Bulls

Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

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Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

SAN DIEGO Josh Vitters hadnt watched the play that put him on SportsCenter.

Vitters dove to his right and fully extended his body, sliding over the third-base line. He hopped up and fired to first to beat Cameron Maybin, who was fast enough to steal 40 bases last season for the San Diego Padres.

That was only the first groundball Vitters had ever seen in the big leagues, and that reaction in the sixth inning on Monday night loosened him up a little bit. It seemed like an answer to all the questions the Cubs have about his defense.

That made the highlight reel, but the more revealing moment probably came hours earlier, when he approached third-base coach Pat Listach and asked to take extra groundballs before batting practice.

Vitters didnt realize that you had to clear it first with stadium officials to reserve the field in advance. But there he was on Tuesday at Petco Park, taking groundballs hit by Listach, and thats essentially where hell be some five hours before every game the rest of this season.

I know that my hittings going to be there regardless, Vitters said. My defense is whats going to take me to the next level.

Theyve told me what I need to do. So Im going to do everything and more and see what happens. (Lets) see where my abilities and the skills that I can learn up here take me.

Thats the entire point of the final eight weeks of the season, whether or not Vitters finds himself in the lineup that night. He came off the bench on Tuesday and collected his first big-league hit, a two-run double in a 7-4 loss to the Padres.

Baseball America ranked Vitters as the best pure hitter among high school players in the 2007 draft, and it has been a slow, steady climb for the No. 3 overall pick since then.

Vitters will turn 23 later this month, and though he didnt look at this as a make-or-break year, he did wonder what the regime change at Clark and Addison could mean for him, where he fit into Theo Epsteins rebuilding plan.

I thought about it a little bit Im not their guy, Vitters said. They didnt pick me or maybe dont even like me. But that was before I even met the people. It was a great experience getting to meet them at the Cubs Convention and speaking (directly) to them. They made me feel really comfortable and really didnt put any pressure on me. I think thats what allowed me to excel and play up to this level.

Vitters went out and developed into a Pacific Coast League All-Star in his first season on the Triple-A level, hitting .304 with 17 homers, 68 RBI and an .869 OPS at Iowa.

By Sunday, Vitters was running on no sleep and flying with Brett Jackson from Des Moines to Dallas to Los Angeles we were kind of like zombies on the plane and making their big-league debut at Dodger Stadium.

That was pretty neat, Jackson said. Weve come up through the minors together and I like to say Ive taken him under my wing as my little brother. But I had some stuff to learn from him hitting this year. Man, that guy can hit.

Vitters was only 17 years old when the Cubs drafted him out of Cypress High School in Orange County, Calif. The Cubs felt like he would benefit from his friendship with the self-assured Jackson, who is almost a year older and went to Cal-Berkeley.

Vitters is also tight with Anthony Rizzo. As teenagers, they played together on an elite travel team in national tournaments. Back then, Vitters was a bigger name than Rizzo, who fell to the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round.

Vitters understands the changing nature of expectations, how you should never believe the hype, whether youre a stud or a bust. Cubs fans keep gazing into the future and breathlessly awaited the arrivals of Rizzo and Jackson. The future is now, so its time to go to work in an empty stadium.

It sounds like its just going to be like that until we have a contending team, Vitters said. Theyre always going to want the next best hot thing thats coming up until we can put together a team thats going to be winning lots of ballgames.

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.