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AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

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AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

How bad was the basketball class of 2012 in Illinois? Was it an aberration or a hint of things to come? Will it all be forgotten when the highly touted classes of 2013 and 2014 graduate and go off to college? Or is it a forerunner of something that could devastate the sport locally?
A survey by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com reveals, to no one's surprise, that few Illinois products from the class of 2012 were recruited by major Division I programs. In fact, not a single one was signed by any of the top 20 schools on Coleman's list of the leading recruiting classes.Champaign Central's Jay Simpson committed to No. 23 Purdue, Evanston's James Farr was signed by No. 28 Xavier, Hyde Park's Fabyon Harris (by way of Community College of Southern Idaho) was signed by No. 32 Texas A&M and Simeon's Steve Taylor was signed by No. 35 Marquette. Taylor was generally regarded as the No. 1 player in the state in the class of 2012."We do think that 2012 was a cyclical thing, one bad year, not reflective of any downward trends in Illinois high school basketball talent," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye."The classes of 2013 and 2014 are both loaded with talent. However, we believe there is a downward trend of developing and nurturing young talent in this state."Illinois, more than any state in the nation, over-hypes young talent. The Internet landscape and the Chicago media are just awful with it. Everyone wants to discover the new young talent and is ready to anoint them before they even play one organized team game."The Schmidt brothers trace the problem to AAU programs that don't have enough time to conduct routine practices and youngsters who spend all of their time on Twitter and negotiating recruiting websites to see where they are ranked locally and nationally. And that doesn't begin to take into account the parental involvement."Too many parents are caught up in rankings and exposure instead of making sure their kids develop their games and do what they need to do in the classroom," the Schmidts reported.
"So when adversity comes on the court and in the classroom, the kids do not handle it and everything suffers. So raw talent doesn't get developed and nurtured. This is the downward trend in Illinois talent, not a drop-off in talent but a drop-off in developing talent."AAU or summer or travel basketball has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, kids played American Legion baseball in the summer or went on vacation with their parents. There were no 7-on-7 leagues or summer basketball leagues or private clubs like Meanstreets, Warriors, Fire, Wolves or Rising Stars. Kids wore Chuck Taylors or Converse All-Stars, not Nike or Adidas or Reebok.Then Sonny Vaccaro met Phil Knight and Nike organized its grassroots basketball program in the 1980s. Mac Irvin and Larry Butler were pioneers and built strong AAU programs in Illinois. And Nike began subsidizing high school coaches from coast to coast, including King's Landon Cox. All of a sudden, a monster was born.Butler's Illinois Warriors program began to lose its dominance when Butler's affiliation with Nike ended. Therefore, recent Warriors teams have taken on a different focus with the majority of the roster made up of players who are low-Division I and small college prospects.
"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it -- the bottom line is that without having a big-name shoe company behind you, it is that much tougher for an AAU program to attract marquee players and thus maintain an elite status," the Schmidt brothers said."In our opinion, the main objective of any successful program should be player development. As far as the state of Illinois goes, no program is better in that area than the Illinois Wolves. Just look at some of the past Wolves who continued to develop and get even better once they got to college -- Evan Turner, John Shurna, Chasson Randle and David Sobolewski. They will tell you that it was the result of the training and instruction that they got from Wolves coaches."Despite the decline in talent in comparison with his past teams, Butler also knows how to develop players. Two excellent examples from the class of 2012 are Curie's Devin Foster and Elgin's Kory Brown."At the beginning of last summer, we would have told you that neither player was a Division I prospect," the Schmidts said. "But now it is a different story. Brown had a fantastic season in leading Elgin to the sectional finals. Foster was the glue to Curie's success. Both were All-Staters and both now stand a good chance of landing at a Division I school. Playing for the Warriors during the past spring and summer certainly played a part in that."The Mac Irvin Fire has always sported as much talent as any AAU program in the state and always will because of its strong relationship with influential Chicago Public League coaches and their ability to attract top players from throughout the city. Mike Irvin runs the program in place of his late father but the beat goes on."Player development has never been a strong suit of the Irvins, which is why the past knock on the program has always been that there are chemistry issues," the Schmidts said. "But that has begun to change as the result of the Irvins bringing other coaches on board who are much stronger in the areas of instruction and skill development."Meanstreets, co-founded by Tai Streets and Carlton Debose, has succeeded and prospered because they have established a high talent level to go along with a tremendous amount of unity that Streets and his coaches have been able to generate among their players and also parents and high school coaches in the south suburbs."Everyone is on the same page," the Schmidts said. "They buy into Streets' philosophy and it is a true community atmosphere. In addition, Streets will not take a player who is known to have off-the-court issues and is perceived as being a 'bad kid.' Many of his best players over the years, including Jerel McNeal, Maurice Acker, Joevan Catron, Brandon Ewing and Anthony Davis, were model citizens as well."The Illinois Wolves, founded 14 years ago by Mike Mullins and based in Downers Grove, doesn't enjoy the luxury of a Nike or Adidas or Reebok sponsorship. But the Wolves and Meanstreets sent more kids to college and produce more college graduates than any other program in the state. College coaches, who rightly or wrongly judge the success of a travel program by the number of college recruits that it produces, are aware that the Wolves and Meanstreets develop kids who qualify academically and are productive at the college level.
College coaches often criticize summer programs because they don't teach fundamentals, leaving them to train many incoming recruits from scratch. But that isn't the case with most players who are graduates of the Wolves and Meanstreets programs."We have been to a Wolves practice," Roy and Harv Schmidt reported. "They are like well-oiled high school practices. They teach and run drills. Mullins has high school coaches like Carl Maniscalco and Frank Kaminsky. Many AAU programs are run by 'daddy coaches,' parents and handlers who pursue an agenda of getting their kids exposure with certain college programs."But these people have little credibility when it comes to coaching, development and training. They get media people and website administrators representing colleges that have an interest in recruiting their kids to over-hype their kids to the point where they have nowhere to go but down. The development never seems to catch up to the hype."Unfortunately, the Schmidt brothers believe this trend if becoming more and more of a problem that has to be reversed. "If not, in four or five years, Illinois could have the reputation of being the most overrated state in the country. It is far from that now but the trend has to be reversed," Roy Schmidt said.Another issue is the colleges themselves. As it is today, they are trying to establish "feeder programs," much as major league baseball has a minor league development system. They seek to establish close relationships with certain high-profile clubs that have a history of producing big-time college prospects, and try to persuade them to steer their best players in their direction and they will take care of the youngster...a la make sure he gets a scholarship, is accepted to the college, stays eligible and is prepared for the NBA. It's all part of the package."Producing players for the NBA should not be nor ever should be criteria for judging the ultimate success of an AAU program," the Schmidts said. "Anyone who makes that a priority is in it for the wrong reasons and you have to question their ultimate motives. The criteria for success should be preparing student-athletes for the rigors of college, both on and off the court. Future graduation rates of players should be criteria."Mullins was encouraged to organized the Illinois Wolves when his son Bryan, who later played at Southern Illinois, was in fifth grade because, at the time, there were very few travel programs available for kids of that age. Some of Bryan's friends wanted to play together and Mullins, who had coached basketball at North Central College in Naperville, decided to get involved."My philosophy is to try to produce a well-balanced player and help with his personal development," Mullins said. "We do skill work on the basketball court and do grade checks and provide a place where all kids can play whether they can pay or not. We have never charged kids. We felt charging kids to play was discriminatory."Now Mullins, who grew up learning how to play the game at Ray Meyer's camp in Wisconsin, has four teams and 44 players in his program. Of his first nine classes, over 100 went to Division I colleges. They have earned over 13 million in scholarships."Our mission is to help produced academically, athletically and socially qualified kids who are pursuing high school and college basketball dreams," Mullins said. "I have never worried about the perceptions of summer basketball. I am confident of what we have done. Our best recommendations come from the players who have played for us."Summer basketball has come a long way since the days of Ray Meyer's camp. Mullins believes it is mostly for the better. "It allows more participation than in high school. It allows more instruction and allows the players to compete outside their area and gives them more recruiting exposure. They aren't just limited to Midwestern schools," he said."In addition, there is a high level of coaching. The kids play against a better caliber of competition than in high school, against other Division I prospects. It is the same trend in all youth sports in the last two or three decades, including soccer and swimming and tennis and volleyball for boys and girls. More kids are getting more opportunities than ever before."

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

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USA TODAY

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

We heard a lot about "learning experiences" during the White Sox 100-loss 2018 season.

It was Rick Renteria's way of describing the to-be-anticipated growing pains for highly touted players spending their first full seasons in the major leagues. Fan expectations were high for the likes of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada, and by very few measures did those players — some of the first of the organization's bevy of prospects to reach the South Side — live up to those expectations.

But that doesn't mean that those players' seasons were devoid of value. Renteria, the White Sox and the players all expect these "learning experiences" to have long-term benefits. In other words, it's the struggles now that will help these players succeed and create the planned perennial contender on the South Side.

So if those "learning experiences" were so valuable, what did these guys learn?

Giolito finished his first full season in the bigs with a 6.13 ERA, leading baseball in earned runs allowed and leading the American League in walks. What did he take from what looked from the outside like a disappointing season?

"I think I learned the most from my worst starts this year, the ones where I didn’t make it out of the first, didn’t make it out of the second," Giolito said before the end of the White Sox season last month. "Just going out there not having the right mindset from the get go and allowing the game to speed up on me really quickly, there’s maybe two, three, four games where that happened. And obviously I came out of those games upset and frustrated, but now looking back on them from this perspective at the end of the season, I really learned the most from those.

"Entering every single start, I get roughly 32 of them a year, make sure that I’m prepared, I’m ready to pitch, my routine is set and I’m following it to a ‘T.’ And over the second half of the season, I started to put up better numbers, put up more competitive starts just through that process of earlier in the year grinding and grinding and not doing well. I learned a lot about myself in that process as a pitcher and as a competitor."

Certain numbers don't exactly show a drastic improvement from one half of the season to the other: Giolito's ERA prior to the All-Star break (6.18) and after it (6.04) were pretty much the same. He had a much improved August (3.86 ERA in six starts) and a rough September (9.27 ERA in five starts).

But again, the 2018 season wasn't about what the numbers look like now. It was about what those numbers will look like a year or two or three from now, when the White Sox make their transition from rebuilding to contending.

"You go out there and you don’t get the job done, you’re knocked out of the game early, looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Now I know what doesn’t work.’ And I’m able to make those adjustments and the changes to the routine and the changes to mindset and things to be able to go out there," Giolito said. "I’m not going to have my best stuff every day. Some days I might not feel right and might be battling myself a little bit. But it’s being able to make that quick adjustment, not letting the game speed up. That’s the biggest thing.

"At this level, you go out there and you’re not feeling right in the first inning, it might be three runs, four runs on the board before you even know it. And I think getting that experience, getting to pitch every fifth day for an entire season and having a ton of downs and starting to figure it out more toward the end, it’s gaining that experience and learning what works and learning what doesn’t."

Throughout the season, Renteria complimented Giolito for the pitcher's ability to move on from rough beginnings to starts and turn in a five- or six-outing despite the early trouble. Giolito did a good deal of that throughout the season, with longevity during starts rarely being an issue, even if the run totals were high. Only six of his 32 starts in 2018 were shorter than five innings, and the percentage of his starts that lasted six and seven innings increased from the first half of the season to the second.

And then there are the walks, and there was a significant decrease in the amount of guys Giolito was putting on base between the first and second halves of the season. He walked 60 batters in 103.1 innings in the first half for a BB/9 of 5.2, compared to 30 batters in 70 innings in the second half for a BB/9 of 3.9.

So there were positives for Giolito to take from his 2018 campaign.

"The second half of the season, bouncing back from what I was doing. Cutting down on the walks, starting to pitch better, pitch more consistently. Even games when I wasn’t sharp, I was getting hit around, not doing so well, I did a better job of at least giving the team a chance, getting a little bit deeper into the game," he said. "So I’d say those are some of the highlights, learning from the mistakes and learning from the failures and within the season being able to make the right adjustments to be more successful."

On Opening Day, Giolito talked about how different a pitcher he was more than a year after joining the White Sox organization. One full season in the big leagues, and Giolito is again a different pitcher. It's that continuing evolution that the White Sox hope will make him a mainstay in their rotation of the future.

"More experience, more mature. I’m no longer really fazed by the big situation. If I get into trouble in the first inning, I’m not worrying about it or thinking about it or how I screwed up the last at-bat, last pitch, I walked a guy, gave up a double, whatever it might be. Now, what’s in the past is in the past, even when I’m out there," he said. "If I mess up a couple pitches, I know the adjustment to make and I’m going to do my best to make that adjustment without it taking a couple innings or even never making the adjustment the entire start, which is what was happening through April, May, June.

"Just getting that experience and learning to make those adjustments on the fly. I’d say that’s what I’m really taking away from this year."

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.