Ranked 25th nationally in the Class of 2020 by ESPN.com, Fenwick sophomore DJ Steward is an elite basketball player.
In 2017, he played a pivotal role as a precocious freshman for the Friars. Fenwick finished 30-5 and advanced to the Class 3A state championship game. Although Fenwick lost that game 69-67 in overtime, Steward was brilliant. The 6-foot-2 swingman shot a perfect game, going 10-for-10 from the field (including a pair of 3-pointers) and 4-for-4 at the free throw line to finish with a game-high 26 points. He also had seven rebounds and four steals in one of the best performances by a player in state finals history.
Factoring in the loss of Jake Keller and Jamal Nixon to graduation last year plus his own maturation process, Steward became more of a leader this season.
“Jake and Jamal trusted me with the ball and were very encouraging last year,” Steward said. “This year was much more pressure because I was face guarded every game. But getting denied the ball has made me a lot better since I’ve worked on creating my own shots. I learned a lot from Jake and Jamal about how to lead and make others around me better.”
The Friars’ season came to an end via an 83-70 loss against Proviso East in the Fenton Regional championship game on March 2. Trevor Moore scored a game-high 37 points for the Pirates, who essentially led the game from start to finish with excellent long-range shooting. Steward scored 26 in the loss.
Steward, an Oak Park resident, averaged 19.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals this season. He also shot 52 percent from the field and 41 percent from the 3-point arc. He was voted the Chicago Catholic League Player of the Year and a first-team selection at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Despite a disappointing postseason for Fenwick, the future remains bright for Steward. He is focused on making his upperclassmen years memorable ones.
“This summer will be another big one for me,” Steward said. “I’ll be playing with MeanStreets for AAU and grinding all summer with them. I’ve got to work out, get stronger and continue to develop an aggressive mentality. The key is staying in the gym and being a gym rat.”
Steward’s work ethic and talent have already paid dividends with scholarship offers from DePaul, Illinois and Georgia Tech, among others. While Steward will continue to be heavily recruited by Division I schools, until he makes his college decision, his primary focus is Fenwick.
“I’m just trying to stay in my books academically and always remain humble,” he said. “I pray to God that he will lead me through high school and help me make the right college decision. I just have to stay focused.”
Steward is exceedingly grateful for Fenwick and Coach Rick Malnati’s stellar basketball program. He appreciates every moment as a Friar.
“Off the court, I love Fenwick because I get to meet and learn about people from all different areas,” Steward said. “On the court, it’s special to play the game I love with my brothers. Coach Malnati is one of the most important people in my life. My family, Coach Malnati, my old coach Tim Anderson, and my teammates have shaped me into who I am.”
While he has a tendency to make highlight reel plays, the selfless Steward’s fondest memory is of a teammate’s timely shot.
“My favorite moment at Fenwick so far was this season against Brother Rice,” Steward said. “AJ Nixon hit a buzzer beater and the whole team played music and celebrated after (the game).”
Fenwick basketball fans have a lot to look forward to with Steward leading the team for the next two seasons. He appreciates their support.
“I feel like we have one of the best student sections in the state for basketball,” Steward said. “They give us great confidence every game. It’s fun to play hard and win games for your school.”
Steward and Morgan Park guard Adam Miller are clearly regarded as the two best sophomores in Illinois. The two met this year in mid-January at the When Sides Collide Shootout at Glenbard East. Morgan Park won the game 76-67 as both Miller (32 points, 9-for-11 3-pointers) and Steward (20 points, 10 rebounds) put on a show.
Those are the kinds of matchups between teams and individuals Steward will experience over the next two years.
Already a state finalist and conference MVP, Steward’s best days at Fenwick are in the foreseeable future.