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Anthony Davis' rise is unprecedented

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Anthony Davis' rise is unprecedented

Imagine, if you will, Bob "Mr. Baseball" Uecker going from a lifetime .200 hitter to a .350 slugger with 50 homers and 150 RBI in one year. Unlikely? Improbable? Impossible? Not even in the steroids era, right?

Pure fantasy.

Now imagine an 18-year-old kid from Chicago's South Side going from an obscure 6-foot-1 guard to a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking version of Bill Russell, a freshman star in one of the nation's premier college basketball programs and a virtual lock to be the No. 1 choice in the NBA draft--all within a period of about 18 months.

It happened.

Anthony Davis has gone from being an unknown player at an unknown school on Chicago's South Side, Perspectives Charter School, to a high-profile, nationally recognized star at Kentucky, the nation's top-ranked team. And you can't get any more high-profile than that.

He was a 6-foot-1 guard in the summer of 2010, then grew nine inches in 10 months. He became a household name on the AAU circuit and, despite doubters who pointed out that Davis was playing against inferior competition in the Chicago Public League's lowly Blue Division, was ranked among the top 10 prospects in Illinois in the class of 2011. He averaged 32 points and 22 rebounds per game and earned McDonald's All-American recognition.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, who sent another famed Chicagoan (Derrick Rose) to the NBA, marvels at Davis' talent, comparing him to former Massachusetts star Marcus Camby. "Anthony is ahead of Marcus at this stage. Marcus was good but not like this as a freshman," Calipari said.

Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com, who has been evaluating high school players for more than 30 years, also marvels at Davis' skills. He said he never has seen another player develop as fast, from nowhere to stardom.

"The closest would be Shaquille O'Neal, who was an unknown 6-foot-7, 225-pound power forward between his sophomore and junior years who we saw at the BCI summer nationals. At the time, we rated him a Mid-Major prospect with potential talent.

"The next time we saw him he had grown to 6-foot-11 and 245-pounds and he was well on his way to becoming the Shaq we all know and was definitely a High-Major talent and a future No. 1 prospect and a McDonald's All-American. He showed what four inches and 20 pounds can do."

Coleman claims Davis, a 6-foot-2 wing guard who most thought was a Low-Major prospect, was even farther away from being a must-see on every college recruiter's travel agenda.

"He added eight inches to go with his perimeter skills to become the top prospect in his class," Coleman said. "For most of us, we didn't get to see him as a guard. So his rise was unprecedented in that he went from a virtual unknown to top 10 to top prospect."

Old-timers who have observed Chicago basketball since the 1950s have compared Davis to former Manley and Purdue star Russell Cross, another 6-foot-10 shot blocker who led his team to a state championship in 1980. Cross was a two-time All-Stater who put Manley on the map.

But Coleman said Davis' skill set reminds him more of former Farragut star and future NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. "He can face the basket and score from three or off the dribble from 15 feet or finish with a dunk at the rim. He isn't as polished on the blocks but his jump hook is coming," he said.

"Like Garnett at this stage, he is on the skinny side. But he should add 10 to 15 pounds over the next couple years to give him the stamina to compete at the NBA level. He, like Cross, is a superior shot blocker and that will allow him to be an effective defender down the road where he can play off bigs and not have to use his body to control opponents. But he will use his ability to change their shots with his length and quick bounce to affect their game. Plus his ability to score facing the basket, like Garnett, will make him a tough match-up at the NBA level."

Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye observed Davis as much or more than any coach or recruiting analyst during his senior year at Perspectives and they, too, marvel at how he has developed into one of the most outstanding players in college basketball--as a freshman. And they are just as surprised as anyone else.

"We don't think anyone can say that they saw this coming, at least not so fast," Roy Schmidt said. "We realized how good Davis really was the June before his senior season when he dominated top talent at the elite DePaul team camp. But did we realize he'd be that good that fast? Probably not. Easy for anyone to say after the fact that they did. But this kid completely came out of nowhere. We've never seen anything like it and may never see anything like it again. It is one of those once-in-a-generation stories."

But after watching Davis for the first time for only five minutes at the elite DePaul team camp, the Schmidt brothers immediately rated him as the No. 1 player in Illinois in his class. No one else was even in the discussion.

"We also felt that he was the top player in America, as we had seen nobody on the national circuit yet who could do all of the things that Davis could do," Roy Schmidt said.

"Nobody, and we mean nobody, knew of him in the summer of 2010 except Tai Streets and his Mean Streets people," Harv Schmidt said. "But unless they were told that Davis would grow nine inches in 10 months, we doubt if any of them saw it coming. And how many kids grow that fast without being awkward and clumsy?

"But if you are talking about from last spring to now, we are not surprised that Davis will be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. When we first saw him, there was no doubt in our minds. At 6-foot-10, he could play point guard almost as good as Penny Hardaway. He was so fluid, got his shot off against everyone, handled the ball like an all-star guard, had unlimited range, but yet could also cause havoc inside with an unstoppable fadeaway post shot, run the floor and block shots like nobody we have seen since Kevin Garnett."

Today, watching him block shots and run the floor and intimidate opponents while playing for the nation's top-rated college team, it is easy for critics to acknowledge his enormous and still developing talent. But in the summer of 2010 and even during the 2010-11 season at Perspectives, playing against the likes of Juarez and Wells and Best Practice, few scouts believed a superstar was emerging on the horizon.

"Until you saw him for the first time, you had to wonder whether Davis was the product of vintage hype and Internet hyperbole," Roy Schmidt said. "Everyone is trying to discover the next phenom, the next Michael Jordan. Any scout with any credibility is at first naturally skeptical until you see for yourself.

"Plus, the 'big game' and 'big event' scouts have a tendency to exalt kids who shine at these events. Then there is nowhere to go but down. We've seen lots of kids get hurt by this and lots of recruiting mistakes made as a result. But when we first saw Davis play at the DePaul elite team camp, it took only five minutes to make up our minds. We both said: 'He is a future No. 1.' Not too many scouts miss a sure-fire No. 1."

Former Collinsville star and all-time Kentucky great Tom Parker, who still lives in Lexington and has four tickets to games in 23,500-seat Rupp Arena, also is very impressed by Davis' performance.

"He is an amazing young man," Parker said. "He is a great player and I love his demeanor on the floor. He's an amazing story with the growth spurt that he went through. What a great future he has in store. What a great attitude he has and what a great team player he is. He is one of a kind. It is neat that we can claim Anthony as one of our own."

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.
 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.