Bulls

Taft revives memories of the past

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Taft revives memories of the past

Kevin Siudut wasn't around at the time, of course. But Taft coach Brett Nishibayashi constantly reminds his players of the good old days, when Taft dominated the Chicago Public League's Red-North, when coach Frank Hood's teams won 21 or more games for six years in a row, when Kenny Pratt was one of the best players in the state, when Pratt and Enoch Davis and the 1992 team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in the city playoff.

"When you look at the trophies in the case by the gym, you see what Taft used to be," said Siudut, a 6-foot-6 senior. "You see that and you think we should be doing it, too. We know Taft used to have a history where it owned the Red-North and went deep into the city playoff. We want to add to that.

"We see this season as a special opportunity. We want to make this season our own. The coach gives us quotes to us in the morning and gets our minds in the right place for practice and games. He always talks to us about what Taft used to be, about Kenny Pratt."

Siudut has a scrapbook full of his coach's quotes, about 90 of them according to his latest count. Each morning, he hands a quote to each player. If someone fails to pick up his quote, it means an extra suicide drill in practice.

"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard," is one of Siudut's favorite quotes.

He knows what hard work is all about, on the basketball floor and in the classroom. He is an International Baccalaureate student. He has an excessive workload of challenging curriculum, beyond the Advance Placement level. He has a 3.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 31 on his ACT. He is interested in several Division III schools and wants to study business or accounting or financing.

"I'm a math guy. That's my thing," he said. "The IB program is a very rigorous program that gets you ready for college. It involved a lot of projects. But I also want to play basketball in college."

Siudut got bit by the basketball bug while watching Michael Jordan in his last years in the NBA. "He gave me a love for basketball. I started to play in the Biddy League, as much as I could," he said.

"I also played football, soccer and baseball when I was growing up. But I always knew basketball was my favorite sport. In basketball, anything can happen. A team that isn't supposed to win can win."

But academics always have been important, too.

"I always felt I was smart, that if I focused in school I had a lot of potential to learn," Siudut said. "The IB program kicked me in the butt, but it taught me a lot. It was tough in the beginning to adjust because it was so tough, especially with three hours of basketball practice, then three hours of homework. Now I realize how good it was for me."

Basketball has been fun, too, bouncing back from last year's 14-16 finish. Taft is 16-7 after starting 0-4. The Eagles have lost only three times since Thanksgiving and have won their first Red-North title since going to the Elite Eight of the city playoff in 2001. Awarded the No. 3 seed in the Public League tournament, they will face Jones on Wednesday in the opening round.

"We find a way to win," Nishibayashi said. "When Taft became a neighborhood school, the demographics changed. We used to get kids from the west, more athletes. Now the athletes go to Loyola, Notre Dame, St. Patrick, Lane Tech or Whitney Young. They have a lot of options. We have become the last resort in a lot of respects.

"All I am doing is being honest. When I talk to parents, I'm upfront with them. If you want to be a part of something, rebuilding a program that once was competitive in the city, I tell them, come to Taft. We are changing the culture. Kids have bought into my program. I don't want us to be a good team. I want us to be a good program.

"We were close to getting over the hump the last couple of years. But we have to learn how to win games. It is getting contagious. Now the kids believe they are supposed to win these games. I'm a big believer in hard work. All the coaches I've played for were big on working hard. If you work hard, you will get the results that you desire."

Nishibayashi, 33, a Taft graduate of 1997, played for Frank Hood. He was a 5-foot-5 guard who understood that he lacked physical tools so he had to be cerebral to be effective. He also worked for Bosko Djurkovic at Carthage College. Now he works for his father, Nick Nishibayashi, the athletic director at Taft who coached the basketball program for eight years.

"I played and worked for people who influenced me and propelled me into coaching," said Nishibayashi, who is in his fourth season after succeeding his father.

"This isn't perfect but it is very persistent. The kids believe they can win and compete. They are all blue-collar kids. Character is a big part of why we are winning. These kids feel like they are supposed to win. They play hard, play smart and play together. They believe if you play the game in the right way, you'll win more times that you don't."

Siudut, who averages eight points and eight rebounds per game, is part of the success story. Other starters are 6-foot-5 sophomore John Joyce (15 ppg), whom the coach targets as the team's only potential Division I prospect, 6-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (16 ppg), 6-foot-2 junior guard Josh Doss (11 ppg) and 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Kuehn (2 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Pozzi (3 ppg), a foreign
exchange student from Italy.

"This team is the first time in a while that all the kids work hard on both ends of the court," Siudut said. "We have a lot of fun. Winning is a lot of fun for us. We're a very close group of guys. We play for each other and have each other's back at all times. Playing for a team like this makes you want to hustle and dive for loose balls and stop the fast break. You know there are four other guys on the court and you want to do it for them."

He sensed this would be a special team since the end of last season, when Taft lost to a good Notre Dame squad without one starter. "It sent a message. We took a lot of momentum from last year. We had a good summer in a couple of leagues against quality teams like Oak Park," he said.

"Once the school year started, I knew it would be a special year because everyone was working hard. We even started conditioning a month before the season began."

"We don't shy away from good competition," Nishibayashi said. "Three of our first five games were against Zion-Benton, Notre Dame and Evanston. I wanted to change the culture with this group, make them understand what Taft used to be, that it wasn't a doormat, that it used to own the Red-North in the 1990s.

"Taft always won when I was growing up. I watched Kenny Pratt. He was as good a player as there was in the city. His All-America stuff is in the trophy case with the team picture of the Final Four team in 1992. We want to get back to the way it was."

NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

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NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

When the Bulls announced the draft night trade sending three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, John Paxson said the front office would be "patient and methodical" in adding to their young roster with an emphasis on building through the draft.

Now, halfway through the 2017-18 season, will the Bulls’ decision makers decide to ramp up the rebuild based on what they've seen so far from the 3 players acquired in the Butler deal, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn?

Even though LaVine's only played two games, it's clear he won't have any psychological hurdles to overcome following ACL surgery on his left knee, and his physical skills are still off the charts. The 20-year-old Markkanen has been drawing rave reviews from players and coaches around the league for his combination of athleticism and elite shooting ability. If the 2017 draft had a do-over today, Markkanen would probably go no lower than 3rd. Meanwhile, Dunn currently ranks 3rd in the NBA in steals while showing some of the offensive skills that made him the 5th pick in the 2016 draft.

So, with three young building blocks already in place, should the Bulls continue to focus on patiently and methodically building through the draft, or should they try to get back into the playoffs next season by adding veteran talent through free agency?

Depending on what moves the front office makes before the February 8 trade deadline, the Bulls could have somewhere between $30 to 40 million available to spend in the free agent market this summer. We know LeBron James or Paul George aren't walking through the door to the Advocate Center, and the Bulls probably aren't interested in some of the other headliners in the 2018 free agent class, including DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

A good chunk of the Bulls’ cap space will go to re-signing LaVine to a max or near-max extension, but the Bulls can still be aggressive in free agency this summer by waiting to sign LaVine until they complete their other moves, meaning only LaVine's cap hold will be on the books.

Looking at the Bulls roster, Paxson and Gar Forman have done a good job of adding solid young players at just about every position. Small forward could probably use an upgrade, especially another explosive athlete who can create his own shot. With that in mind, how about Denver's Will Barton? He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the Nuggets failed to sign him to an extension last fall. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging a career best 14.4 points and is ideally suited for the fast-paced offense Fred Hoiberg favors.

Other wing players who could be good fits for a young and improving team include Detroit's Avery Bradley, the Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Philadelphia's J.J. Redick, Boston's Marcus Smart, Utah's Rodney Hood, San Antonio's Danny Green, the Clippers’ Lou Williams, Denver's Wilson Chandler and the Grizzlies' Tyreke Evans. Of course, the Bulls could also decide to keep their powder dry until 2019, when the $14.3 million salary of Robin Lopez comes off the books.

By now it's pretty clear the Bulls won't be adding a top-3 pick in the 2018 draft unless they get lucky in the lottery. There are definitely some talented players in the 5 to 12 range, including Texas big man Mo Bamba, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges, Kentucky's wing duo of Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo, and the Michigan St. forward tandem of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges. All of them look like NBA starters with high end potential, and would be nice additions to the Bulls’ rotation.

The real question is, when does free agency factor into the Bulls' rebuilding plan? If the front office is convinced they already have a potential Big 3 in place with LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn, the strategy for this summer may look a lot different than what Bulls fans envisioned on the night of the Butler trade.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

-- Monday night's Rockets-Clippers game might have raised the bar for NBA drama. Chris Paul making his return to Staples Center after being traded to Houston last summer for a package of role players. It became obvious from the outset that Paul wasn't very popular with his teammates on the way out of L.A. Clippers’ bench players were heckling Paul throughout the game, and Blake Griffin got in a couple after the whistle shoves on his former L.A. co-star.

Before the game was over, Griffin exchanged expletives with Rockets' coach Mike D'Antoni and later Griffin and Houston forward Trevor Ariza were ejected after Ariza menacingly marched towards the Clippers bench where injured guard Austin Rivers had been yelling at Houston players all night.

When the game ended, three Houston players reportedly tried to get into the Clippers locker room through a back entrance to go after Rivers and Griffin. Security was able to prevent the incident from escalating even further, but L.A. police were called in to make sure nothing happened when the Rockets walked to the team bus.

Clearly, Paul alienated a lot of his former Clipper teammates with his heavy-handed approach, but what happened at Staples Center on Monday came dangerously close to an incident that would have embarrassed the league for years.

-- We've clearly reached the dog days of the NBA season. Teams are tired at the halfway point, and the trade deadline is still over three weeks away. Still, it's hard to ignore what's happening in Cleveland right now with the 3-time defending Eastern Conference champs dropping 9 of their last 12 games.

The Cavs rank near the bottom of the league in all the major defensive metrics, and the return of Isaiah Thomas hasn't given the offense the jump-start everyone expected. Beat writers in Cleveland are now expecting first year general manager Koby Altman to make some kind of major deal to turn things around, but realistically, which players on the roster hold a lot of value in the trade market?

Cleveland would love to pry Paul George loose from Oklahoma City, but unless Thunder management is convinced George will bolt for Los Angeles this summer, it appears they're determined to ride out the season with their underachieving Big 3 of George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.

The Cavs could probably swing a Tristan Thompson and their own 2018 1st round pick for Clippers' center DeAndre Jordan, but does that really improve their chances against Golden State in a possible Finals' rematch? Until the Cavs' players commit to working harder on the defensive end, this will be the most vulnerable playoff team we've seen in Cleveland since James returned for the 2014-15 season.

-- Finally, did you see the painful video of 76ers rookie guard Markelle Fultz trying to shoot at a recent practice? The No. 1 pick from the 2017 draft has played sparingly this season because of a mysterious shoulder ailment, but the team hasn't given many details about the injury, and it appears his problem might be more psychological than physical. Fultz now has a hitch in his shot, and releases the ball around chest level, which means he has no chance to be an effective scorer at the NBA level.

The 76ers know all about redshirt seasons after watching Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons miss their rookie campaigns and Joel Embiid sit out his first two years. But if Fultz can't find his shooting form again it will be a huge loss for the organization after they traded a future lottery pick to long-time rival Boston to move up from 3rd to 1st last June.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen reached 100 career 3-pointers made faster than any player in NBA history. Our stats guru Chris Kamka came up with this interesting list of how long it took the top long distance shooters to reach the century mark.

8 players in NBA history have 2,000 or more 3-pointers made

Other notables...

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Back to the strange saga of 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz suddenly losing his shooting ability. Head Coach Brett Brown was asked whether Fultz had to be 100% recovered from his shoulder injury to return to the court, and his response indicated how serious Fultz's shooting problems have become.

“What he needs … to be, is able to shoot a basketball.” 

“It is my understanding there is still some discomfort from time to time, but that is part of recognizing there is still some sort of erratic shooting, and it is not where it used to be yet.”

Watching Fultz shoot a basketball right now is kind of like watching Charles Barkley swing a golf club, and that is not a comforting image for hoops fans in Philadelphia.

Ryan Hartman and the Blackhawks seem to be enjoying their bye week

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USA TODAY

Ryan Hartman and the Blackhawks seem to be enjoying their bye week

The Blackhawks are in the midst of their annual bye week during the NHL season, and they seem to be enjoying it.

Despite an ugly end to their pre-bye schedule, a 4-0 shutout loss to the Red Wings on Sunday afternoon, players went their separate ways to enjoy the break.

We found a handful of Blackhawks in Mexico - about as far away from ice as you could get - working on their tans and golf games.

Ryan Hartman’s Instagram captured a few pictures, and a video of himself teeing off shirtless, and shoeless. We're guessing they get a little more leeway on the course than you or I would.

This is the second year that all teams have at least a five-day break in their schedule. Perhaps it will allow the Blackhawks to reset and make a run at the postseason.