Bulls

Samardzija getting rave reviews from Cubs

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Samardzija getting rave reviews from Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Dale Sveum had two words for all the skeptics who still think of Jeff Samardzija as the former Notre Dame football player, and remember his struggles at the big-league level.

Told ya, Sveum said, opening his Thursday morning media session.

The day before, Samardzija sliced through the Kansas City Royals lineup for three scoreless innings. The Cubs manager was raving about Samardzijas control and 91 mph cutters at Surprise Stadium.

I cant remember the last time Ive seen a power arm like that come into spring training and everythings been that crisp, Sveum said. He doesnt throw any scuds. Everythings at least somewhat where he wants it to be.

Its almost a waste of his time to go drive an hour. Its like he didnt even break a sweat. He was that good. Its an interesting dilemma were gonna (face) here in a few weeks.

Samardzija headlines a group Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Rodrigo Lopez among them competing for two open spots in the rotation.

Volstad went out and matched Samardzija by throwing three scoreless innings with one hit and three strikeouts in Thursdays 10-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners at HoHoKam Stadium.

More than 2,000 miles away, Carlos Zambrano was making his debut with the Miami Marlins (four outs, three runs, three walks, four strikeouts). The Cubs see Volstad and think he can be much more than the guy traded for Zambrano (or a guy with career 32-39 record and 4.59 ERA).

Volstad is 6-foot-8, 25 years old and a former first-round pick. He has been listening to pitching coach Chris Bosio, who thinks the Cubs can tap into that potential.

Its not really individual pitches or working on anything new, Volstad said. Its just how to use the stuff that I already have, (finding) a mental approach. (Its) getting inside their heads and thinking about hitters mindset and tendencies.

Mentally, Samardzija is in a different place. This offseason, while Chicago was caught up in the Theo Epstein hype, he lived in Arizona and quietly trained at the Cubs complex. A new front office would like to see him build off his breakout year as a reliever (8-4, 2.97 ERA) and develop into a frontline starter.

Theres room to grow. Sveum has indicated that its not necessarily a lock that Paul Maholm will be the No. 3 starter. (Maholm was sick early in camp and hasnt made a Cactus League appearance yet, but the left-hander has been on a regular throwing program and should pitch in a game within the next five days.)

Sveum wouldnt go so far as to say a starting job is Samardzijas to lose, but its hard to ignore the momentum.

He works out like a madman, Sveum said. Hes built to go 220, 230 innings, the whole package. Its a managers dream to have somebody like that.

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

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USA TODAY

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”

Matt Nagy gives update on the state of Khalil Mack's ankle

Matt Nagy gives update on the state of Khalil Mack's ankle

The Bears have seemingly dodged a bullet, for now. 

Following Tuesday's announcement that Khalil Mack would undergo further tests on the right ankle injury he sustained during Sunday's loss, Bears head coach had more optimistic news on Wednesday:

It could obviously get a lot worse than a day-to-day diagnosis, though not practicing on Wednesday might raise some eyebrows. 

It sounds like Mack is expected to be a go for Sunday's matchup with the Patriots, though as the Bears saw with the Dolphins' QB situation last week, things can change in a heartbeat.