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Poulakidas pours in points
for Neuqua Valley
By Patrick Z. McGavin

Optimism was the default position for Neuqua Valley star John Poulakidas at the start of the new year. What better way than to prove your special value than against one of the state’s best programs?

The night was vivid, clear and profound. On a Wednesday evening in early January at Bolingbrook, he achieved a near state of perfection. 

Funny enough, his greatest individual performance almost never got on track.

A high-scoring wing for for the Wildcats, he combines size, length and court vision to make him one of the most sought after Illinois high school basketball players in the class of 2021.

His defining characteristic is his almost preternatural ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor. The left-hander has a graceful, though sometimes funky, game that creates just the right amount of separation off a screen or allows a step-back move to get his shot off.

“It is great to have him on the team,” Neuqua Valley guard Max Rivera said. “He is a very reliable player. He is obviously one of the best players in the state and arguably the best shooter in the state.”

Naturally, being a shooter, his game is predicated on rhythm and confidence. At the start of the Wildcats’ game against the hyper quick, athletic Raiders, Poulakidas was a bit out of sorts.

He missed his first three attempts. “He was in the wrong position on the floor,” Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said.

His next attempt was clean and beautiful -- something came over him, a surge of adrenaline, a hyper clarity. What happened next was, quite frankly, extraordinary. Poulakidas found his spots on the floor and magic ensued.

Baseline, the top of the key, the elbow jumper, everything flowed. He scored the Wildcats’ first 17 points and 21 of their first 23 points. Poulakidas made 10-consecutive baskets during one juncture, including four three-pointers.

He scored 26 points in the first half. It stayed that way in the second half, punctuated by a stretch of making 15 out of 16 attempts. The only shot he missed during the streak was a deep three-ball that rimmed out.

The game itself was an electric marvel with a furious Bolingbrook comeback, late Neuqua Valley turnovers and some rare misfortune for Poulakidas -- some cramping on his left leg after he came down awkwardly on a shot attempt. 

Poulakidas missed shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime. He found himself late with a renewed burst of energy. 

With teammate Connor Davis, he made the crucial plays that secured the Wildcats’ 94-89 double overtime victory. He finished with a personal best 49 points, which erased the program record of 40 points.

“He should shatter our (career) scoring record,” Sutton said. “He is much stronger than he was as a sophomore, and he will be able to compete better at this level. 

“He has great basketball smarts.”

Poulakidas personifies a purity and grace as embodied by his form and shot. 

That is the game-changer.

“I have always been a shooter, but a big emphasis for me was developing how to impact the game in multiple ways, especially during those games where my shot might not be falling,” he said.

At 6-foot-5, the wing has the size to play closer to the basket and the playmaking and creativity to work on the perimeter.

His development has been linear, steady and impactful. In his first high school season, his raw ability catapulted him immediately to the varsity level.

“My freshman year I was a learner,” Poulakidas said. “I was taken under the wing of a lot of seniors as the only underclassman on the team that year.

“It was just about soaking up as much as I could from the players and coaches. As a sophomore, being the only returner, I had to be more of a leader and I had to work on my mental toughness.”

As a sophomore he averaged 15.5 points a game.

The Bolingbrook game was the touchstone, the one that optimized his special talents and showed his special gifts. Part of his development was learning how to cope with the special attention he commanded.

As the Wildcats’ number one offensive option, Poulakidas was the object every opposing coach and defense sought to neutralize. 

He has been exposed to every defense imaginable: box and one; zones; traps; denial; aggressive man-to-man; and most significantly a constant double team.

“I do have to deal with the repercussions of my name,” he said. “I work on that, because I know the defensive attention, the double teams the ball denial, are coming every game.”

He has flourished despite it all.

In his junior year, Poulakidas averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals. He earned all-conference and first team all-area recognition by the Naperville Sun.

His individual success played out in the framework of the Wildcats’ standout season. Neuqua Valley (25-9) won the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, went 4-0 at a Martin Luther King Shootout in Sterling and won a Class 4A regional.

His junior ended with the Wildcats’ sectional semifinal loss against Lockport. Two days later, the IHSA cancelled the remainder of the boys state tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 scuttled his spring plans. The club season was cancelled, and the Wildcats were forced to shutter their summer basketball camp.

What is normally the most solitary and comfortable place for him -- the school gym -- is now just another school area filled with an eerie silence.

“I have just been taking the time to work out every day, especially in the weight room,” he said.

“I would say the biggest thing since we can’t get back into the gym is making sure individually I am at the top of my game so when we do come back together, we can pick right back up where we left off,” he said.

College coaches have been attuned to his game from the beginning, drawn to his diverse skill set, his composure and cool under pressure.

His main attraction is his scoring prowess, especially his outside game. Poulakidas shot 38 percent on three-point attempts last season. 

He made 76 three-pointers.

Poulakidas has nearly 20 Division I scholarship offers—from the Big Ten to the Mid-American Conference and Ivy League.

Yale, Minnesota and TCU have been the most persistent suitors. DePaul, Loyola, Iowa State and Arizona State have also been a constant presence.

“Last fall I took some unofficial visits to some colleges, and the plan was to take some official visits this spring.

“The circumstances did not allow that to happen.”

The upending of the traditional recruiting process has created a different timeline.

“I was hoping to narrow down muy list of choices,” he said. “What happened instead is that some new programs have been reaching out to me.

“That makes it hard to narrow with these new programs and new faces.”

As he alluded, the uncertainty has also energized and liberated Poulakidas. He is on his own time. What he brings to the game is a special ability, and that is always a beautiful commodity. 

His ability to space the floor and bend the game to his will is a meaningful talent. He is definitely going places. His love for the game radiates in all directions.

“I play for my guys here,” he said, talking about his friends and teammates. 

“When I am able to give them a great pass or get a steal and I see the smiles on their faces, that only feeds me more and more.”
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