Jabari Parker may be the best player on Simeon's top-ranked team. Or Steve Taylor. Or Kendrick Nunn. But coach Robert Smith wants everybody to know that the Wolverines' indispensable and undisputed leader is 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior point guard Jelani Neely.
When highly rated Jaylon Tate transferred from De La Salle to Simeon last summer, many observers immediately penciled him into the starting lineup. They shook their heads in disbelief when Smith said Tate would be his team's sixth man, that Neely would remain at point guard.
"Jelani came to Simeon because it fit his way of playing," Smith said. "He is a traditional point guard. He controls the game. He is at 85 percent and that's more than most point guards. He runs the team, doesn't score, gets the ball into people's hands and knows what we have to do in situations."
Most of all, Smith said Neely "understands the game the way I want it played. He is in my head all the time, like Derrick (Rose) was here. Talent doesn't always get you the win. He isn't the most talented player but he understands Simeon basketball and no one on the team knows it better than him."
Which is why Simeon's offense struggled early when Neely was sidelined from July to Nov. 25 with a partial ACL tear. At the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, when Simeon barely got past Peoria Manual 48-47 in the semifinals, Smith juggled two guards in a vain attempt to fill Neely's leadership qualities.
Now Neely is back at almost full strength and Smith believes his team is "moving in the right direction, playing real good basketball and playing the Simeon way" as the defending two-time state champion seeks its first Chicago Public League championship since 2007.
They will meet Orr Wednesday in the semifinals at DePaul. In the other semifinal, Marshall will meet Bogan. The two winners will duel for the Public League title on Friday at Chicago State.
"It has a lot to do with Neely back," Smith said. "After our (75-50) loss to (nationally ranked) Findlay Prep on TV, our kids realized we have to go back to playing the way I want them to play. We haven't played badly since. But we still haven't put four quarters together. It would be scary when we do."
No matter how valuable Neely is to Simeon's success, however, he isn't above Smith's disciplinary rules. When he stepped over the line prior to Sunday's quarterfinal game against Marshall, he was forced to sit out with one other starter, Kendrick Nunn, and three reserves.
"Discipline is the big thing," Smith said. "You can't do anything without discipline, on and off the court, at all times, in the classroom, at home. If you are going to be successful in life, not just in basketball, you must have discipline. Doing it their way is what I won't tolerate. We have built a program to do it the Simeon way and that's the only way it will be done."
With the talent and depth at hand, Smith is calling for his players to press and apply even more pressure than in past seasons. He wants to speed up the game at both ends of the floor to take advantage of his team's athleticism. "This is a more up-tempo team than ever before in Simeon history," Smith said.
"I like what we're doing on defense. Sitting in a zone isn't cohesive to what we have. And I like that we're sharing the ball, moving the ball, not doing a lot of dribbling, moving the ball from side to side. Jabari doesn't have to score 30 points for us to win.
"Our kids have finally figured out the way to play. They are having a lot of fun. You can look at practice. They are so much more intense. They value every possession, even in practice.
"They know where we are and where we're trying to get to. If we don't win it all, it won't be a great season. We wouldn't have accomplished all of our goals."