How good is Whitney Young's Linnae Harper?
There are five female finalists for the Dr. James Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award for 2012. Four of them are seniors. Harper is the only junior.
Since the male and female awards were first presented in 1987, only one Chicago area player has been honored. Naperville Central's Candace Parker won in 2003 and 2004.
Now Harper, a 5-foot-7 guard, is being touted as the No. 1 player in the nation in the girls' class of 2013. Just as Simeon's Jabari Parker is being acclaimed as the nation's No. 1 player in the boys' class of 2013.
Would you believe they used to be teammates?
Linnae and Jabari were classmates from first through eighth grades. In eighth grade, they played together on a black elementary school team that almost won a city championship. But Linnae was forced to play in two tournaments in one day, one for girls and one for boys.
"I had a girls tournament at Montini in Lombard. Then I went to the boys tournament at Whitney Young," she recalled. "We were behind 28-9 when I got there. We were playing Beasley, the No. 1 team in the city, with Tommy Hamilton. I did whatever I could do to get us back in the game. We lost by three points."
Competing against boys is what toughened her resolve, sharpened her skills and gave her an edge. Her mother wanted her to be a dancer but it wasn't a fit for her. At 6, she decided she liked basketball. In those days, there was only one way to play the game.
"I used to watch the boys play at Avalon Park. I went there every day after school. When I was little, there were no girls teams around. I had to play with the boys or I couldn't play at all," she said.
"Playing with the boys taught me how to play the game, how to become a better player. Then when I played with the girls, it eased the pressure on me. At first, the boys didn't care if I was there and didn't guard me. But then they realized I had an impact on my team."
Harper has had an impact ever since. She had 14 points and 14 rebounds as Whitney Young defeated Edwardsville 63-51 for the Class 4A championship. The Dolphins (34-0) became the first large school to complete an unbeaten season since Peoria Richwoods in 2005.
"She does a lot of things. She isn't one-dimensional. She can score, rebound, defend, pass and steal. She fills an entire stat sheet. No guard in the country in her class can do that," said Whitney Young coach Corry Irvin.
"She is so physically strong. She can post and rebound. Her 15-foot range game is better than anyone else. She will figure out a way to get anything done the team needs to win, something that is very rare."
For the record, Harper averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. With a year to play -- and to get even better -- she already has accumulated scholarship offers from many major Division I programs, including Notre Dame, Connecticut, DePaul, Kentucky, Ohio State, Miami, Louisville, UCLA and South Carolina.
Steve Tucker, the former high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who knows more about girls basketball than anyone you know, said Harper could be the No. 1 player in the nation in 2012-13 and could be better than Bolingbrook's Ariel Massengale, last year's Ms. Basketball in Illinois who currently is a starter at Tennessee.
"I never remember seeing a guard of her size as strong as she is and with the ability to rebound," Tucker said. "Is she better than Massengale? She does more things. She can run a team, play inside or outside, defend, handle the ball, rebound and pass. She knows the game better than any young kid I have seen. She has such a high basketball IQ for knowing what to do and when to do it. She is physically mature."
Harper is flattered by comparisons to Massengale but she is quick to remind everyone that their games are different. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can be. I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else," she said.
Irvin knew of Harper early on because Linnae's mother attended Julian High School with Corry's husband. Irvin saw the youngster play for the first time as a sixth grader and was immediately impressed by her toughness on the court. "She played post on her grade school team. She was stronger than everyone else," the coach said.
It didn't take her long to realize she had a special talent. As a freshman, she had a career high of 25 points and 17 rebounds as Whitney Young ousted Marian Catholic in the supersectional.
"That's when the light went off. It didn't hit me until then," she said. "I realized I wasn't an ordinary freshman. I had something more. After that game, I came in with an entirely different attitude. It made me realize I could play at an elite level. But I had to play hard in every game. I had to think I had a junior or senior mentality to survive."
The last two years were especially frustrating, however. Whitney Young qualified for the Final Four but had to settle for second and fourth. The Dolphins lost to Bolingbrook in the 2010 state final, then lost to Bolingbrook in overtime in the semifinals in 2011. So it was particularly satisfying to beat Bolingbrook in four overtimes in this year's supersectional.
"It hurt a lot to lose as a freshman but I realized I had three more years to get better and get a ring. But it hurt really bad last year. It took a few days to get over the pain. But I knew it couldn't hold us back," Harper said.
"This year, a lot of people doubted us. We wanted to prove we could win. A majority of the players had played together in the summer for four or five years. But they had never played together as a team before. In the beginning, there were some differences but we sorted them out at the end. It feels good this year to know that we worked hard every day I practice and sacrificed so much to win state."
Harper isn't done yet. Her resume, which already includes a gold-medal winning performance on USA Basketball's Under-16 team last summer, will add more glowing evaluations. Her stock will continue to rise during AAU competition this summer and more major colleges will express interest.
"I still have to complete my game," she said. "I never would have thought I would get this far. It puts more pressure on me. When you get to the top, you have to keep working harder to keep your spot because other players are working as hard and trying to replace you or get to the top."
How much better can she get? She plans to work on her ball-handling to handle more point guard duties, extend her jump shot range, improve her three-point shooting and her mid-range jumper. Oh, and don't forget to work on her footwork and improve her defensive skills.
"I want to add something to my game so when scouts see me, they'll have something else to worry about," she said. "I am very competitive. I like to play when it is tough and be in different situations and pull through. I like to compete all the time. Every time I'm on the court I try to give my all.
It sure beats dancing.