Dickey Simpkins' AAU circuit continues success


Dickey Simpkins' AAU circuit continues success

When a group of parents tried to convince Dickey Simpkins in 2006 to form an AAU team, he was skeptical. The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit, held in the spring and summer for high school basketball players to improve skill and increase exposure for college recruiters, was not something Simpkins wanted to get into.

Many of the programs he had seen, both in his playing days in Washington D.C. and as a development coach in Chicago, were run half-heartedly. Many programs acted more as individual showcases for star players rather than teaching athletes team unity and basketball fundamentals. Players would compete only when they wanted to, and there was little, if any, structure to many of the games.

But at the eleventh hour, Simpkins, who used three AAU area championships to earn and accept a scholarship to Providence College in 1990, had a change of heart and accepted the parents offer to start a team of his own from scratch. Six years later, National Level Performance is one of the most competitive and well-run AAU programs in Illinois.

I said the only reason Im doing this is to show how its supposed to be done, Simpkins said of his first team. I played AAU, and I took philosophies of doing things the right way and to work hard and applied it to our teams. The biggest thing was to get the right kids and show them how to play the right way.

Simpkins pieced together his first under-17 team using any and all resources, eventually placing 15, 16 and 17-year-olds together to compete that summer against Chicagos best AAU programs.

So it was only fitting that, six years later, NLPs most recent team started a 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds on their way to a second place finish in the U17 National Championship in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The Arkansas Wings defeated Next Level Performance-TL 53-29 on Monday in the finals.

But Simpkins noticed that team, and the other eight NLP teams that are now running, were not brought up and coached like many of the programs they defeated on their way to the championship game.

NLP functions much like a college program would, one aspect Simpkins instilled early on to prepare high school athletes for the next stage of their careers. Film sessions, individual skill development, nutritional advice and mentoring on more than just basketball has made NLP more than a team playing in tournaments across the country for national exposure.

We watch them during the high school season and see if theyre a fit for what were trying to do, that they fit the system. And what their personality looks like, if he could buy into what we do, Simpkins said. Ultimately we try to find hidden gems in the rough, which shows true development and structure of the program.

There are no lucrative shoe deals. Structured offenses include all five players and coaches form relationships with their players that last long after their time at NLP is finished. Simpkins wanted his program to be more than a stepping stone from high school to college.

When they finish I want to make sure I see theyve improved on the court and off it, that theyve grown into a young man and matured with skill development, Simpkins said. And the other part is seeing them buy in to what we try to do to help us win.

And win they have.

Teaching defense first, then transition offense and structured half-court sets, NLP has placed six times in national tournaments and produced more than 30 college players in the six years since Simpkins founded the program. Brandon Paul, a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois and current shooting guard at the University of Illinois, was part of Simpkins first team as a 15-year-old sophomore.

And this years championship runner-up team should add to that list of college athletes.
6-foot junior point guard Jordan Johnson (Waukegan H.S.) has strong interest from Bowling Green, Eastern Illinois and Loyola.6-foot-1 sophomore shooting guard Jevon Carter (Proviso East H.S.) has scholarship offers from Illinois State, Kent State and Mercer.Sophomore power forward Evan Boudreaux (Lake Forest H.S.) has offers from Northwestern and Boston College.Small forward Kurt Hall (Proviso East H.S.) has interest from Oregon State, Iowa, Boise State and Virginia Tech.The six-year NBA veteran from 1994 to 2000 is involved with the recruiting process, giving college coaches insight and scouting reports to potential recruits. That, for Simpkins, is the end result of the additional work he and his staff put in during practice and off the court during springs and summers.

The end result, the icing on the cake is the scholarship offer, Simpkins said. At the end of the day this is why Im helping these kids. And it pays off.

The philosophies Simpkins has brought to Next Level Performance have been instrumental in building a strong foundation to the program. Those ideas stem from his AAU playing days in Washington, D.C., and from his mentor and coach, Tony Watkins, who stressed team unity amongst all players and coaches.

After games, Simpkins said, When we bring it in we say, we win as a family, we lose family, and at the end of the day we are a family.

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.

Anton Forsberg on uncertain future with Blackhawks as Corey Crawford nears return


Anton Forsberg on uncertain future with Blackhawks as Corey Crawford nears return

The Blackhawks are preparing for Corey Crawford to make his season debut this week after recovering from a concussion since Dec. 23, 2017, when he last made his appearance between the pipes.

That means a decision has to be made on Anton Forsberg, who's serving as the backup to Cam Ward but ranks third on the organizational depth chart in goal with a healthy Crawford. The challenging part of the situation is that Forsberg requires waivers if the Blackhawks want to try sending him down to the American Hockey League and keep him within the organization. But it's beyond his control.

"I have no idea and I don't want to think that way either,” Forsberg told NBC Sports Chicago. “I just want to be focused on getting better every day and try to work hard and put in the work, so hopefully when [my chance] comes, I've done everything I can.”

There are several layers to this, mostly questions: Can the Blackhawks find a trade partner for Forsberg? Would he clear waivers if he's put on there? And if he does, what happens to Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen, both of whom the Blackhawks are looking to take next steps in their development?

One thing is for certain: The Blackhawks do not plan on carrying three goaltenders. But maybe that’s an option for the short term until they see how Crawford handles the load since they have a six games in nine days stretch starting on Thursday.

“Organizationally, he’s one of our group of goaltenders,” coach Joel Quenneville said of Forsberg. “That’s where it’s at. We know the importance of depth in that area is always going to get challenged over the course of a season and we know the importance of the position. We’ll see how that plays out.”

In any profession, it's hard not to think about your future when there's uncertainty regarding your position. But Forsberg is trying to block all that out, no matter how difficult it may be.

"Sometimes it is, but at the same time it's the life of hockey,” he said. “Everybody has been, at some point, in their career probably in that situation. At the end of the day, it's always about yourself and how you can get better and all that. So that's what I'm trying to do.

"I try to come in here every day with a smile on my face. Hockey is the best thing in the world, so I just try to come in here and have fun and do my job. That's it."

If Crawford is ready to return on Thursday, that probably means Forsberg will be placed on waivers Wednesday. If he does get claimed, Forsberg must be on the NHL roster for at least 10 games and/or 30 days before being eligible to go through the waiver process again. So he cannot be stashed in the minors if claimed by another team.

That means his fate really depends on whether an NHL team is in need of an everyday backup goaltender.

"I really have no idea,” Forsberg said of whether or not he believes he would get through waivers. “It all depends on the situations and other teams, where other teams like me, I don't know. I don't want to focus on it. I just want to do my best right now to be prepared for whatever happens."