Bears

Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

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Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

There is no telling how good or even how big Sean O'Mara could be. The 6-9, 235-pound sophomore from Benet Academy in Lisle is only 16 years old and has started only 11 varsity games but he already is being touted as the No. 40 player in the nation in the class of 2014 by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com.

"He has a chance to be a special player," Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. "He is coming into his own. He hasn't finished growing yet."

"He has the makings of being a star," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye, "even if he is still a bit unproven."

Unproven and virtually unknown until recently. As a freshman, he sat behind Wisconsin recruit Frank Kaminsky on a 29-1 team that was ranked No. 1 in the state before losing to East Aurora and Ryan Boatright in the sectional. He experienced his combat duty working against Kaminsky in practice. He suffered bumps and bruises but learned his lessons well.

Now O'Mara is making a name for himself. He is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game and dishing out his own brand of punishment. He was named most valuable player of the Plainfield North tournament. A local newspaper selected him as player of the week. Every school in the Big Ten is making inquiries.

"It's his first time in the spotlight and he's just getting used to it," Heidkamp said. "He is handling it very well. He understands the team comes first. We knew he would be a major factor this year."

O'Mara has been playing basketball since he could walk. He played one-on-one with his mother in the driveway. He always has been taller than his classmates and his doctors tell him that he has "a bunch of room left in my growth plates."

"I am hoping for seven feet," he said. "I'd be happy with that."

Here is another piece of first-hand information about O'Mara that basketball fans who already are wondering which college he will attend would like to know: North Carolina is his dream school.

"I have family members who live there and a cousin will go there next year," he said. "I have roots there. I liked watching Tyler Hansbrough play in every game while he was there. I want to have a chance to consider them."

That said, he hasn't made any commitments. He isn't even thinking about the recruiting process. Not yet. After all, he has more than two years of high school competition remaining. He has only begun to feel what it is like to face the basket or take a shot from 15 feet.

"How do I evaluate myself?" he said. "I need to be more consistent. If I was watching myself, I don't know if I would offer me. But I have played against Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young's 6-10 star who is rated No. 2 in the class of 2014 by Coleman) in AAU and I know I can play against him.

"My coach has given me a heads-up, preparing me for college recruiting. I don't know if I'm ready for it. As a sophomore, I'm just doing the best I can do. But I want to make sure the college coaches come to see me. Hopefully, when the time comes for them to see me, I'll be ready."

O'Mara learned to play the game the hard way. "Every day in practice I got to go up against a Division I center (Kaminsky). He beat me up a lot. But I learned how to defend and cover the entire lane and how to defend the three-point shot," he said.

"I came into this season with a lot of confidence. Working against (Kaminsky) made me realize a lot of guys I will face won't be as good as Frank and it will be easier for me to work down low. I have two more years of this. I have plenty of time to get better with it (dealing with playing in the spotlight) and learning how to deal with it."

He began to realize he might have a bright future in basketball when he played with Benet's varsity during the summer before his freshman year. He got more playing time as the summer went on and found himself playing high-low with Kaminsky on occasion. "The coach thinks I can do something with this team," he said to himself.

How does O'Mara compare to Kaminsky?

"Frank played inside and could face the basket. That's why he is a good fit at Wisconsin," Heidkamp said. "O'Mara is a low post player."

"Kaminsky is more perimeter oriented. He excels at facing up and being able to knock down shots from three-point range. That is why he is ideal for (Wisconsin coach) Bo Ryan's system," the Schmidt brothers said. "O'Mara is much more of a back-to-the-basket player and more physical. They have contrasting styles but both have the ability to be very good college players.

"There are striking similarities at the same stage of their careers...stamina issues, toughness issues, incredible touch, good hands, good passing skills. O'Mara is stronger but does not run as well. His defensive mobility isn't as good as Kaminsky. But he is more developed as a post player."

One of the first colleges to recognize O'Mara's potential was Illinois. Going into his freshman year, he participated at a summer shootout in Champaign and attracted the attention of Illini assistant coach Jay Price.

"I realized they are interested in me for basketball. It was a shocker. After all, I was only a freshman in high school," O'Mara said. "But I started to hear about other AAU kids who were getting offers. It was motivation for me. I was motivated to do the same thing."

O'Mara also is motivated to lead his team to the state finals in Peoria, something that last year's powerhouse team failed to do. The Redwings are 10-1 going into Tuesday's game against St. Joseph in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

Outsiders might be surprised by Benet's early-season performance. After all, the only returning starter from a year ago, 6-5 junior Pat McInerney, broke his wrist in the opening game and won't return until January. A role player last season with Kaminsky and Dave Sobolewski taking most of the bows, McInerney is expected to be a double digit scorer this season.

"We're not surprised by being 10-1. A lot of us feel we should be 11-0. We lost to Naperville North by four points and we didn't play very well," O'Mara said. "We're waiting for McInerney to come back. We could compete with last year's team. We are able to do as much damage as they did."

In McInerney's absence, everybody has picked up the slack. Other starters are 6-foot senior point guard John Enochs (10 ppg, four assists), 6-3 senior guard Griff Hanekamp (9 ppg), 6-2 senior Joe Schuessler (6 ppg) and 6-6 senior Bobby Wehrli (8 ppg). Other contributors off the bench are 5-11 senior Nick Mankowski, 6-2 junior Jack Toner and 6-6 senior Matt Clements.

"People don't realize that these kids played against Kaminsky, Sobolewski and last year's starters every day in practice," Heidkamp said. "They played 90 practices against two kids who are in the Big Ten. It helps to elevate your game. They are better than people realize."

Heidkamp, 41, in his fourth year as head coach at Benet, already is recognized as one of the best coaches in the state. A 1988 graduate of St. Patrick, he played for the legendary Max Kurland and also coached one year with Kurland before he retired. He served as assistant to St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey for eight years, was head coach at Nazareth for three years, then returned to St. Patrick to assist Bailey for three years before landing the head coaching job at Benet.

"I knew the history," he said. "I knew it was a great school and a great opportunity. I knew the basketball tradition was very strong. I couldn't wait to accept the challenge."

He is looking forward to the challenge awaiting at Proviso West. He is eager to find out some things about his team as they prepare for the conference season and state tournament beyond.

"Last year, we went to Proviso West looking to win the tournament, which we did. This year, we're playing against a lot of athleticism and we'll find out a lot of things about our team," Heidkamp said.

"We'll find out about our ability to handle pressure, to play transition defense, to play in front of a big crowd. Will we have poise or will we get caught up in the excitement? The experience will be positive with the conference and state tournament in front of us and McInerney coming back in January. He will make us better in every facet of the game."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

The Bulls square off against the Sixers tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live. Here are three things to watch as the Bulls begin the stretch run of their regular season.

1. The new rotation: Most of the Bulls’ rotation looks the same, but the addition of David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will have a different feel. The Bulls clearly want to get a look at these guys before the end of the regular season, meaning they’re not just going to get sporadic minutes. They’ll have to play through their mistakes, play out-matched at times and be put in uncomfortable situations. But the Bulls need to see what they have, especially in Payne, who has missed the entire season to this point with a broken foot.

2. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: They’re quite the 1-2 punch and have the Sixers looking at their first playoff appearance since Derrick Rose hadn’t yet torn an ACL. Yeah, that’s a long time. Embiid just finished his first All-Star appearance (starting in his second year) and Simmons is the front runner for Rookie of the Year. The Bulls will have their hands full with these two. Luckily…

3. Kris Dunn is back: The Bulls wanted to get Dunn some run before heading to All-Star Weekend to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he looked healthy in that thumping against the Raptors last week. The good news is John Paxson says Dunn won’t be on a minutes limit, which means he’s healthy. That, of course, is more important than how he’s playing. It’ll be fun to see him, LaVine and Markkanen play together down the stretch. Their numbers together aren’t great, but the Bulls are 2-2 with all three in the lineup, and tanking or not…it’s more fun to watch when those three are rolling.