Oak Park, Ill. is just a fifteen minute drive on the Eisenhower Expressway from downtown Chicago. 

It’s one of many charming and exceedingly “Midwestern” suburbs that emerged in the greater Chicago area during the city’s 19th-century industrial boom. More specifically, it’s one of the many neighborhoods that Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard is now trying to own — at least when it comes to recruiting. 

The Chicago native has already picked up a 2021 commitment from 6-foot-6, four-star forward Isaiah Barnes, who played three years at Oak Park and River Forest High School before transferring to powerhouse Simeon Academy this summer. 

Howard may not be finished though. 

The Wolverines remain in the hunt for another 2021 four-star forward from the area. On Sunday, Bryce Hopkins of Fenwick High School in Oak Park included Michigan in his “Top 9” list of schools. Standing at 6-foot-7, the former Louisville commit offers a unique combination of size and skill. 

“(Hopkins) is a positionless basketball player,” Fenwick basketball coach Staunton Peck said. “Offensively, he is really strong, has a long wingspan with some huge hands but has guard skills. 

“If you put a guard on him on the perimeter, he can take him to the post and score inside. If you put a bigger guy on him, they can’t handle his quickness on the perimeter and his ability to get to the rim. I think he can play the ‘one’ through ‘four’ positions.”

Despite developing a strong relationship with current Louisville head coach Chris Mack, Hopkins decommitted from the Cardinals in early August due to potential sanctions imposed by the NCAA. 

After reopening his recruitment, Hopkins immediately received offers from a number of schools including Oregon, Kentucky, Providence and Michigan — all of which made his most recent list. According to Peck, in looking for a new school, Hopkins wants to have a strong connection with the coaching staff and “feel like he’s an important piece of their plan.”

Though Kentucky appears to be the early favorite to land Hopkins according to 247Sports, Howard’s connection to Chicago could ultimately factor into his decision. 

“I think it absolutely resonates,” Peck said. “(Howard) can touch upon his high school experience playing there and playing in some of the same tournaments Bryce has played in, and probably against some of the same teams. He can put himself in their shoes which can only help.”

Barnes, who committed to the Wolverines in June, echoed Peck’s assessment of Howard.

“A lot of coaches don’t talk to their recruits,” Barnes said in an interview with The Detroit News. “It’s good to hear from coaches on the coaching staff, but the head coach is the coach you want to hear from and that’ll show you how interested they are in you. … With (Howard), it wasn’t even recruit talk. We had a lot of conversations on how he would help me become a better person. We rarely even talked about basketball. We didn’t start talking about basketball until after I made the decision.” 

This offseason, Michigan also secured graduate transfer Mike Smith from Columbia, another Fenwick High School product. As a senior in 2016, Smith led the Friars to a school-record 28 wins and finished second in Illinois’ Mr. Basketball voting. Smith chose to play for Howard and the Wolverines despite offers from Arizona, Seton Hall and Gonzaga. 

Whether Howard’s Chicago ties influence Bryce Hopkins’s decision remains to be seen, but his name still carries weight in his old stomping grounds. 

“Any connection you make as a college coach recruiting can only be a positive,” Peck said. “… Not that (Hopkins) can’t make connections with other coaches, but it definitely helps.” 

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