Bulls

Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

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Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

In a couple of weeks, Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' ace. It will be by default, of course, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having left for greener pastures. Nevertheless, the former Notre Dame stand-out known more for his play on the gridiron those days than on the diamond will be the Cubs number one starter -- hard to believe considering where Samardzija was at spring training a year ago. Back then, no one knew if Samardzija was going to make the team, let alone how he would fit in.

But late last season, Samardzija started to figure it out and the turnaround was on. Even I've done a complete 180 on the guy who I dismissed as a character out of the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" completely unworthy of the 10 million signing bonus Jim Hendry gave him in 2007.

Don't get me wrong, he's still a version of Keanu Reeves' Ted likely to utter a few 'whoas' and he's got the long hair that he calls 'a great set of weeds.' (Nevermind that Jeff was only four when the movie came out.) The difference is the guy can pitch and that makes his surfer dude persona more endearing and less annoying.

But I think the real reason I was annoyed with Samardjiza for the last four years was because he was so darn unreliable. His early career was that of bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and when he was with the big-league squad his home was in the bullpen, where he was maddeningly inconsistent. In 2009, he had a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances, and an ERA over eight (in limited playing time) in 2010.

I was ready to see him move along, but then something clicked for him and for me and he's turned into one of the Cubs assets for the future and one of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to. Samardzija is my new go-to-guy.

I asked Samardzija recently about how he was able to go from hanging-on-a-thread to legitimate starting pitcher. (Truth be told, an anonymous source told me Samardzija was notorious for tipping his pitches, something the Cubs have helped him correct, but he's also made some other changes.)

"Coming into camp, (the Cubs) put a lot of faith in me and there was a lot of responsibility with what they expected," recalls Samardzija. "I just wanted to take advantage of that. I worked hard in the off-season and didn't want the opportunity to slip away."

And according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, Samardzija was an eager student willing to be coached and receptive to suggestions.

"We laid out a pretty good plan for him and he's followed it," Bosio said. "Just as far as how to set up hitters, be more aggressive with his fastball, be more efficient which we're trying to stress as a staff. Jeff's following suit, he's a hard worker, he gets it."

Yes, Samardzija gets it on and off the mound. He gets that he plays a game for a living and while he takes his job seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, Samardzija pitched on his bobblehead day and jokingly said he felt some pressure to perform well because he didn't want to leave the ballpark that day and see hundreds of bobbleheads smashed on the sidewalks.

He generally lets things roll off his shoulders. Like when he hit Paul Konerko in the face during the CubsSox series. I talked to Jeff the next day and he genuinely felt bad about hitting Konerko and insisted it was unintentional. When I told him he was getting killed on the radio by fans who thought it was bush-league, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I figured as much. It's all part of the game."

Nothing seems to bother the guy. I keep waiting for him to drop a "party on, dudes" a la Ted. The closest I came was last week when the team's nutritionist walked through the dugout. Samardzija admitted to me he eats a lot of junk food. McDonalds, you name it.

"Candy, too?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, all of it," he replied.

"That's going to catch up to one day," I said in my best mom voice.

"It's all good," he said. "I'm not worried about it."

Party on, Jeff.

If Samardzija can keep building on what he's done through 13 starts, he's going to be more than a serviceable pitcher for the Cubs and could finally realize the potential Hendry saw in him five years ago. Even Samardzija admits it's been a long road.

"It's been a long time coming," he admits. "It's nice when you work for something and end up getting what you want."

And if Samardzija sits atop the Cubs rotation even in a dismal rebuilding year, it will be significant.

I can just hear him now in his best Ted voice, "This has been a most excellent adventure!"

And it's sure to get even better for Samardzija.

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

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USA TODAY

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

Anfernee Simons looks more like a ball boy than a 2018 NBA Draft prospect right now. He’s not considered small, what with having a 6-foot-3 frame with a massive 6-foot-9 wingspan, and he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine at 183 pounds, “heavier” than Lottery-bound guards like Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Collin Sexton.

But there’s plenty of potential to unpack from the soon-to-be 19-year-old, baby-faced combo guard. Don’t let the appearance fool you. Simons is one of the most talented players in the class, and a team patient enough to let him develop at his own pace could reap major benefits in due time.

You won’t find much video on Simons, as the IMG Academy star is preparing to be the first prospect to go preps-to-pros without a year in college since Thon Maker did so in 2016.

Simons, a consensus five-star recruit in the 2018 class, originally committed to Louisville in November 2016 and then decommitted the following September shortly after Rick Pitino was fired. Since he had graduated from Edgewater High School in Florida and was playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy, he became eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft because he is a year removed from high school. That’s where he played this past season, declaring for the draft and signing with an agent in late March.

“The opportunity is there. Me and my parents talked about it a lot and I feel like I’m confident in myself that I’ll be able to make this jump,” he said at last week’s Combine. “So I just felt like, do it now and not waste any time.”

Simons has been on the radars of NBA teams, even if he’s not a household name like Ayton, Doncic and Bagley. He’s currently projected outside of the Lottery, in part because teams haven’t seen him compete against collegiate level talent and because his wiry frame almost surely means time in the G-League as a rookie. But again, the skill set is there.

Simons is a point guard with solid range beyond the arc. He may struggle off the ball because of his size, though that long wingspan and a quick release from his chest should allow him to get off shots. He’s a blur in transition and finishes well at the rim – his 41.5-inch vertical was tied for third best at the Combine, and his three-quarters court sprint was eighth fastest.

He’s a mixed bag defensively. Wingspan is the fun buzz word these days, and that will help him at the next level, but his small frame means there’s work to be done. A strength and conditioning coach will salivate at bringing Simons into the weight room and getting his body NBA-ready.

“Just staying durable through 82 games,” Simons answered when asked about his biggest challenge physically at the next level. “Taking care of your body is real pivotal so I feel like learning how to take care of my body now is a good thing.”

Simons maturely answered that the “unknown” of his game will be both a positive and minus during the pre-draft process. While fellow prospects he may face in team workouts don’t know as much about him and, thus, his game, teams also need to find out more about Simons’ game and off-court habits.

“Coming in young, people don’t know who I am and haven’t seen me play much. That’s the good side about coming in early,” he said. “It could be the same thing (negatively). People haven’t seen me like that, so I feel like they don’t know who I am. They probably think I’m too young to play in the league.”

Simons met with the Bulls and has scheduled a pre-draft workout with them. Though the Bulls feel like their rebuild could go quicker than anticipated – especially if they hit on their No. 7 pick – there could be plenty to gain from drafting for upside on a player like Simons.

Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne will both be free agents in 2019, and Denzel Valentine’s long-term future isn’t set in stone in Chicago. That leaves plenty of openings in the backcourt behind Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Simons won’t be ready to contribute much in 2018-19, but the Bulls wouldn’t need him to. A handful of outlets projected Simons as a top-5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Bulls could snag him a year earlier, let him develop in Hoffman Estates and bring him up in a year when they’re a step closer to contending.

Daily White Sox prospects update: Gavin Sheets hits his first homer of 2018

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Daily White Sox prospects update: Gavin Sheets hits his first homer of 2018

Here's your daily update on what the White Sox highly touted prospects are doing in the minor leagues.

Class A Winston-Salem

Gavin Sheets hit his first home run of the season in a 12-4 loss. While it's taken him this long to hit his first ball out of the park, Sheets has a .380 on-base percentage and his 24 walks make for one of the top 10 totals in the Carolina League. Blake Rutherford doubled in this one, while Sheets, Rutherford, Alex Call and Luis Alexander Basabe combined to draw five walks.

Class A Kannapolis

Luis Gonzalez and Evan Skoug each had a hit in a 9-3 win.

Triple-A Charlotte

Charlie Tilson had two hits in a 9-3 loss.