Bulls

Cubs looking for Starlin Castro to take it to the next level

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Cubs looking for Starlin Castro to take it to the next level

Starlin Castro shrugged off striking out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. Not much seems to bother him, and that has to be considered one of his strengths.

Castro lost that battle to Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford on Monday night and froze at the 96 mph fastball that ended the game. Castros attitude: Next time.

That also broke Castros streak of reaching base safely in 43 consecutive games, which dated back to Aug. 15 of last season.

Keep going, Castro said Tuesday. You got to keep going.

That sums up a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop who thinks Why not? when people ask him about 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame and being the Derek Jeter of the North Side.

If Castro is going to reach those heights or crash the Cubs should get a better idea in his third year in the majors. When team president Theo Epstein talks about parallel fronts, Castro is pretty much at the center of the Venn diagram.

Its a pretty good building block, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Its so easy with him to forget about his age and you think about him as an established guy. Well, hes probably younger that some of the top prospects in the game and hes already hit .300 in the big leagues twice. So sometimes I think we lose sight of that.

Starlin is one of the best young players in the game. Hes already proven at the big-league level (and) we all think theres a lot more in there. I think there is a lot of power in there at some point. Young shortstops make errors. The key (is) concentration. Its every single pitch.

Manager Dale Sveum, an old shortstop, made that a point of emphasis from the first workout in spring training, showing Castro how to gain more ground. Their relationship will be a key part of this rebuilding project.

By October, Castro should have played more than 430 games in the big leagues, perhaps approaching a leadership position within the clubhouse. He will have to cut down on the 56 errors in his first two seasons combined.

Its that time to mature defensively, to mature on the mental side of the game, Sveum said. Hes been very good at responding to everything you ask him to do. I think he realizes that hes going to be held accountable.

Hes pushing himself, putting it on himself, challenging himself each day to see how good he can be on the 100 groundballs hes taken. Thats a big step for any young player to critique himself on his day of work.

For the future of the franchise, Sveum felt it was time to commit to Castro as the No. 3 hitter.

Plate discipline is one area where the Cubs think Castro can unlock some power and take another leap forward. As the Brewers hitting coach, Sveum saw what it did for Ryan Braun (even if some will put an asterisk next to that MVP award).

It just puts you in a whole nother category, Sveum said. The bottom line to hitting home runs is getting a good pitch to hit. Youre not going to hit many home runs if you dont wait for a pitch (where you can) drive the ball out of the ballpark.

Castro found his name in the headlines for the wrong reasons last winter, though people close to him privately insist theres no story there. The kid is still smiling, and really just getting started.

Any player has to (have it) in their own mind that youre always a work in progress, Sveum said. Its just understanding that every single day when we take a field, youre trying to make yourself a better player.

Thats the work in progress, but thats (something) Ive tried to implement with everyone else: Youve never got this thing figured out. You always have to make your skills better every single day or your skills will deteriorate. I dont care how good you are thats just the nature of the beast.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.