White Sox

Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

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Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

Thornwood's Khapri Alston received same sage advice from his father, his uncle and his assistant coach. The 6-foot-3 senior absorbed all of it, like taking a big spoon of Castor Oil. All of a sudden, the "man in the mirror" began to resemble Superman on the basketball court.

According to coach Paul Slavich, Alston is "an unheralded, overlooked and undersized big man" who is "the glue that holds us together. If he was three or four inches taller, every Division I school would be after him. He is only 6-foot-3 but he plays like he is 6-foot-7."

Alston has been on fire in recent games. He had 26 points and 13 rebounds against Bradley, 23 points and 15 rebounds against Rich South and 17 points against Stagg. In Tuesday's 57-55 upset victory over Andrew, he scored 13 as Thornwood clinched at least a share of the SouthWest Suburban Red championship.

After being held scoreless in the first three quarters, Johnte Shannon popped in a three-point shot with 11.5 seconds to play as Thornwood claimed its first conference title since 2002. Darrell Combs led the Thunderbirds with 24 points. It was Andrew's second loss in 23 games and spoiled a bid for its first conference title.

Thornwood (19-6) can earn an undisputed crown by beating district rival Thornton on Friday night. After an 0-2 start, the Thunderbirds have come on strong against a very competitive schedule and are seeded No. 6 in the Lockport sectional with Bloom, Andrew, Homewood-Flossmoor and Crete-Monee.

"I like that we are jelling together and coming together as a team,"
said Alston, who likely will attend Northeast Community College in North Fork, Nebraska, to get his academics in order and prepare for a Division I college.

"I'm just playing my best for the team, just doing whatever I have to do for us to win. They are going to me more. If I don't have a shot, I kick it out. I get in position for rebounds. I know I have to play at a higher level because we are going into the playoff."

Alston, who is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game, traces his increased late-season production to "just being more aggressive."

"I knew I was playing lower, worse than I can," he said. "I know I can play better. I wasn't playing to the best of my ability. I wasn't doing everything I could. I wasn't being a leader. I had to step up for the team."

A few weeks ago, Alston's father told him that he should grab every rebound that comes off the rim. "I can do that," Khapri said.

His uncle said he was playing down to the competition, that he wasn't playing up to his potential.

And assistant coach Shawn Finnan told him to look in a mirror. "Ask yourself: Are you playing to the best of your ability? Are you looking at the man you want to be? Are you doing everything right?"

"I had a reality check," Alston said. "I started to play at a higher level. Even though most defenders are taller than me, I know I can play with anyone. I don't look at myself as being less than anyone else."

Alston is complemented by 6-foot-1 senior guard Darrell Combs (14 ppg), who has signed with Loyola, 5-foot-10 senior guard Johnte Shannon (12 ppg),
5-foot-8 senior point guard David Fuller (3 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-foot-7 senior center Ahmad Baine (4 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Marcus Agee and 6-foot senior Justin Kennedy.

Slavich is in his second season at the South Holland school. Last year's team was 16-12 and lost to Plainfield Central by one point on a last-second shot in the regional semifinal.

But Slavich isn't a rookie. A 1986 graduate of Thornwood, he played for coach Al Holverson. He has taught and coached in the school system for 17 years. He assisted former Thornwood coaches Kevin Hayhurst and Bob Curran.
When people talk about Thornwood's tradition, he knows what they are talking about.

In 2001, Thornwood and Eddy Curry were favored to win the Class AA championship but lost to Schaumburg in the state final and finished 32-2. In 2003, Eric Gray and Maurice Montgomery led the Thunderbirds to a 27-6 record and second place. In 2006, Tre Blue and Reggie Hamilton led a 25-8 team to fourth place in the state tournament. In a period of four years, Thornwood won 25, 32, 27 and 27 games.

"We want to do what those teams did. We have the same type of team that they had. We can make a run like they did," Alston said. "What impressed me about those teams is they played together like a family. It wasn't just one player. Everybody on our team wants to accomplish what those teams did."

Slavich believes his team is good enough to win the sectional. "We have played tough competition. We had the lead at some point in every game we have lost. But it didn't work out for us. We're getting better. Our kids are coming around. They want to make a run like the old Thornwood teams. They have the tools to do it," he said.

"I've talked to them about the past, about the experience of going Downstate, what those teams did well, how they played with the lead, how they played smart, how they didn't go up and down the court like a gym class. We stress how important each possession is in playoff time. They can make a difference in winning a game. It is important to understand what the other team is trying to do."

As Luis Robert keeps blasting balls into space, the White Sox team of the future is near

As Luis Robert keeps blasting balls into space, the White Sox team of the future is near

We're all just going to have to assume this was a home run.

The video evidence is sketchy, considering Luis Robert hit a ball so hard, so high, so far that cameras were unable to capture it leaving the park.

Robert's feat of strength Monday night is just the latest to get everyone all revved up over his inevitable major league future. The revving will perhaps have to wait through the winter, though. If the way the White Sox handled Eloy Jimenez (and his accompanying service-time questions) last year is any indication, the team might opt to finish the 2019 campaign without Robert making his big league debut. And while there are indeed good arguments to be made about the experience that Robert would get in a month or more at the major league level in 2019, there's a pretty convincing argument to be made involving the White Sox being able to employ this elite baseball player for as long as possible.

There will be plenty of folks upset if the White Sox do with Robert what they did with Jimenez, but go ahead and watch that highlight again, think about 2020 and feel better. Because if anything, it shows that the White Sox team of the future is as close to a reality as it's ever been.

That's not to say that 2020 will most definitely be the year the rebuilt White Sox start their reign of terror atop the American League or that a dynastic vice-like grip on the sport is a lock once Robert reaches the bigs. But the contention window we've been discussing for three years now could start to open as soon as next season. And while this year will feature another frustrating finish without a playoff appearance and without a winning record, the pieces are mostly in place to bring to life those roster projections every South Side baseball fan has been scribbling since Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded away after the 2016 season.

Catcher

James McCann has been a heck of a find by Rick Hahn's front office. His transformation from non-tendered Detroit Tiger into an All Star threw the future of the position into question, in a good way, providing an alternative to wait-and-see prospects, however highly thought of they might be.

McCann slumped hard to start the second half, contributing to the White Sox post-break blues. But he's been fantastic once more in August, heading into Monday's game with a .377/.431/.623 slash line to go along with a pair of grand slams in the last week.

And that's just at the plate. Behind it, McCann has earned rave reviews for the ceaseless work he does with the team's pitching staff, getting a never-ending stream of compliments from fellow All Star Lucas Giolito. Under team control for 2020, bringing him back is a no-brainer for Hahn.

First base

Jose Abreu is aging, but that hasn't stopped him from driving in runs. Like McCann, he slumped hard out of the All-Star break, and it remains true that he's heading for career lows in on-base percentage and walks. But he's also on pace for career bests in home runs and RBIs, a pace aided by a titanic blast to center field Monday night at Target Field. That three-run drive helped the White Sox take down the Minnesota Twins and showed how dangerous Abreu still is in the box, as if his two-homer night last week against the Los Angeles Angels didn't do that job.

Of course, it's his off-field contributions that might be the most valuable to this young White Sox team. With Abreu as the mentor for Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Robert, the White Sox could combine the talent with Abreu's unmatched work ethic, getting a fleet of mini Abreus. That certainly sounds worth a new contract for the soon-to-be free agent, and all signs have pointed to him being back with the team all season long.

Second base

Robert's teammate down in Charlotte is doing his own job raking. Nick Madrigal, last summer's first-round draft pick, would be the one getting fans all worked up if wasn't for Robert's nightly superhuman exploits. Like Robert, Madrigal is playing at his third level of the season. Unlike Robert, Triple-A isn't going quite as swimmingly as Double-A. With Birmingham, Madrigal was unreal, batting .341 with a .400 on-base percentage. He's cooled off a bit with Charlotte, the owner of a .290 average and a .367 on-base percentage through Monday night's contest.

But he's still north of .300 and .360, respectively, on the season as a whole, and that goes along with what the organization projects could be Gold Glove caliber defense at second. It makes for another thrilling prospect that folks can't wait to see at the major league level, and Madrigal's time figures to come not too deep into the 2020 season.

Shortstop

Tim Anderson's breakout year continues. Like McCann, Anderson's bat has also been electric in August, with a .411/.434/.548 slash line on the month coming into Monday night, when his streak of five straight multi-hit games was snapped. If not for a month-long injury absence, Anderson would be chasing a batting title.

And, importantly, while his walk numbers still leave plenty to be desired, a guy who started the season with a .286 career on-base percentage is reaching base at a .352 clip this season.

There were plenty of questions surrounding Anderson's ability to truly be the team's dependable shortstop of the future. And while there are still things like the lack of walks and a large number of errors in the field, he's answered those questions resoundingly.

Third base

Moncada has been the White Sox best player in 2019. He's nearing a return from a hamstring strain that's kept him on the injured list for the entirety of August, but he's still the owner of a .301/.358/.535 slash line, sky-high improvements in every category after a disappointing first full year in the majors in 2018, one that saw him strike out 217 times.

Moncada's already got 20 home runs and 59 RBIs in 97 games, he's played very good defense after being moved to third base in spring training, and he was talked up by anyone with a recorder in front of their face as an All-Star snub of sorts back in June and July.

He's looking like the All-Star type player he was billed as when the White Sox acquired the No. 1 prospect in baseball just a year after being decried as a bust by quick-to-react tweeters.

Outfield

There's Robert, obviously, who should make his major league debut no later than a few weeks into the 2019 season, though the team has announced no plans yet. Robert's looking like the five-tool force of nature he's been hyped as since his signing as an international free agent out of Cuba. He's just 22 years old and has turned the minor leagues into his own personal playground, hitting mammoth home runs and making jaw-dropping plays in the field. It sure seems like this La Pantera character is going to be OK.

So, too, do repeated positive signs flash from Jimenez, the previous prospect to tear up the minors and send everyone into a daily Twitter frenzy. Jimenez is undoubtedly going through the to-be-expected growing pains and learning moments of a player in his first full major league season, but he's also blasted eye-popping homers to dead center that have repeatedly disturbed the batter's eye foliage at Guaranteed Rate Field. He hit two homers during the weekend series in Anaheim.

No, he's not setting the world on fire, as some expected, but he's showing what's possible. And if Moncada could turn a disappointing 2018 season into what's he's doing in 2019, why can't Jimenez make a similar jump?

Designated hitter

The White Sox might be able to again use McCann's emergence to their advantage and put Zack Collins in the DH spot on a fairly regular basis. Collins has been on fire since briefly appearing in the major leagues and getting some offensive critiques from the folks at the big league level. He's got a .375/.470/.698 slash line since returning to Charlotte that would seem to make any lingering questions about his defense behind the plate somewhat irrelevant when that kind of bat can just be put at DH.

Perhaps, should Abreu make his expected return, even a first base/designated hitter timeshare that was supposed to materialize with Yonder Alonso could be implemented with Abreu and Collins instead,

Starting rotation

Giolito was an All Star this year, completely transforming from the pitcher with the highest ERA among qualified starters in 2018 to the ace of the White Sox staff.

Reynaldo Lopez had a miserable first half but has been a completely different pitcher, as promised, since the All-Star break, with a 2.91 second-half ERA, even after the five runs he gave up last Thursday.

Dylan Cease has struggled since his promotion to the majors, but the rave reviews about his stuff and his composure and the way he dominated the minor leagues last season provide the White Sox with plenty of confidence that a turnaround is possible. Giolito's dramatic turnaround adds credence to that idea, too.

And then there's Michael Kopech, the pitcher who's been discussed as the one who could be the best of the group. He'll be back from Tommy John surgery sometime next season, completely healthy by spring training but perhaps requiring a little time in the minors to start the year. We'll see.

Anyway, that's four young hurlers who will demand rotation spots in 2020, and that's without even accounting for the starting pitching Hahn has on his offseason shopping list.

Bullpen

The White Sox have discovered a potentially potent late-inning combination in Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer, who the team opted not to trade at this year's deadline. Colome's growing track record as a dominant closer — he's saved 120 games in the last four seasons, including 24 this year with the White Sox — and Bummer's emergence as a setup man extraordinaire with a 1.80 ERA on the season figure to cross late-inning bullpen help off the list of upgrades Hahn needs to make this offseason and potentially off the wish list for next year's deadline, too.

— — —

So despite any social-media griping, that's almost the entire lineup fans have been dreaming of for years either at the major league level or right on the doorstep by the time 2020 begins. Though fans, rightfully, have been frustrated during seasons' worth of losing at the major league level during this rebuilding project, Hahn's suggestion that the White Sox, because of the trades and signings that injected an incredible amount of talent into the organization, could be ahead of schedule in their rebuild could prove true. At the very least, the White Sox should have many of the pieces to put their contention puzzle together in the 2020 season.

There are perfectly valid reasons to be skeptical that will be the case. But go dust off that "team of the future" lineup projection you put together a while back. It looks a lot like the White Sox projected 2020 lineup, doesn't it? And I haven't even mentioned Dane Dunning or Carlos Rodon or a potential free-agent or trade acquisition to take up the mysterious spot in right field.

Another frustrating season without a playoff appearance and without a winning record will close itself out over the next month and a half. But the rebuild train remains on the tracks. It remains on schedule, too.

Don't believe me? Go find Robert's home-run ball. You might need a spacesuit.

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Bulls guard Zach LaVine works out at Stance Socks Headquarters with Darren Collison

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USA TODAY

Bulls guard Zach LaVine works out at Stance Socks Headquarters with Darren Collison

Zach LaVine has been getting in great work all summer long and he kept it up on Monday, working out at the Stance Socks Headquarters in San Clemente, CA. 

LaVine's workout was with 'Pro's Vision', which included UCLA alumni Darren Collison, who was believed to be headed to the Bulls before he abruptly retired this offseason

This offseason Pro Vision has also worked out with New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball in an effort to help him diversify his game ahead of a crucial season for him in a new setting. 

LaVine will be looking to have an improved year after a solid 2018-19 season, in which LaVine averaged a career-best 23.7 PPG while playing over 2000 minutes for just the second time in his career. 

Heading into the 2019-20 season the Bulls are dealing with higher expectations but should be able to meet them reasonably, as they have added veterans Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky to a roster full of young talent.

LaVine should take a step forward in the 2019-20 season and with an increase in either his playmaking, scoring efficiency and/or overall scoring output, we could see him make an All-Star leap as the 2020 All-Star Weekend takes place in Chicago. 

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