- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Crete-Monee's Ray Lester knows there were plenty of times last season when his teammates could have passed him the ball, but opted not to.
Lester never held it against them. If he was them, he admits he probably would have done the same. His confidence in his game was as shot as theirs.
A year ago, Lester was unstoppable to a point in the post. The problem wasn't establishing position inside, catching the ball or maneuvering around or over a defender for a quality shot. His deficiency was actually putting the ball into the basket. Near or far, Lester had trouble scoring.
"Last year, he was missing point-blank shots," Crete-Monee coach Rocky Hill said.
It was a weakness that Lester attacked in the offseason. He spent hours breaking down his interior game with his father and his Orange Crush club coaches. They worked on his balance, his footwork, his post moves and his shot.
As he put in the time, the motivation was always easy. Lester saved an article from the previous season that named the players to watch at the Big Dipper Tournament, and it included all of Crete-Monee's starters except for him.
That article is still taped to his bedroom door. The difference now is he has established himself not only as a player to watch at the Big Dipper, but one to keep an eye throughout the entire state.
With season averages of 22 points and 10 rebounds, Lester, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week, doesn't have to worry any longer about teammates' passes bypassing him.
"He's a beast," Hill said. "He's really playing at a big-time level right now. He's kind of surprised himself. He's kind of surprised our coaching staff. We thought he was going to good, but not this good. Sometimes kids mature, and they hit their stride. I think that's the case with big Ray."
Lester slowly saw improvement in his game over the summer while playing with the Orange Crush. But it wasn't until he put up 28 points and 16 rebounds against an opponent at the Mac Irvin Back to School Jam at UIC in September that Lester finally believed he truly arrived as a dominant player.
Lester had become the full package. He is 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds. He is strong and physical, but also quick and athletic. He possesses a variety of post moves and can step out a few feet to shoot. Most importantly, he was finishing.
"I was dedicated to proving everyone wrong," Lester said. "There were a lot of reports going out that I was soft and undersized. I had a lot of things I needed to step up. I didn't look at it in a negative way. It's not hurting me. It just points to what I need to work on. I take it as inspiration to prove everyone wrong."
If Lester had any doubters entering this year's Big Dipper Tournament, they were gone by the end. In the opener, he had 23 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in a win over Shepard. On Day 2, he had 22 points and 10 rebounds in an overtime win over Leo.
Then came the Rich South game. Crete-Monee had lost to Rich South two weeks before, and Lester had 17 points and 16 rebounds in that defeat.
This time was different. Lester scored a career-high 37 points to lead the Warriors to a 73-68 overtime win over Rich South. He scored inside. He knocked down perimeter jumpers. He was 11-for-11 from the free throw line. It was the first time in his career he was perfect from the line.
"I don't think I went into it thinking, 'I got to completely take over,'" Lester said. "At the time, I was just doing what I had to do. It was just what we needed most. I was just trying to do my best to produce. I didn't realize what I had done until we were getting ready to leave, and someone told me I had set the tournament record for points. I was like, 'Wow."
Hill had the same reaction.
"The Rich South game was scintillating," Hill said. "He looked like he was a man playing against boys in that Rich South game. They had no answer for him."
Neither did Hales Franciscan in the championship. He added another 22 points, nine rebounds and three steals, but his teammates couldn't back him up, and the Warriors had to settle for second place.
With Lester having such nights against some of the area's best competition, it appears he could be a steal for his future school, North Carolina A&T. Early in the recruiting process, he had his share of looks. Late into it, North Carolina A&T was the one program that remained with him.
"I'm sure they're ecstatic to have him," Hill said. "He's playing now like he's a high-major type of player. I mentioned to him, 'Are you disappointed you committed early?' He said, 'No.'"
For Lester, it's all about loyalty.
"There wasn't anyone else giving me a chance," Lester said. "Places were not returning calls; schools were pulling out. The thing that makes me confident about my decision is now I'm starting to get calls from the big schools, and A&T was there from the beginning. They wanted me when I was just Ray Lester, and nobody knew me. That's where I belong. I would rather continue to be the underdog that nobody wants."
This weekend Lester will likely be considered the underdog again when he and Crete-Monee go up against North Lawndale and its post presences of 6-5 Jermaine Winfield and 6-11 Paul Bunch at the Martin Luther King Dream Classic at Whitney Young.
"People are having been asking me, 'How do you think you're going to do against Paul?'" Lester said. "I don't like to be cocky, but I don't feel like I should be worried about anything. If I'm confident in what I can do, and if I can perform as I should, I shouldn't have any fear."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crete-Monee's Ray Lester honed his skills and has emerged as an impact player.