Bears

Henry's crossover sparks R-B surge

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Henry's crossover sparks R-B surge

A year ago, Riverside-Brookfield's basketball team was 23-6 but Damonta Henry wasn't a part of it. He suffered a broken finger while leaping to block a shot in practice and was forced to sit out until the regional tournament. All he could do was look forward to the 2011-12 season.

"It was pretty frustrating. I couldn't help my teammates. I knew I could help them but I couldn't shoot or dribble," Henry said. "I wanted to work hard in the off-season to get better and help my team go Downstate."

The 5-foot-11 junior point guard dreams of playing in the Big 10. But he said his ball-handling was "kind of shaky," the result of not handling the ball for an entire year. His cross-over dribble wasn't so sharp until he began to watch NBA stars Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook on YouTube.

"I looked at their moves, then went into the gym and practiced them," Henry said. "I see if I can perfect them and use them against people when they guard me. I work on the in-and-out cross-cover dribble that Rose uses. He breaks a lot of ankles. I practice it a lot.

"I fell in love with it when I first saw it and I practice it like crazy in the gym. I watched him against Tyreke Evans in an all-star game when he was a senior at Simeon. It froze the defense. It really caught my eye. I've been working on it and I do it pretty good."

Henry, who is averaging 17 points and four assists per game, has emerged as Riverside-Brookfield's floor leader. In last Tuesday's 72-44 rout of Elmwood Park, Henry scored 14 points for the Metro Suburban leader. The Bulldogs are 17-4 going into Tuesday's game against Timothy Christian. They will play at Glenbrook South on Friday.

"He is the guy who steers the ship," coach Tom McCloskey said. "We need him to have a great last month of the season. There is a lot of pressure on him but he is capable of handling it. He is very versatile. Potentially, he is a Division I point guard."

Henry takes his playmaking and leadership responsibilities very seriously. "I'm playing pretty good in my state of mind. When I'm off, I find my teammates. It isn't about statistics. It's all about winning and finding my open teammates instead of carrying the whole load," he said.

"Each player isn't afraid to take on a challenge. Even though mistakes might happen, they keep their heads high. Our mindset is to go get it and take no one lightly. If we keep it up, we can take it past the regional and go to state."

It will take more than confidence, of course, to punch a ticket to Peoria. R-B hasn't won a sectional title since the west suburban school opened in 1907. McCloskey has won two regionals in a row. He also won in 2002, the school's first title since 1974.

In his second tour of duty at R-B, McCloskey admits he has a better handle on what it takes to win at a school that traditionally has had to battle such traditional powers as Proviso East, Lyons and St. Joseph in its own neighborhood.

A 1972 graduate of R-B, he coached four losing teams at his alma mater from 1990 to 1994. His last two teams were 4-20. He went to Downers Grove North and Hinsdale Central, then was head coach at Montini for four years before returning to R-B in 2001.

His last three teams were 22-6, 24-3 and 23-6. Last year's team lost to Crane in the sectional final. Two years ago, R-B lost to Marshall in overtime in the sectional. This year's team, which has won 10 games in a row, figures to draw a high seed in the Class 3A sectional at Glenbard South, perhaps the most competitive in the state.

"I came in and had a talented group and had an amazing first year. We beat Lyons twice and they had finished fourth in the state tournament the year before," McCloskey said. "Most of these kids have chosen R-B rather than Fenwick or St. Joseph or Nazareth. Now we're attracting good kids."

R-B doesn't have a large area to draw from--Harlem to Kenman, Ogden to 22nd Street, a few miles wide, top to bottom. But McCloskey has persuaded his players to attend summer camps and participate in the Junior Bulldog program. More kids seem to want to be a part of the success. The school has won 10 conference titles in a row.

"We've put together a nice stretch but we are young," McCloskey said. "We're playing a lot of juniors and we have to work on consistency. We don't put teams away like we should when we get leads. We hope playing the regional at R-B will give us an advantage."

With no starters returning from last year's team -- Henry would have started as a sophomore if he hadn't been injured -- McCloskey wasn't sure what to look for in 2011-12. But after winning three of four games against good competition at the York Holiday Tournament and playing a tough early schedule that included Farragut and St. Ignatius, he saw confidence growing.

Now it all seems to be coming together with Henry, 6-foot-7 junior Miki Ljuboja (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg), 6-foot junior Eric Loury (4 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Luke Nortier (12.2 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Louis Marino (5 ppg). Top reserves are 6-foot-2 senior Andrew Hanley (5 ppg) and 6-foot-2 junior Liam Lesniak (4 ppg).

Ljuboja is a budding star who will become a real force when he gets stronger, McCloskey predicts. He is a future Division I prospect who is getting early interest from Loyola and Illinois-Chicago. He scored 12 points in the victory over Elmwood Park.

"Damonta's playmaking and Miki's inside play are the keys for us. And the others understand their roles," McCloskey said, summing up R-B's success story.

Henry also played football when he was young but he stopped playing football after his freshman year to concentrate on basketball. "I was a running back and quarterback. But I like being on the hardwood. It puts a smile on my face. Scoring and doing moves to get my teammates open or to help me get to the basket gives me a big thrill. Nothing in football was comparable," he said.

It finally dawned on Henry that he might have Division I potential when he was playing for the Illinois Hurricanes' AAU team last summer in tournaments at R-B and in Milwaukee.

"I was hitting tough shots and creating and getting through small holes. I knew I could play with the big boys," he said.

Like his coach, he realized his team also had big-time potential at the York tournament. "I didn't play that well. I had a terrible time with my shooting, only 5 of 15 threes. But my teammates picked me up. They knocked down shots when we needed them. They carried the load. I didn't need to. That told me that we are a good team," he said.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”