Bulls

Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

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Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

It figures that Juozas Balciunas, who has led Lemont's basketball team to its best start in more than 35 years, didn't speak English until seven years ago, after his family immigrated from Lithuania.

Until Balciunas arrived, basketball was virtually a foreign language in Lemont.

Lemont is a football school. In the last four years, coach Eric Michaelsen's Indians have won 45 of 52 games and finished second in the state playoff on two occasions.

Meanwhile, the basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001 and hasn't won a regional since 1991. How many people remember when coach John Jones' 1975 team was 26-4 and advanced to the supersectional? The Indians were 2-24 the year before coach Rick Runaas was hired. His first two teams were 8-17.

So folks in the southwest suburban community must have thought Runaas, only his third season, was balmy when he said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 2011-12 squad. He isn't surprised that the Indians are 14-2 going into Tuesday's game at Joliet Catholic.

"I knew the new point guard (Balciunas) was going to be good," Runaas said. "Our lower levels had experienced some success. I knew we would have more depth than in the past. We had success in the summer and fall. We went to Peoria for a weekend and played Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and realized what level they were at and where we want to be."

Peoria Manual and Peoria Central are elite programs in Illinois. Runaas, who rebuilt Thornton Fractional North's program and guided the Meteors to a regional championship in 2002, their first since 1946, believed he could do the same reconstruction job at Lemont.

Runaas had been out of coaching for seven years and was serving as athletic director at Thornton Fractional South when he learned that Lemont was looking for a basketball coach in the fall of 2009.

"I had an itch to get back into coaching," he said. "I didn't know much about Lemont. I knew it was a great community and growing and had great facilities. I knew they were a great football school, producing great athletes. I hoped they were also producing good basketball players."

How good is this team? Good enough to be competitive in the Class 3A playoff, Runaas predicts. He learned something about his players in a four-point loss to highly regarded Crane that he believes will be beneficial as the Indians negotiate the remainder of their season.

"Our strength is chemistry," he said. "Everyone has accepted their roles and realize what their weaknesses are. They play to their strengths. It is a match of 10 kids who complement each other and offset each other. It's just a bunch of good high school players. I don't know if we have any Division I players on the roster, no 7-footer, no (Crane star) Willie Conner. We're just playing well together.

"We have to remain true to who we are. We have to get used to being successful. Just because we are 14-2, we have to earn our wins. We are a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys who like each other. We can't lose sight of that. If we really want to make a run (in the Class 3A playoff) we have to shoot the ball well and get more production inside."

Lemont is 14-2 because of the stellar play of Balciunas, a 6-foot junior point guard who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He is averaging 17 points and six assists per game. He is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.

"He seems to play better when the game is more competitive," Runaas said. "He handles traps and pressure. He is a lefty, like (former NBA star) Tiny Archibald. People (college coaches) are starting to figure out who he is."

Balciunas is surrounded by 6-foot-3 senior Matt Lipowski (6 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-foot-10 senior guard Joe O'Brien (6 ppg), 6-foot-1 senior Paulius Otruskevicius (12 ppg) and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jake Terrazas (5 ppg, 7 rpg).

The bench is headed by two underclassmen who project to be future stars--6-foot junior Joe Hehir (10 ppg) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Mike Wisz (5 ppg), the team's best three-point shooter.

Last week, Lemont beat Stagg 56-46 as Balciunas had 17 points and eight assists and Lipowski grabbed 10 rebounds and Argo 62-28 as Balciunas accounted for 12 points.

Balciunas admits learning to play basketball at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont was easier than perfecting English and adapting to his new country.

"It was very difficult to learn English. It took a year to learn the language. And it was difficult to get used to a new country and new people.
Everything was so much bigger. But school was the most difficult thing. I had no friends. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

He started to play basketball for the first time when he moved from Franklin Park to Lemont five years ago. "I played soccer for fun. But basketball was more fun to me. It was in me. I wanted to play basketball and that was it. There was nothing more important," he said.

He enrolled at St. Joseph in Westchester "because it had a big basketball reputation." He spent two years in coach Gene Pingatore's program and is grateful for the experience. "I learned new things," he said.

After his sophomore year, however, he opted to transfer to Lemont. "A lot of my friends were at Lemont. I heard I could help Lemont to get better in basketball. Sure, I knew football was the main sport in Lemont. But times change. Maybe this could be year that basketball changes Lemont. It also could be a basketball town," he said.

From the first day that Balciunas began working out with his teammates, he felt they could be successful.

"I have great teammates, not just basketball players," he said. "We all get along. The strength of this team is we all play hard and all want to win. We're friends on and off the court, like brothers."

While Balciunas is a late bloomer and is only beginning to stir interest among college recruiters, Runaas believes he has what it takes to play at the next level. How high? He has the rest of this season, next summer and fall and all of the 2012-13 season to make an impression.

"Some people are starting to know who I am," Balciunas said. "I want to play college basketball. Ever since I started to play basketball, my father said I have to work harder than other guys. My job is to be the best point guard I can be, to lead team team by example on and off the court. I'm not surprised by what I am doing."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

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Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."

Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns

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Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Charlie Roumeliotis and Slavko Bekovic provide their thoughts on the Blackhawks’ 3-0-2 start.

They also discuss Brandon Saad’s demotion and whether it could serve as a wake-up call, Corey Crawford’s potential return on Thursday vs. Arizona and what could happen with Anton Forsberg because of it, and address the power play concerns.

The guys wrap up the podcast by making a few bold predictions going forward.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!