PLAINFIELD — Various Plainfield East athletes mill about inside the high school’s fieldhouse.
Football players catch passes out of a JUGS machine. Track athletes sprint down the gray straightaways of the indoor track. Girls’ basketball players scrimmage on a nearby court.
Situated in the middle of all the activity going on this particular afternoon stands Aaron Jordan.
Well, not really standing.
The junior guard on the Bengals’ boys’ basketball team and Class of 2015 Illinois commit constantly is moving during coach Branden Adkins’ up-tempo practice on the middle of three basketball courts at the fieldhouse.
From the left wing to the right wing. Cutting to the hoop. Finishing at the rim. Communicating frequently with his teammates. Sprinting back on defense during a two-on-one drill in which he is the trailing defender, trying to swipe the ball. Attempting to take a charge. Clapping his hands with a bit of frustration when one isn’t called, but moving on to the next play.
The work ethic others preach about Jordan is evident during the first hour of this practice. The high character others praise Jordan for is apparent. When Adkins speaks, Jordan listens. Looks him in the eye. Doesn’t yawn.
And the consistent outside shooting many Illinois fans wish was present on John Groce’s current team is in full abundance when Jordan steps behind the three-point line. He’ll have to adjust in two seasons to a three-point line that is drawn a foot longer in college than what he’s become accustomed to in high school. It appears, knowingly or not, that he understands the concept, draining two in a row from the right wing during one drill in which he is at least 2 feet behind the arc.
In fact, he is in such a rhythm in a drill in which he and six other teammates must make a combined 65 three-pointers — 13 from the left corner, left wing, top of the key, right wing and right corner — in five minutes that a teammate shouts out “That’s 11!” when Jordan releases his smooth-looking jumper from the right wing. But the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Jordan overcompensated on this particular shot, with the ball hitting the back iron of the rim and falling harmlessly to the floor. He chases down the rebound, gathers it in and delivers a steady chest pass to the next Plainfield East shooter.
The miss doesn’t seem to faze Jordan. He makes his next attempt. And the one after that. When the drill concludes with the Bengals reaching the desired target of makes, a visitor looks down at his notes. Does the math. Jordan sunk 13 three-pointers. On 19 shots. That’s 68 percent shooting. Granted, he didn’t have a defender with a hand in his face. Or the raucous atmosphere of a Big Ten arena. Still, go out on your driveway or local gym and try making 13 of 19 three-pointers from five different spots. Good luck.
Jordan’s reputation by the time he arrives at Illinois for his freshman season — and he is adamant he will sign with Illinois come November’s early signing period — will be that of a shooter. Even though that wasn’t his initial reputation when he took up the game.
“I’ve been playing with him since he was in fourth grade, and I was in fifth grade,” Plainfield East senior point guard Myles Ward said. “He actually used to play center on our team. He was the tallest person on our team. He didn’t shoot too many threes. I didn’t know back then he’d turn into the shooter he is today.”
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The trip is one the Jordan family has memorized. Pull out of its house in Bolingbrook. Navigate the various highways and state routes in the Chicago suburbs until Interstate 57 comes into sight. Head south. Dad Rob is usually the driver.
“Once I get on the highway,” Jordan said, “I pretty much know where to go to get to Champaign.”
Hold up a minute.
Romelda Jordan has a slightly different version than the one her 16-year-old son is telling at the moment.
“He falls asleep,” she said with a laugh before adding, “I fall asleep, too. We just get on 57 and go down there.”
Driving past the hotels that sit off the Manteno exit. Or the bundle of restaurants near Bourbonnais and Kankakee. Past Clifton Central High School, Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School and the massive Easton-Bell plant in Rantoul, all points of interest located right off I-57. Those towns have a multitude of Illinois fans. People who will watch Jordan soon. For now, though, they’re all just little spots on the map before he arrives at his favorite destination on the two-hour trip: the Illinois campus.
“When I was on campus, it felt like home,” Jordan said. “I told my parents that. That always stuck in my mind.”
But Romelda and Rob — who met at Savannah State University in Georgia — wanted their son to have an extensive understanding of what his future might look like. It’s why the family, which moved to Bolingbrook when Aaron was 2 years old from Charlotte, N.C., took trips to Indiana. Purdue. Northwestern. Xavier. Wisconsin.
“It’s like buying a house,” said Romelda, who is a medical lab technologist at Adventist Hospital in Bolingbrook. “You’re not just going to jump into it by buying the first house you see. This was important to us for us to feel comfortable and for him to feel comfortable as well. That’s why we visited so many places in a period of time.”
His first visit to Illinois in 2014 proved memorable. It’s where he committed Jan. 4, the same day Illinois beat Penn State at State Farm Center, with members of the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini in attendance.
“There had been many different dates we had talked about when he was going to commit, from this summer to his birthday to Jan. 1,” Adkins said. “We talked about two weeks prior to when he committed that the next time he was going to go down to an Illinois game, he was going to commit. We talked the morning of the Penn State game and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to the game today.’ The first thing that popped in my head was, ‘Are you committing today?’ He said, ‘No, no I’m not.’ He wanted to let the other schools know he wasn’t going to choose them, and that he was going to pick Illinois. He just felt like that was fair.”
Then he talked to his dad — a field sales engineer who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel — on the drive down. He had wanted to commit to Illinois this past fall. Why wait any longer?
“I was on pins and needles throughout the day,” Adkins said. “I watched the game and tried to put myself in his situation. He text-messaged me after the game and said he had committed.”
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Needless to say, Adkins’ phone lit up shortly after news broke of his standout player’s decision. Jordan’s did, too, especially on Twitter.
“It’s blown up a lot,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve gained at least 2,000 followers.”
The laughter subsides for a bit. But only for a moment.
“Not that I’m keeping track or anything,” he said with a sly grin.
His teammates are aware of Jordan’s standings in Illinois fans’ eyes.
“I went to a game with him against Michigan State a few weeks ago,” Ward said. “They show him a lot of love. It’s crazy. A kid came up to him and asked him for a picture. I had never seen that before.”
Along with his social media pedigree.
“We give him a hard time,” Plainfield East senior guard Nick Novak said. “He had about 20 fewer followers than me going into this season, so I used to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got more followers than you.’ When the fall hit and he started getting heavily recruited, it started to shoot up. Then it really did when he committed.”
Jordan had already drawn a lot of notoriety before his junior season at Plainfield East. But harken back to February 2013 and he wasn’t getting the attention he gets now. From opposing coaches. Classmates. Media. Opposing student sections. Illinois didn’t make contact with him until last April at an AAU tournament in Pittsburgh.
“When my coach told me that Illinois was coming, I kind of got excited because it was where I grew up,” Jordan said. “To have my state school looking at me was a great feeling. My family could come see me play, and that was a big thing for me in having my family at games.”
Adkins said Jordan kept a level head during his recruitment.
“He got excited when the Big Ten schools started coming around and contacting him, but you’d never guess by the way he carries himself, because he is such a charismatic kid and has a great personality, that he is a high Division I basketball player,” Adkins said. “He kept everything in stride. That was a help from his parents, too. He always showed an appreciation for the process and was very humble about the process. He treated everybody with respect, whether it was Hampton or Illinois.”
Last fall is when college coaches started directing their cars off I-55 and making the 10-minute drive from the highway to Plainfield East. Past fancy subdivisions with bodies of water highlighting their names. Straight into an area where there’s farmland on each side until a sprawling high school that opened in 2008 greets them.
“Sometimes they had a hard time finding it,” Adkins said with a laugh.
Groce stopped by. So did Tom Crean. As did Matt Painter. And Chris Collins.
“It was amazing, even though we knew they weren’t there for us, but for Aaron,” Novak said. “The fact that they were in our presence just watching us play pickup basketball and doing our conditioning was an awesome experience.”
Jordan said he dealt with some nerves initially when coaches visited.
“It was very overwhelming at first seeing a coach on TV and the next day he’s at your game,” Jordan said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d be in this position.’ You may have one opinion of a coach, but when you get to meet them, you see a whole different person. I saw that a lot in Coach Groce.”
Plainfield East, the newest of four high schools in Plainfield, competes in the eight-team Southwest Prairie Conference. The conference was formed in 2006, and Jordan is the first Big Ten basketball recruit the league has produced.
“We’ve had some really good players come through here,” said Adkins, who is the only boys’ basketball coach Plainfield East has had. “It seems like one or two teams always have at least a midmajor player, but Aaron is probably the highest major recruit, so it helps our conference.”
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Jordan still has to sign with Illinois. Make his commitment official. No worries, he said. He doesn’t plan on reneging.
“Yes, I will be signing with them,” Jordan said. “Nothing has changed. It’s a big decision and a big weight lifted off my shoulders knowing where I’m going to go to college at.”
Adkins uses Jordan at virtually every spot on the floor in the Bengals’ up-tempo offense. If high school basketball had a shot clock, the Bengals would rarely ever force up a shot late. Getting shots early in their offense is a point of emphasis. Teams, though, have made it a point in trying to limit Jordan. He has seen virtually any defense imaginable this season but went into this weekend averaging 19.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 48 percent from three-point range (51 of 106) and making 82 percent (108 of 131) of his free throws.
“He sees a lot of double teams, and he gets face-guarded a lot,” Adkins said. “We’ve played against a team that decided to leave another kid unattended, and they stuck two guys on him all over the court.”
Getting stronger is one aspect Jordan wants to improve. Looking at his build and knowing the fact that he doesn’t turn 17 until May 5, there is room for growth in that area. His shooting touch, however, is an attribute that had college coaches flocking to see him.
“His strength is always going to be his shooting ability,” said Joe Henricksen, publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. “He has a pretty quick release. He has a good pull-up, midrange game off the dribble already, but he’s go-
ing to have to get better at creating for himself and others off the bounce. What he brings and what Illinois needs is a perfect match. He’s a guy who can space the floor, and when he’s open, he’s going to knock a shot down. He’s going to be that type of shooter. That’s what Illinois could definitely use right now.”
With the way the Illinois roster is right now and the way it might shape up for the 2015-16 season, Henricksen thinks Jordan will have time to develop into a prominent role with the Illini.
“It’s going to be a nice spot for him as a freshman because he won’t have to come in where they have to force 25-30 minutes down his throat,” Henricksen said. “He’ll become an even more complete player and be a really solid, four-year guy.”
The former two-sport athlete — Jordan gave up soccer in middle school to concentrate on basketball — walks the halls of his high school now with the label of Illinois basketball commit. Soon it will turn into Illinois basketball signee. Then Illinois basketball player. Jordan understands the expectations will increase once he arrives in Champaign-Urbana. He relishes the opportunity, just like he did during an early-February three-point shooting drill at his high school.
“Playing at the next level, especially in the Big Ten, is where I wanted to be at,” Jordan said. “It’s nice to know that every team needs shooters. That’s what I want to do down at Illinois and make a difference down there. I was actually going to commit in the spring ... but now that I look back at it, I’m so glad my parents put me through that process. Some people will say I committed early, but they didn’t know what was going on. I basically knew what I wanted. I have no regrets.”
Aaron Jordan will start his Illinois career in two seasons as a highly touted shooter. The Plainfield East guard isn’t the first future Illini, either, with such lofty expectations. Here are five who lived up to the hype and five who didn’t necessarily deliver throughout their entire career:
Left you satisfied
No Illini shot more three-pointers (843) or made more (327) than this Memphis native did from 1998 to 2002, and he still holds the NCAA record by making at least one trey in 88 consecutive games.
Lost amid his jersey-popping was this: He left Illinois with 299 career three-pointers, second to Bradford, and led the 2004-05 team in three-point accuracy (43.4 percent).
Now a UI athletic administrator, Carlyle native sank program-record 49.3 percent of his threes in 1991-92 season and is third all time in program history for his marksmanship.
Collinsville product left program in 1996 as all-time leader in career threes (237) and made at least 48 every season.
Peoria native was clutch from deep last season against Indiana and Hawaii, and is third all time in school history with 278 treys.
Left you wanting more
Kentucky transfer came in labeled a three-point specialist. He left with only making 23 before heading to Florida International.
Junior college transfer could never get going with injuries and struggled to hit 30 percent beyond the arc when he played. Which was sparingly.
Anxiety didn’t help Texas native during lone season in C-U, but he thrived at Wichita State, hitting 43 percent from deep when the Shockers went to the Sweet 16 in 2006.
When he played, he was almost automatic. But poor judgment derailed his Illinois career before he found a new beginning at Southern Indiana.
Sixth on school’s all-time list with 216 three-pointers, but so much more was expected out of McBride when arrived at Illinois from Springfield Lanphier.