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Henricksen: Okafor, Alexander and Ulis took different paths to McDonald's game

01/29/2014, 10:23pm CST
By Henricksen | @joehoopsreport

The senior trio are stars, household names nationally in the prep basketball world. But each one did it a little differently en route to McDonald's All-American status.

The state of Illinois has added three more names to its lengthy list of McDonald’s All-Americans: Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor, Curie’s Cliff Alexander and Marian Catholic’s Tyler Ulis. 

All three took different roads en route to being selected to play in the prestigious game, which will be April 2 at the United Center in Chicago.

Although it’s an honor worth celebrating and another proud moment in the career of Okafor, the big man was a Burger Boy-in-waiting since the day he entered high school in the fall of 2010. Okafor has been at or near the top of the class nationally since his freshman year, destined to one day be called a McDonald’s All-American.

To Okafor’s credit, however, the early hype didn’t stop his drive or motivation. And Okafor was about as hyped as they come at an early age, so there’s always a chance for a bust or flameout when a player receives that type of attention that early.

“With all the expectations he came into high school with, and all the early accolades he received, it would have been easy to get sidetracked, get caught up in it all,” says Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter of his star. “It speaks to his perseverance. He took a different approach. I think it speaks volumes about him and his ability to stay after it, remain hungry. He didn’t stop working, even after it was established that he had made it [on the national scene.]”

When watching Alexander do his absolutely eye-popping thing now, it’s easy to forget just what he was as a freshman and sophomore –– and how hard he’s worked to get where he is today. 

“That’s the thing people don’t see or realize, just how hard Cliff works,” says Curie coach Mike Oliver. “He’s a relentless worker. He will go play anyone, anywhere at any time.”

Alexander has come so ridiculously far from those raw, somewhat awkward days where potential far surpassed productivity.

As his game came together and his productivity turned to dominance, Alexander soon was in the minuscule percentage of absolutely must-have, program-changing recruits. His confidence grew, his production became more consistent and what he did on the floor left you saying, "There just aren't many of THOSE type of guys around." He was quickly among the nation’s top 10 players in the country by his junior year. 

So while the announcement today that Alexander was a McDonald’s All-American was expected, Big Cliff’s path to this point was quite different than his fellow Chicago Public League big man superstar, Okafor. 

Oliver knew he had something early on, even though when Alexander walked through the doors as a freshman he had just started playing basketball. But Oliver says he would never have proclaimed Alexander was a future McDonald’s All-American during his freshman year. 

“With his work ethic and just the way he wanted to learn, I told his mother that I thought he would be a high-major college prospect,” says Oliver. “But I wouldn’t have said a McDonald’s All-American. He’s made such a jump in two years.”

Then there is the unlikely McDonald’s All-American, the one so many questioned and weren’t sold on as a high-major prospect –– Ulis.

Remember, this is a player who, for the longest time, had difficulty getting high-major coaches to bite. The majority were unable to look past his 5-9 size and accept who he was, which is a truly special player and dynamic point guard –– just in a smaller package and in a less-obvious way when it comes to the look test.

James Ulis, Tyler's father, continued to remind his son that his time would come. 

"We have just always said to Tyler that all he has to do is go out and play the way you play, continue to keep getting better and people will notice," James Ulis told the Hoops Report this past summer.

Ulis continued to always play with a chip on his shoulder as plenty of high-major schools and coaches slow-played him in the recruiting process. There were others that flat-out ignored him. Although Iowa and DePaul offered during his junior year, the majority of high-major programs didn’t pick up interest until the spring and summer, just after his dominating junior season. 

He was barely on the radar of national evaluators, either. For proof, check out any of the top 100 lists just one year ago. Ulis couldn’t be found on a single one. Now, 12 months later, Ulis is a McDonald’s All-American. 

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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