Bulls

Wednesday's Cubs lineup

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Wednesday's Cubs lineup

Today's Cubs lineup against Mark Buehrle and the Marlins:

Johnson RF
Barney 2B
Castro SS
Soriano LF
Baker 1B
Stewart 3B
Soto C
Byrd CF
Garza P

The Cubs are going with a righty-heavy order, choosing to sit Bryan LaHair against the left-handed throwing Buehrle. Geovany Soto's also back in the lineup after getting Tuesday's contest off. And that's a good thing, since Soto owns a .929 OPS against lefties in his career.

High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

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USA TODAY

High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

We see this type of story every year. A player who received little attention during the college basketball season parlays a strong finish and impressive athletic testing results into a rapid climb up NBA draft boards.

Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke is one of the players making that kind of jump this year. The 6-foot-8 Clarke was projected as a second round pick at the start of the season, playing in the shadow of his more acclaimed frontcourt mate Rui Hachimura as the Zags won another West Coast Conference title and advanced to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

Clarke started receiving some first round buzz late in the season and really caught the attention of NBA scouts with a 36 point, eight rebound, five block performance against Baylor in a second round NCAA tournament game. His numbers for the season are impressive: 16.9 points per game on 68.7 percent shooting from the field, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. And, he followed that up by testing out No. 1 at his position at the NBA Draft Combine with a 34 inch standing vertical, a 40.5 inch max vertical, and a 3.15 second three-quarter court sprint.

Still, in today's three point centric NBA, some teams are concerned about Clarke's limited shooting range, with most of his points coming within 10 feet of the basket. Clarke says that won't be an issue when he gets a chance to work out for teams over the next four weeks.

"Honestly, it's really just about getting a lot of reps," Clarke said. "I've been getting up so many reps with the NBA ball, from the NBA three, and I've been shooting it really, really well. I'm really hoping that teams get to see that, and know that I've been working on it, and taking pride in getting better every day. If I can just keep on getting better, and teams can see that, I think it will help me out a lot."

Clarke is now considered a possible top-10 pick, with several mock drafts having him going to the forward needy Washington Wizards at No. 9, ahead of Hachimura, who may have received a promise from the Timberwolves at No. 11. There's no question Clarke is an explosive leaper who should have an impact at the defensive end from Day 1.

"Blocking shots is something that pretty obviously I'm good at. I was top 3 in the country last year for college basketball," he said. "So, with that being said, I think I'm only going to get better at it. Just something I can bring to any team I get drafted to pretty quickly."

Just about every college player has to adjust to facing bigger and stronger players once they get to the NBA. It’s one thing to dominate against the likes of Pacific and Pepperdine, but can Clarke succeed against some of the elite power forwards in the NBA? He understands the importance of hitting the weight room this summer.

"That’s something that I would love to do. Obviously, the guys are bigger in the league, so I’m going to have to be bigger too," he said. "There are so many players who have changed their bodies once they got there, so I’m not really nervous about that. I'm just looking forward to playing against bigger guys and better competition."

Would the Bulls consider Clarke at No. 7? There is a need for an athletic power forward to play behind Lauri Markkanen, but Clarke's skillset is eerily similar to all-time Bulls draft bust Tyrus Thomas, and that in itself will probably drop him on the team's draft board. Unless the Bulls trade down, their pick will likely come from a group that includes Coby White, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter.

Like so many other players in the 2019 draft, Clarke falls into the risk/reward category, with his ability to develop a consistent outside shot critical to his long term success. Still, it's been a remarkable climb for a player who was lightly regarded by most NBA teams just a few short months ago.

Around the association

You couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for Golden State All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who was informed after practice on Thursday that he failed to make one of the three All-NBA teams, potentially costing him $30 million on a max contract this summer.

With so many talented guards in the league right now, it's hardly a slight that Thompson failed to finish among the top-6 in media voting. Who would you leave out among the guards that made it? Steph Curry and James Harden were the first team choices, with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving on the second team and Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker third team selections.

An obviously agitated Thompson didn't appreciate receiving the news from the media, and openly questioned how Golden State's run of five-straight Finals appearances didn't carry more weight with the voters. Thompson said it wasn't a big deal, and he would rather win a championship than make an All-NBA team. But knowing how much money he just lost had to be a painful pill to swallow, especially considering a guard from a non-playoff team like Walker was voted to the third team, making him eligible for the super max contract Thompson just lost.

Speaking of Walker, will that All-NBA honor wind up being his ticket out of Charlotte? Hornets' general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team will do everything possible to keep the three-time All-Star, but the price tag for a max extension is now a lot higher, and the small market Hornets may decide they're better off not committing huge dollars to their 29-year-old point guard.

Charlotte has been unable to build a consistent winner despite a number of high draft picks and the ill-fated five-year contract given to Nicolas Batum. Bringing Walker back on a super max deal would lock them into the current roster for the foreseeable future, and given the fact Charlotte has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years, is that really the best strategy? If the Hornets decide to move on from Kemba, teams like Indiana, Dallas and the Clippers will be waiting with ample cap space to offer Walker a four-year max contract.

As we've seen with the explosion of quarterback salaries in the NFL, it seems like every offseason brings a new record contract. How about this factoid from ESPN'S NBA Insider Bobby Marks, who tweeted; earning All-NBA for a second consecutive season now has Giannis Antetokounmpo eligible in the summer of 2020 to sign the largest contract in NBA history. The five-year extension starting in 2021-22 would be worth $247.3 million and carry a $42.6, $46.0, $49.5, $52.9 and $56.3 million cap hit.

There's no question the Bucks will gladly offer that super max extension to a 24-year-old superstar who still has room to grow as player. Giannis is expected to win his first MVP award this season, even though the current playoff series against Toronto is showing how badly he needs to add a consistent jumper and improved free throw shooting to his game. Antetokounmpo's freakish skills and Mike Budenholzer's offensive system have made small market Milwaukee a legitimate championship contender, which is no small feat in a star-driven NBA where players routinely make decisions about their futures based on factors that have very little to do with basketball. Right now, Giannis is happy in Milwaukee and the Bucks are lucky to have the best young player in the game.

Of course, NBA teams wouldn't be paying those kind of salaries if the league wasn't making record profits. Business is good, especially after the new TV deals that went into effect a few years ago. And, with the advent of legalized gambling potentially opening up even more revenue streams, NBA owners will see the value of their franchises continue to soar.

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Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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