Chicago guards show rare passing ability

The simple explanation to why Ohio’s D.J. Cooper, UAB’s Aaron Johnson and Illinois’ Demetri McCamey rank in the top 5 nationally in assists and all originate from Chicago is it’s a major coincidence.

Ask a statistician, the players’ coaches and nearly anyone outside of a 312 or 773 area codes, and they’d say it’s preposterous to consider it anything else. But to those three players and probably most basketball junkies within the greater Chicago area, Cooper, Johnson and McCamey rank where they do in the country because of where they’re from. They boast Chicago has made them great point guards.

“That’s just our nature,” said Johnson, who played at Hubbard High School and is ranked third in country at 7.6 assists a game. “We always want to be on top. That’s how people want to be in Chicago. We like to get down and dirty. Everyone wants to be known as the best point guard in the city.”

It’s a mentality McCamey remembered having engrained him at an early age. Whenever he faced another highly-touted player, there was much more than a game at stake. Reputations could be made and taken in just a few trips down the floor.

It wasn’t about scoring either. To prove yourself, you had to handle the ball, break presses, command your team and pass the ball. It didn’t hurt if the assist was pretty, too.

“As far as growing up in Chicago in order to have that recognition and be a top player, especially in the guard position, you got to share the ball,” said McCamey, who played at St. Joseph and is fifth in nation at 6.8 assists. “You got to make sure your teammates are happy.

“It’s just a competitive nature in Chicago as far as guards and players growing up. You try to beat that guy or you want to match that guy you’ve seen in the newspaper that day or that day. Chicago guards have that as far as being aggressive and trying to be the best."

Cooper is two years younger than Johnson and McCamey, both seniors, but what he was brought up and believes today is no different.

“We make guys better,” said Cooper, who played at Hales Franciscan and Seton and is second in the nation at 7.7 assists. “Creating is our style of play. We’re making our teams better. There are a lot of great point guards from the city of Chicago.”

Johnson and McCamey actually shared a backcourt for a time on the Illinois Warriors’ club team. Johnson played the point, and McCamey was the shooting guard. Together, they made the Warriors among the best squads in the country.

“He would find you,” McCamey said of Johnson. “You didn’t need to dribble. You didn’t need to do anything. He’s probably a better passer than me in my eyes. He’s a really good point guard.”

Once a passer always a passer, Johnson returned the compliment.

“Demetri has always been a playmaker,” Johnson said. “Even when we played together, he kind of played the point a lot. He’s just a playmaker.”

Johnson and McCamey graduated from high school in the year of the guard for the Chicago area. There was the two of them, Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose (Simeon), Philadelphia 76ers’ Evan Turner (St. Joseph), Northwestern’s Michael Thompson (Lincoln Park), Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen (Proviso East), Virginia’s Mustapha Farrakhan (Thornton) and Bradley’s Sam Maniscalco (St. Patrick), among others.

In the last three years, the area has continued to produce top guards. Cornell junior Chris Wroblewski (Highland Park) is 24th in the country in assists and helped the Big Red to the NCAA tournament last season. Oakland junior Reggie Hamilton (Thornwood) is 43rd, Brown freshman Sean McGonagill (Riverside-Brookfield) is 54th, and Fairfield sophomore Derek Needham (De La Salle) is 57th. Plus, there are also Illinois sophomore Brandon Paul (Warren), Northwestern sophomore Drew Crawford (Naperville Central) and Georgia Tech junior Iman Shumpert (Oak Park).

“Chicago-area kids have a tradition of always being known for guard play,” said Larry Butler, a former club coach and publisher of Illinois Spot-Lite, a scouting service. “It’s always been that way.”

Once guards leave Chicago, their competitive instincts don’t diminish either. Johnson admitted he still wanted to be best, but no longer just in the Chicago. He seeks to be nation’s best point guard, and he was confident Cooper and McCamey shared the feeling.

“I definitely think [Cooper and McCamey] check on ESPN on how many assists I have,” Johnson said. “I have people telling Demetri has this many or D.J. has that many. It’s definitely competition. You want to be known as the No. 1 assist guy in the country. That’s probably also the No. 1 point guard in the country.”