There was a time when Mount Carmel's Tracy Abrams, not Wayne Blackshear or Anthony Davis, was considered the headliner of Illinois' abundantly talented Class of 2011.
Abrams, a 6-1 guard, was the first among his peers to turn his potential into production. A gifted ball handler and scorer with toughness and a high basketball IQ, Abrams rose above everyone as a freshman and sophomore. When Illinois snatched a commitment from Abrams in December of 2008, he was considered the class of his class.
That all began to change last season. The combination of Abrams suffering a severe ankle injury before the high school season along with the maturation of others dropped Abrams locally and nationally. Once a top-50 player in ESPN's rankings, Abrams now rests just outside the top 100. He's also the eighth-ranked Illinois prospect.
Abrams knows all of this. Rankings are a part of the high school basketball landscape, so Abrams is well aware of the constant discussion that occurs on the message boards, in the bleachers and elsewhere about where his game stands.
The thing is, Abrams doesn't care. A year ago heading into the July evaluation period, he would have been upset if his stock had plummeted so far. But now, as Abrams prepares to kick off this July period with the NWI Division I Basketball Tournament on Friday, his focus is elsewhere.
"I don't really care about rankings anymore," said Abrams, who plays with the Illinois Wolves on the travel team circuit. "At the next level, I know what I got to do to excel and become a great player. In the past, I probably did. At this point, I don't really care about rankings."
Abrams altered his attitude when he returned from his ankle injury in December. Rankings just didn't seem so important after he was sidelined for two months. In his return, he still was driven to be a great player, but for different reasons.
"It's like I got a different hunger for the game after I came back from the injury," Abrams aid. "I hadn't been playing for a couple months. It was like a whole different hunger that I had for myself."
Mostly, it was a defensive hunger. He was motivated to become an elite stopper as well as a scorer.
"I knew for me to change my game I had to do something on defense," Abrams said. "I had to separate myself from a lot of other players. Everybody can score in this game. It's like right now my main goal is, 'What can I do to separate myself from other players?"
Abrams' injury did set him back. Despite taking time off to heal, he wasn't the same player when he returned to the court. His first step was slower. His vertical was diminished. His ankle also affected him psychologically, and he was tentative.
While Abrams was still able to play at a high level -- he did earn ESPNChicago.com All-Area honors -- and averaged 18 points, five rebounds and three assists while leading Mount Carmel to a 26-5 record, he knew his game was hurting.
"I didn't have the speed," Abrams said. "I couldn't jump. It was hard. It was frustrating to an extent, but I knew I still had to perform and lead my team. I don't want to blame my injury for anything I did on the court."
The effects of Abrams' injury continued into the spring club season. He even re-tweaked his ankle in late April, and it wasn't until late May that he finally began feeling like his old self. At Bob Gibbons' Tournament of Champions during the final weekend of May, Abrams drew rave reviews for his play on both ends of the court.
"I think he showed unbelievably by the end of the spring," Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins said. "By Bob Gibbons, he was playing at a high level. He got his spring back. He lost a few pounds. He was more explosive."
Abrams feels even better now, and he's out to show that against the nation's other top point guards in July.
"I think I'm driven more than ever right now," Abrams said. "I'm trying to get on top of my game. It starts with working in the gym. I've been in the gym a lot.
"Right now, I'm just focusing on being a point guard. Everybody says I can score, but I'm focusing on being a point guard. It's about just getting my team involved, pass first. I know the shot is going to be there at times, but in college you got to run your team as a point. You don't always have to get the shots you want. Going with the players that are going to be at Illinois, my job should be to get those players the ball and win games."
Mullins is confident that Abrams will be a difference maker at the next level.
"He'll be a point guard who's going to be able to score," Mullins said. "In a three-guard system, it's a great fit for him. I think that's why he made a very wise choice in going to Illinois. He can come off screens and make shots. His shot has been very, very good. He can guard on the ball, he can guard points (point guards), he's strong enough and quick enough to guard bigger players. And he can run a team for you.
"I knew he was competitive, but I didn't know how competitive he was. He really stands out. He's a great teammate. He's going to be a great leader for Illinois when he gets there."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.