Bears

Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

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Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

Kyle Lindberg was one of the leading soccer players in Illinois for the last two years. The midfielder led Naperville North to fourth place in the state tournament in 2010 and to the sectional final last fall. He landed a scholarship to Illinois-Chicago.

But Lindberg has been playing basketball as long as he has been playing soccer--and almost as well. The 6-foot-2 senior is the defensive stopper on a 13-4 team that has scrapped its way to the top of the DuPage Valley League standings. Who woulda thunk it?

"I like playing both sports but I consider myself better at soccer. I have been playing at a high level for years, traveling teams and AAU," Lindberg said. "Naperville North isn't known as a basketball school. Our motivation this season is to shock everyone."

That's what coach Jeff Powers' team is doing. The Huskies haven't won a conference championship in 14 years and never have advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. In 14 years, coach Dick Whitaker won only one regional title. Coach Mark Lindo won two sectional titles. He was 25-4 in 1994 and 26-3 in 1998. Last year's team was 16-12, losing to highly rated Benet in the regional final in double overtime.

Naperville North, which defeated Rich Central 64-59 on Tuesday night, is used to winning close games. But the Huskies aren't overpowering, have a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts, no one is averaging more than nine points per game and their leading rebounder is 6-foot-2.

"How good are we? Good enough to be 13-4," Powers said. "We're a bunch of guards, only two forwards. We play well and hard together. We have learned how to win close games. It is surprising to everyone that we are in first place in the conference--except to the 16 kids on the team and the four coaches.

"We found out in the summer that they can play well when they play together. They share the ball and play hard on defense. On any given day, any kid can get hot. We shoot well from the three-point line and from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

"Our kids have an edge to them. They felt everyone overlooked them. They were picked to finish sixth in an eight-team race. But they worked hard in the weight room and shot a lot on their own. They wanted to prove to everyone that they were as good as the past two teams. No one believed in them but themselves and the coaches."

What convinced them? When did they begin to open some eyes?

On Dec. 6, when they defeated Benet by four points. "They learned they can win close games. They believed in the scouting report and executed the plan," Powers said.

Also when they demonstrated they could be competitive against the best teams at the York Holiday Tournament. And when they defeated Glenbard East and West Aurora back-to-back.

"That's what really convinced them," Powers said. "They stepped up a level. They knew they could do it. They knew something neat is happening here."

Lindberg and his teammates were excited and driven by the transformation. Naperville North is known as a football school. Coach Larry McKeon, who retired in 2010, won 231 games or 76 percent of his games in 27 years and won state championships in 1992 and 2007.

Now perhaps it is basketball's turn.

"We knew we were losing a lot of players from last year. We knew we had to step up our game to be anywhere near that level. And we don't have a star player like Matt LaCosse last year," Lindberg said.

"But this team has more balance. It is unselfish, works hard and plays together. There are no egos. Personally, in the summer, I was surprised how well we played and how fast we came together. But now I'm not surprised because we are used to it. People are getting behind us."

Lindberg averages only six points per game but Powers describes him as "one of our stars, the key to the defense, our stopper, the guy who plays against the best player on the other team, the one who runs the team on offense."

Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Matt Stacho (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 assists), another relentless defender who covers opposing point guards and scored 16 points in a four-point, triple overtime victory over Naperville Central; 6-foot-5 senior Mike Keane (7 ppg, 5 rpg); 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Derek Westman (6 ppg, 8 rpg), who grabbed 12 rebounds against Naperville Central and 11 in a two-point victory over Danville; and 6-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Rehayem (4 ppg).

Powers describes Westman as "200 pounds of I'll get the ball wherever it is at." He was a guard on the sophomore team last season and also plays tennis.

Surprisingly, the team's leading scorer comes off the bench. Davis Sinikas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, averages 9.7 points per game. An outstanding three-point shooter, he has started more than half the games but needs to improve his defense. Chris Mullin, a 5-foot-11 senior, averages seven points.

Powers, in his third season, is a 1976 graduate of Reavis. He attended George Williams College in Downers Grove but, as the oldest of six children, had to give up basketball after one year to go to work while going to class.

He coached baseball at Hinsdale Central for five years, basketball for one year at Reavis and York, then was hired as basketball coach at Timothy Christian in 1996. He resigned after 11 years and was going back to officiating, which was how he made ends meet since he was a sophomore in college, when he got a call from then York coach Al Biancalana.

He assisted Biancalana for one year, then applied for the Naperville North job when Mark Lindo retired. Was he surprised to get the job? No, because he felt he had built a good reputation at Timothy Christian. Yes, because he hadn't been a head coach for a year. In his first season, the Huskies were 20-7 and lost to West Aurora in the regional final.

"We talk about learning every day, what we have to do to get better," Powers said. "We turn the ball over too much. To win, we have to move the ball from side to side. We are notoriously slow starters. We have to get going at the start of games. I have done all kinds of pep talks. We fell behind Naperville Central 10-0 in the first four minutes and trailed Danville by seven in the first quarter. We have to work on that. We can't do that against good teams in the state tournament."

It is a tiresome clich but Lindberg reminds that the team has an attitude of taking each game as it comes and not looking too far ahead. "That's how we have succeeded so far, being humble," he said.

Lindberg points to the play of Keane, Westman and 6-foot-4 senior reserve Max Lewis under the boards. "We knew we had good shooters and ball-handlers but we are surprised that our post presence has helped us to win games," he said.

"Not many people have taken us seriously. Being picked to finish sixth in the conference motivated us. There is no pressure. We can play loose."

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.”