Bears

At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

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At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

Malachi Nix is only 5-foot-6 but he thinks big. Niles North's junior point guard wants to play college basketball and his dream schools are Kentucky, Kansas and Baylor. He is anxiously waiting for his first telephone call from a major Division I coach.

"As a freshman and sophomore, I used to wish I could grow to 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4," Nix said. "As a sophomore, I was 5-foot-6. I think I'm taller now. My mother thinks I will grow. I wear size 12 shoes.

"What would I tell college coaches who think I'm too small? I say I have great leadership qualities, I can score, I can distribute the ball and I try to emphasize intangibles. I work harder every day to get better and I help my teammates to get better."

Nix is averaging 18.5 points and 2.3 assists for an 18-7 team that started 3-4 but has won 15 of its last 18 and its last 11 in a row in the wake of last Friday's 55-51 victory over Deerfield.

The Vikings, who are seeded No. 7 in the Glenbrook South sectional, will meet top-seeded New Trier on Tuesday night in their regular season finale. Last year, they were 24-7 and lost to Warren 56-50 in the supersectional.

Niles North coach Glenn Olson doesn't think Nix is day-dreaming. "He will be a scholarship basketball player. And there is a great possibility it will be at the Division I level. He has great skills. He can break down defenders and distribute the ball," Olson said.

"His height is a hindrance in coaches' minds. But if they watch him over an extended period of time, they will see his positives more than make up for his lack of size. He is a tough kid. His competitive edge separates him from others."

How tough is Nix? In elementary school, he played football, basketball and baseball. At Niles North, he was a 5-foot-4, 110-pound running back on the freshman football team. He was pretty good, too, running for 15 touchdowns to tie the freshman record.

"I loved football but I lost my passion for it," Nix said. "I love basketball and what coach Olson is doing with the program. Last year, I averaged 10 points per game. My role was to score when I could but mostly distribute the ball and get it to Abdel Nader (who averaged 25 points per game last season and currently is a freshman at Northern Illinois).

"But this is my team. At the beginning of the season, the coach told me it is my team. He said I have to be a better leader, more vocal. I've been in the system for three years. I have to show others what they should be doing. I let them know I have been there, I've been to the supersectional, I've done what we want to do as a team. They sit and listen to me."

In his third year as head coach, Olson has put together a solid program at the Skokie school, which had won only one other regional in its nearly 50-year history prior to last year. A 1994 graduate of Rolling Meadows, Olson, 35, grew up as the son of a coach and later coached baseball at Maine South. In fact, his father is now his assistant.

"I fell in love with the game of basketball as a kid. I grew up in the great age of ESPN and I read about Indiana high school basketball," said Olson, who was a freshman B basketball coach at Maine East in 2000, then the head coach in 2007-09 before moving to Niles North.

"I was impressed with what was going on athletically at Niles North, the emphasis on strength and conditioning," he said. "These kids play hard. They are undersized and inexperienced. Only two of them saw the floor last year. But they have accepted their roles. And we have skilled guards who can make plays."

Nix and 6-foot-1 senior Michael Henley (12.3 ppg), who missed the first seven games with a broken hand, and 5-foot-9 senior Jaylen White operate in the backcourt. Up front are 6-foot-4 junior Billy Voitik (5.9 ppg) and 6-foot-1 junior B.J. Beckford (10 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior Eron Washington, who is the backup center, and 6-foot-1 junior guard Lorenzo Dillard, a transfer from Evanston who only recently became eligible.

"If we are going to go deep into the playoff," Olson said, "we must play with great energy and share the ball, which is our strength. We must recognize what a good and a great shot is and play at our pace regardless of the defense. We like to get up and down the floor."

Meanwhile, Nix has learned to deal with his limitations.

"The 5-foot-6 thing is in their (college coaches) minds. It doesn't bother me. I have learned to deal with it," he said. "The most difficult thing on the court is when I get to the lane, I have to be crafty to score against 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-5 opponents. I have to work on floaters and pull-up jump shots, different ways to get the ball to the basket."

Nix watches 5-foot-9 Pierre Jackson of Baylor and 5-foot-11 Ryan Boatright of Connecticut on TV and admires what they do and how they do it. He takes careful notes in his mind. He hopes to be as successful as they have been--and hopes to play at their level.

"They are vocal on the court and get their teammates in good positions to score and be successful," Nix said. "They also are versatile. They can score and pass and are great defenders. They are very coachable, too. I like locking a kid up on defense and I get my adrenaline up when I get a steal and make a basket."

He already has attracted the attention of some colleges. He will attend Cal Poly's elite camp in August. Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wayne State, and Western Illinois also have been recruiting him.

But he wouldn't mind getting a call from John Calipari or Bill Self.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?