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season. That’s priority No. 1.”
Parker’s fail-proof plan for staying on top?
“Just because we’re No. 1 we’re not gonna be sitting back waiting on teams to bring it to us,” Parker said. “We’re gonna come out hard and go at them. We’ll play with a lot of intensity. This is what we wanted so we’re not planning to lose it.”