Bulls

Dickey Simpkins' AAU circuit continues success

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Dickey Simpkins' AAU circuit continues success

When a group of parents tried to convince Dickey Simpkins in 2006 to form an AAU team, he was skeptical. The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit, held in the spring and summer for high school basketball players to improve skill and increase exposure for college recruiters, was not something Simpkins wanted to get into.

Many of the programs he had seen, both in his playing days in Washington D.C. and as a development coach in Chicago, were run half-heartedly. Many programs acted more as individual showcases for star players rather than teaching athletes team unity and basketball fundamentals. Players would compete only when they wanted to, and there was little, if any, structure to many of the games.

But at the eleventh hour, Simpkins, who used three AAU area championships to earn and accept a scholarship to Providence College in 1990, had a change of heart and accepted the parents offer to start a team of his own from scratch. Six years later, National Level Performance is one of the most competitive and well-run AAU programs in Illinois.

I said the only reason Im doing this is to show how its supposed to be done, Simpkins said of his first team. I played AAU, and I took philosophies of doing things the right way and to work hard and applied it to our teams. The biggest thing was to get the right kids and show them how to play the right way.

Simpkins pieced together his first under-17 team using any and all resources, eventually placing 15, 16 and 17-year-olds together to compete that summer against Chicagos best AAU programs.

So it was only fitting that, six years later, NLPs most recent team started a 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds on their way to a second place finish in the U17 National Championship in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The Arkansas Wings defeated Next Level Performance-TL 53-29 on Monday in the finals.

But Simpkins noticed that team, and the other eight NLP teams that are now running, were not brought up and coached like many of the programs they defeated on their way to the championship game.

NLP functions much like a college program would, one aspect Simpkins instilled early on to prepare high school athletes for the next stage of their careers. Film sessions, individual skill development, nutritional advice and mentoring on more than just basketball has made NLP more than a team playing in tournaments across the country for national exposure.

We watch them during the high school season and see if theyre a fit for what were trying to do, that they fit the system. And what their personality looks like, if he could buy into what we do, Simpkins said. Ultimately we try to find hidden gems in the rough, which shows true development and structure of the program.

There are no lucrative shoe deals. Structured offenses include all five players and coaches form relationships with their players that last long after their time at NLP is finished. Simpkins wanted his program to be more than a stepping stone from high school to college.

When they finish I want to make sure I see theyve improved on the court and off it, that theyve grown into a young man and matured with skill development, Simpkins said. And the other part is seeing them buy in to what we try to do to help us win.

And win they have.

Teaching defense first, then transition offense and structured half-court sets, NLP has placed six times in national tournaments and produced more than 30 college players in the six years since Simpkins founded the program. Brandon Paul, a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois and current shooting guard at the University of Illinois, was part of Simpkins first team as a 15-year-old sophomore.

And this years championship runner-up team should add to that list of college athletes.
6-foot junior point guard Jordan Johnson (Waukegan H.S.) has strong interest from Bowling Green, Eastern Illinois and Loyola.6-foot-1 sophomore shooting guard Jevon Carter (Proviso East H.S.) has scholarship offers from Illinois State, Kent State and Mercer.Sophomore power forward Evan Boudreaux (Lake Forest H.S.) has offers from Northwestern and Boston College.Small forward Kurt Hall (Proviso East H.S.) has interest from Oregon State, Iowa, Boise State and Virginia Tech.The six-year NBA veteran from 1994 to 2000 is involved with the recruiting process, giving college coaches insight and scouting reports to potential recruits. That, for Simpkins, is the end result of the additional work he and his staff put in during practice and off the court during springs and summers.

The end result, the icing on the cake is the scholarship offer, Simpkins said. At the end of the day this is why Im helping these kids. And it pays off.

The philosophies Simpkins has brought to Next Level Performance have been instrumental in building a strong foundation to the program. Those ideas stem from his AAU playing days in Washington, D.C., and from his mentor and coach, Tony Watkins, who stressed team unity amongst all players and coaches.

After games, Simpkins said, When we bring it in we say, we win as a family, we lose family, and at the end of the day we are a family.

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.