Bears

AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

600388.png

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."

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

4-16mattnagy.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

0520-reynaldo-lopez.jpg
USA TODAY

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.