Cubs

Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY

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Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY

How good is Whitney Young's Linnae Harper?

There are five female finalists for the Dr. James Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award for 2012. Four of them are seniors. Harper is the only junior.

Since the male and female awards were first presented in 1987, only one Chicago area player has been honored. Naperville Central's Candace Parker won in 2003 and 2004.

Now Harper, a 5-foot-7 guard, is being touted as the No. 1 player in the nation in the girls' class of 2013. Just as Simeon's Jabari Parker is being acclaimed as the nation's No. 1 player in the boys' class of 2013.

Would you believe they used to be teammates?

Linnae and Jabari were classmates from first through eighth grades. In eighth grade, they played together on a black elementary school team that almost won a city championship. But Linnae was forced to play in two tournaments in one day, one for girls and one for boys.

"I had a girls tournament at Montini in Lombard. Then I went to the boys tournament at Whitney Young," she recalled. "We were behind 28-9 when I got there. We were playing Beasley, the No. 1 team in the city, with Tommy Hamilton. I did whatever I could do to get us back in the game. We lost by three points."

Competing against boys is what toughened her resolve, sharpened her skills and gave her an edge. Her mother wanted her to be a dancer but it wasn't a fit for her. At 6, she decided she liked basketball. In those days, there was only one way to play the game.

"I used to watch the boys play at Avalon Park. I went there every day after school. When I was little, there were no girls teams around. I had to play with the boys or I couldn't play at all," she said.

"Playing with the boys taught me how to play the game, how to become a better player. Then when I played with the girls, it eased the pressure on me. At first, the boys didn't care if I was there and didn't guard me. But then they realized I had an impact on my team."

Harper has had an impact ever since. She had 14 points and 14 rebounds as Whitney Young defeated Edwardsville 63-51 for the Class 4A championship. The Dolphins (34-0) became the first large school to complete an unbeaten season since Peoria Richwoods in 2005.

"She does a lot of things. She isn't one-dimensional. She can score, rebound, defend, pass and steal. She fills an entire stat sheet. No guard in the country in her class can do that," said Whitney Young coach Corry Irvin.

"She is so physically strong. She can post and rebound. Her 15-foot range game is better than anyone else. She will figure out a way to get anything done the team needs to win, something that is very rare."

For the record, Harper averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. With a year to play -- and to get even better -- she already has accumulated scholarship offers from many major Division I programs, including Notre Dame, Connecticut, DePaul, Kentucky, Ohio State, Miami, Louisville, UCLA and South Carolina.

Steve Tucker, the former high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who knows more about girls basketball than anyone you know, said Harper could be the No. 1 player in the nation in 2012-13 and could be better than Bolingbrook's Ariel Massengale, last year's Ms. Basketball in Illinois who currently is a starter at Tennessee.

"I never remember seeing a guard of her size as strong as she is and with the ability to rebound," Tucker said. "Is she better than Massengale? She does more things. She can run a team, play inside or outside, defend, handle the ball, rebound and pass. She knows the game better than any young kid I have seen. She has such a high basketball IQ for knowing what to do and when to do it. She is physically mature."

Harper is flattered by comparisons to Massengale but she is quick to remind everyone that their games are different. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can be. I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else," she said.

Irvin knew of Harper early on because Linnae's mother attended Julian High School with Corry's husband. Irvin saw the youngster play for the first time as a sixth grader and was immediately impressed by her toughness on the court. "She played post on her grade school team. She was stronger than everyone else," the coach said.

It didn't take her long to realize she had a special talent. As a freshman, she had a career high of 25 points and 17 rebounds as Whitney Young ousted Marian Catholic in the supersectional.

"That's when the light went off. It didn't hit me until then," she said. "I realized I wasn't an ordinary freshman. I had something more. After that game, I came in with an entirely different attitude. It made me realize I could play at an elite level. But I had to play hard in every game. I had to think I had a junior or senior mentality to survive."

The last two years were especially frustrating, however. Whitney Young qualified for the Final Four but had to settle for second and fourth. The Dolphins lost to Bolingbrook in the 2010 state final, then lost to Bolingbrook in overtime in the semifinals in 2011. So it was particularly satisfying to beat Bolingbrook in four overtimes in this year's supersectional.

"It hurt a lot to lose as a freshman but I realized I had three more years to get better and get a ring. But it hurt really bad last year. It took a few days to get over the pain. But I knew it couldn't hold us back," Harper said.

"This year, a lot of people doubted us. We wanted to prove we could win. A majority of the players had played together in the summer for four or five years. But they had never played together as a team before. In the beginning, there were some differences but we sorted them out at the end. It feels good this year to know that we worked hard every day I practice and sacrificed so much to win state."

Harper isn't done yet. Her resume, which already includes a gold-medal winning performance on USA Basketball's Under-16 team last summer, will add more glowing evaluations. Her stock will continue to rise during AAU competition this summer and more major colleges will express interest.

"I still have to complete my game," she said. "I never would have thought I would get this far. It puts more pressure on me. When you get to the top, you have to keep working harder to keep your spot because other players are working as hard and trying to replace you or get to the top."

How much better can she get? She plans to work on her ball-handling to handle more point guard duties, extend her jump shot range, improve her three-point shooting and her mid-range jumper. Oh, and don't forget to work on her footwork and improve her defensive skills.

"I want to add something to my game so when scouts see me, they'll have something else to worry about," she said. "I am very competitive. I like to play when it is tough and be in different situations and pull through. I like to compete all the time. Every time I'm on the court I try to give my all.

It sure beats dancing.

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Adam Boqvist's entry-level contract with Blackhawks officially kicks in

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AP

Adam Boqvist's entry-level contract with Blackhawks officially kicks in

The youth movement is underway in Chicago and it's happening quicker than expected.

Adam Boqvist played in his 10th NHL game of the season on Sunday, officially triggering the first year of his entry-level contract. That means he will become a restricted free agent at end of the 2021-22 season. If he appeared in nine games or fewer, his contract wouldn't have kicked in until next season, which would've bought the Blackhawks an extra year of Boqvist playing at a cap hit of $894,167.

"Maybe that was a discussion very early on but as far as coach perspective, we like him," head coach Jeremy Colliton said on whether he and GM Stan Bowman had conversations about burning Boqvist's first year. "I think he's played well and it's an opportunity with some injuries to give him some ice time. He's handled it well so far."

Boqvist is the second rookie on the Blackhawks this season to burn their first year, joining No. 3 overall pick Kirby Dach. Whether the decisions were dictated by circumstances or not, the Blackhawks have seen enough of both of them to feel they can have an impact on the team in the short term without hindering their developments in the long term.

The number to watch now is 40. Like Dach, if Boqvist appears in 40 or more games this season, it will count as a full season and bring him one year closer to unrestricted free agency. Any player that's accrued seven full seasons or is at least 27 years old as of June 30 of that respective year can become an unrestricted free agent.

Boqvist appeared in six games for the Blackhawks during the month of November before getting reassigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League on Nov. 14 when Connor Murphy was ready to return from his groin injury.

But with Calvin de Haan (shoulder) expected to be out long term and Duncan Keith still out with a groin injury, the Blackhawks called up Boqvist for insurance and because they lacked defensemen with offensive upside. It appears he will remain with the big club for the time being and it serves as a chance for their No. 8 overall pick in 2018 to prove he can handle NHL minutes on a consistent basis during a desperate time for the Blackhawks.

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