Cubs

At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

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At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

Malachi Nix is only 5-foot-6 but he thinks big. Niles North's junior point guard wants to play college basketball and his dream schools are Kentucky, Kansas and Baylor. He is anxiously waiting for his first telephone call from a major Division I coach.

"As a freshman and sophomore, I used to wish I could grow to 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4," Nix said. "As a sophomore, I was 5-foot-6. I think I'm taller now. My mother thinks I will grow. I wear size 12 shoes.

"What would I tell college coaches who think I'm too small? I say I have great leadership qualities, I can score, I can distribute the ball and I try to emphasize intangibles. I work harder every day to get better and I help my teammates to get better."

Nix is averaging 18.5 points and 2.3 assists for an 18-7 team that started 3-4 but has won 15 of its last 18 and its last 11 in a row in the wake of last Friday's 55-51 victory over Deerfield.

The Vikings, who are seeded No. 7 in the Glenbrook South sectional, will meet top-seeded New Trier on Tuesday night in their regular season finale. Last year, they were 24-7 and lost to Warren 56-50 in the supersectional.

Niles North coach Glenn Olson doesn't think Nix is day-dreaming. "He will be a scholarship basketball player. And there is a great possibility it will be at the Division I level. He has great skills. He can break down defenders and distribute the ball," Olson said.

"His height is a hindrance in coaches' minds. But if they watch him over an extended period of time, they will see his positives more than make up for his lack of size. He is a tough kid. His competitive edge separates him from others."

How tough is Nix? In elementary school, he played football, basketball and baseball. At Niles North, he was a 5-foot-4, 110-pound running back on the freshman football team. He was pretty good, too, running for 15 touchdowns to tie the freshman record.

"I loved football but I lost my passion for it," Nix said. "I love basketball and what coach Olson is doing with the program. Last year, I averaged 10 points per game. My role was to score when I could but mostly distribute the ball and get it to Abdel Nader (who averaged 25 points per game last season and currently is a freshman at Northern Illinois).

"But this is my team. At the beginning of the season, the coach told me it is my team. He said I have to be a better leader, more vocal. I've been in the system for three years. I have to show others what they should be doing. I let them know I have been there, I've been to the supersectional, I've done what we want to do as a team. They sit and listen to me."

In his third year as head coach, Olson has put together a solid program at the Skokie school, which had won only one other regional in its nearly 50-year history prior to last year. A 1994 graduate of Rolling Meadows, Olson, 35, grew up as the son of a coach and later coached baseball at Maine South. In fact, his father is now his assistant.

"I fell in love with the game of basketball as a kid. I grew up in the great age of ESPN and I read about Indiana high school basketball," said Olson, who was a freshman B basketball coach at Maine East in 2000, then the head coach in 2007-09 before moving to Niles North.

"I was impressed with what was going on athletically at Niles North, the emphasis on strength and conditioning," he said. "These kids play hard. They are undersized and inexperienced. Only two of them saw the floor last year. But they have accepted their roles. And we have skilled guards who can make plays."

Nix and 6-foot-1 senior Michael Henley (12.3 ppg), who missed the first seven games with a broken hand, and 5-foot-9 senior Jaylen White operate in the backcourt. Up front are 6-foot-4 junior Billy Voitik (5.9 ppg) and 6-foot-1 junior B.J. Beckford (10 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior Eron Washington, who is the backup center, and 6-foot-1 junior guard Lorenzo Dillard, a transfer from Evanston who only recently became eligible.

"If we are going to go deep into the playoff," Olson said, "we must play with great energy and share the ball, which is our strength. We must recognize what a good and a great shot is and play at our pace regardless of the defense. We like to get up and down the floor."

Meanwhile, Nix has learned to deal with his limitations.

"The 5-foot-6 thing is in their (college coaches) minds. It doesn't bother me. I have learned to deal with it," he said. "The most difficult thing on the court is when I get to the lane, I have to be crafty to score against 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-5 opponents. I have to work on floaters and pull-up jump shots, different ways to get the ball to the basket."

Nix watches 5-foot-9 Pierre Jackson of Baylor and 5-foot-11 Ryan Boatright of Connecticut on TV and admires what they do and how they do it. He takes careful notes in his mind. He hopes to be as successful as they have been--and hopes to play at their level.

"They are vocal on the court and get their teammates in good positions to score and be successful," Nix said. "They also are versatile. They can score and pass and are great defenders. They are very coachable, too. I like locking a kid up on defense and I get my adrenaline up when I get a steal and make a basket."

He already has attracted the attention of some colleges. He will attend Cal Poly's elite camp in August. Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wayne State, and Western Illinois also have been recruiting him.

But he wouldn't mind getting a call from John Calipari or Bill Self.

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.