Steep learning curve but high ceiling for young New Trier star

By Eric Burgher

Word had gotten around about a 12-year-old hockey player from Glencoe, who at 6-foot-5, was growing out of his pads.

Ciaran Brayboy, who had been skating since he was four and playing hockey since kindergarten, grew up on the ice. But as he approached his teenage years, Brayboy started to see signs that it might be time to find another sport.

“I couldn’t find skates that fit,” he joked.

Now standing 6-foot-9, 15-year-old Brayboy is the 6th ranked Illinois basketball recruit in the class of 2019 per 247sports and is starting as a sophomore on New Trier’s varsity basketball team. A centerpiece of the team’s young core, he is quickly drawing attention from opposing coaches and colleges, while speeding his way up the steep learning curve of the high school varsity game.

He initially tried basketball in first grade but it didn’t interest him at the time, so he stuck to hockey, playing house league in Glencoe until sixth grade. But his size started working against him on the ice. He was so much bigger than the other players that he’d be sent to the penalty box just for checking. That was when he realized it might be time to give basketball another shot.

“He said, ‘I think I should play a sport where height is an advantage,’” said his mom Eileen, who taught English and Writing at DePaul before starting her own educational consulting business.

His experience playing hockey fed right into the physical aspects of basketball, carving himself out a home in the paint. With his height, skills like defense and rebounding came naturally to him. Hand-eye coordination and basketball IQ were going to take some time.

“The footwork is completely different,” Brayboy said of his transition from hockey. “That was more like strides and quick slash stops and this is more precise and a lot of the little things matter.”

Unlike most of the kids he played with, he didn’t grow up inspired by NBA stars. As a child, Brayboy didn’t watch TV, opting instead to stay active with outdoor activities. So while his classmates were modeling their games after Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, Brayboy was completely self-motivated, learning from the guidance of his coaches and his own experience.

“We’re not the parents who push our kids,” said Brayboy’s dad, Darrell, a licensed acupuncturist who specializes in integrative medicine. “We’re here to give our kids all the tools and opportunity, but it’s up to them to do the work and be willing to do what it takes and that’s the blessing we’ve had with Ciaran.”

Brayboy jumped at every opportunity to get on the court. He went on to play with Hoops for Health, Mac Irvin Fire and the Glencoe travel team that won a North Shore division title. Starting to see high school basketball as a possibility, he tried out for the New Trier eight grade feeder team, where he made an immediate impression.

“I’ve coached kids who were relatively new to the game and I’ve coached kids who are physically imposing at that level, but never the combination,” said New Trier feeder team coach Brendan Pierce, who rarely gets the opportunity to coach someone so tall at that level.

Brayboy made New Trier’s varsity team as a freshman but broke his pinky finger midway through the season. He couldn’t practice or play for eight weeks and felt disconnected from the varsity team, so he asked coach Scott Fricke if he could play with the sophomore team, for fear he would be losing critical development time if he wasn’t playing.

It was that drive, determination and work ethic that made a lasting impression on Fricke.

“The first time I saw him I knew he was going to be a good player,” Fricke said. “You could just tell that he’s got a great motor, the kid works his tail off … You just know he wants to be there. He wants to be great.”

As expected, his sophomore season has seen its share of ups-and-downs as he’s adjusted to the fast, physical varsity game, struggling at times with foul trouble while averaging 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. But he’s shown flashes, highlighted by a 14 point, 10 rebound performance in New Trier’s 57-55 victory over Niles North last month. With New Trier down three, Brayboy scored six of the Trevians’ first eight points of the fourth quarter giving them the lead for good.

“It is not a fun experience facing Brayboy,” said Niles North coach Glenn Olson.  “His size no doubt is a factor, but I am more impressed with his athletic ability and his desire to rebound the basketball.  He has a nice shooting touch … it is no fun going against him now, but two years from now, it will be downright miserable.”

Brayboy has received letters of interest from Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Arkansas and Holy Cross to name a few. And in his words, “it doesn’t really mean anything.” He’s just focused on getting better.

“His progress from last year to this year is ridiculous,” Fricke said. “He’s getting so much better. And there’s a long way for him to go and a lot of upside.”

Photo at top: Brayboy’s combination of height and raw talent makes him a threat in the paint. (Eric Burgher/MEDILL)