AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

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AAU basketball: The good, the bad and the ugly

How bad was the basketball class of 2012 in Illinois? Was it an aberration or a hint of things to come? Will it all be forgotten when the highly touted classes of 2013 and 2014 graduate and go off to college? Or is it a forerunner of something that could devastate the sport locally?
A survey by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com reveals, to no one's surprise, that few Illinois products from the class of 2012 were recruited by major Division I programs. In fact, not a single one was signed by any of the top 20 schools on Coleman's list of the leading recruiting classes.Champaign Central's Jay Simpson committed to No. 23 Purdue, Evanston's James Farr was signed by No. 28 Xavier, Hyde Park's Fabyon Harris (by way of Community College of Southern Idaho) was signed by No. 32 Texas A&M and Simeon's Steve Taylor was signed by No. 35 Marquette. Taylor was generally regarded as the No. 1 player in the state in the class of 2012."We do think that 2012 was a cyclical thing, one bad year, not reflective of any downward trends in Illinois high school basketball talent," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye."The classes of 2013 and 2014 are both loaded with talent. However, we believe there is a downward trend of developing and nurturing young talent in this state."Illinois, more than any state in the nation, over-hypes young talent. The Internet landscape and the Chicago media are just awful with it. Everyone wants to discover the new young talent and is ready to anoint them before they even play one organized team game."The Schmidt brothers trace the problem to AAU programs that don't have enough time to conduct routine practices and youngsters who spend all of their time on Twitter and negotiating recruiting websites to see where they are ranked locally and nationally. And that doesn't begin to take into account the parental involvement."Too many parents are caught up in rankings and exposure instead of making sure their kids develop their games and do what they need to do in the classroom," the Schmidts reported.
"So when adversity comes on the court and in the classroom, the kids do not handle it and everything suffers. So raw talent doesn't get developed and nurtured. This is the downward trend in Illinois talent, not a drop-off in talent but a drop-off in developing talent."AAU or summer or travel basketball has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, kids played American Legion baseball in the summer or went on vacation with their parents. There were no 7-on-7 leagues or summer basketball leagues or private clubs like Meanstreets, Warriors, Fire, Wolves or Rising Stars. Kids wore Chuck Taylors or Converse All-Stars, not Nike or Adidas or Reebok.Then Sonny Vaccaro met Phil Knight and Nike organized its grassroots basketball program in the 1980s. Mac Irvin and Larry Butler were pioneers and built strong AAU programs in Illinois. And Nike began subsidizing high school coaches from coast to coast, including King's Landon Cox. All of a sudden, a monster was born.Butler's Illinois Warriors program began to lose its dominance when Butler's affiliation with Nike ended. Therefore, recent Warriors teams have taken on a different focus with the majority of the roster made up of players who are low-Division I and small college prospects.
"There are no ifs, ands or buts about it -- the bottom line is that without having a big-name shoe company behind you, it is that much tougher for an AAU program to attract marquee players and thus maintain an elite status," the Schmidt brothers said."In our opinion, the main objective of any successful program should be player development. As far as the state of Illinois goes, no program is better in that area than the Illinois Wolves. Just look at some of the past Wolves who continued to develop and get even better once they got to college -- Evan Turner, John Shurna, Chasson Randle and David Sobolewski. They will tell you that it was the result of the training and instruction that they got from Wolves coaches."Despite the decline in talent in comparison with his past teams, Butler also knows how to develop players. Two excellent examples from the class of 2012 are Curie's Devin Foster and Elgin's Kory Brown."At the beginning of last summer, we would have told you that neither player was a Division I prospect," the Schmidts said. "But now it is a different story. Brown had a fantastic season in leading Elgin to the sectional finals. Foster was the glue to Curie's success. Both were All-Staters and both now stand a good chance of landing at a Division I school. Playing for the Warriors during the past spring and summer certainly played a part in that."The Mac Irvin Fire has always sported as much talent as any AAU program in the state and always will because of its strong relationship with influential Chicago Public League coaches and their ability to attract top players from throughout the city. Mike Irvin runs the program in place of his late father but the beat goes on."Player development has never been a strong suit of the Irvins, which is why the past knock on the program has always been that there are chemistry issues," the Schmidts said. "But that has begun to change as the result of the Irvins bringing other coaches on board who are much stronger in the areas of instruction and skill development."Meanstreets, co-founded by Tai Streets and Carlton Debose, has succeeded and prospered because they have established a high talent level to go along with a tremendous amount of unity that Streets and his coaches have been able to generate among their players and also parents and high school coaches in the south suburbs."Everyone is on the same page," the Schmidts said. "They buy into Streets' philosophy and it is a true community atmosphere. In addition, Streets will not take a player who is known to have off-the-court issues and is perceived as being a 'bad kid.' Many of his best players over the years, including Jerel McNeal, Maurice Acker, Joevan Catron, Brandon Ewing and Anthony Davis, were model citizens as well."The Illinois Wolves, founded 14 years ago by Mike Mullins and based in Downers Grove, doesn't enjoy the luxury of a Nike or Adidas or Reebok sponsorship. But the Wolves and Meanstreets sent more kids to college and produce more college graduates than any other program in the state. College coaches, who rightly or wrongly judge the success of a travel program by the number of college recruits that it produces, are aware that the Wolves and Meanstreets develop kids who qualify academically and are productive at the college level.
College coaches often criticize summer programs because they don't teach fundamentals, leaving them to train many incoming recruits from scratch. But that isn't the case with most players who are graduates of the Wolves and Meanstreets programs."We have been to a Wolves practice," Roy and Harv Schmidt reported. "They are like well-oiled high school practices. They teach and run drills. Mullins has high school coaches like Carl Maniscalco and Frank Kaminsky. Many AAU programs are run by 'daddy coaches,' parents and handlers who pursue an agenda of getting their kids exposure with certain college programs."But these people have little credibility when it comes to coaching, development and training. They get media people and website administrators representing colleges that have an interest in recruiting their kids to over-hype their kids to the point where they have nowhere to go but down. The development never seems to catch up to the hype."Unfortunately, the Schmidt brothers believe this trend if becoming more and more of a problem that has to be reversed. "If not, in four or five years, Illinois could have the reputation of being the most overrated state in the country. It is far from that now but the trend has to be reversed," Roy Schmidt said.Another issue is the colleges themselves. As it is today, they are trying to establish "feeder programs," much as major league baseball has a minor league development system. They seek to establish close relationships with certain high-profile clubs that have a history of producing big-time college prospects, and try to persuade them to steer their best players in their direction and they will take care of the youngster...a la make sure he gets a scholarship, is accepted to the college, stays eligible and is prepared for the NBA. It's all part of the package."Producing players for the NBA should not be nor ever should be criteria for judging the ultimate success of an AAU program," the Schmidts said. "Anyone who makes that a priority is in it for the wrong reasons and you have to question their ultimate motives. The criteria for success should be preparing student-athletes for the rigors of college, both on and off the court. Future graduation rates of players should be criteria."Mullins was encouraged to organized the Illinois Wolves when his son Bryan, who later played at Southern Illinois, was in fifth grade because, at the time, there were very few travel programs available for kids of that age. Some of Bryan's friends wanted to play together and Mullins, who had coached basketball at North Central College in Naperville, decided to get involved."My philosophy is to try to produce a well-balanced player and help with his personal development," Mullins said. "We do skill work on the basketball court and do grade checks and provide a place where all kids can play whether they can pay or not. We have never charged kids. We felt charging kids to play was discriminatory."Now Mullins, who grew up learning how to play the game at Ray Meyer's camp in Wisconsin, has four teams and 44 players in his program. Of his first nine classes, over 100 went to Division I colleges. They have earned over 13 million in scholarships."Our mission is to help produced academically, athletically and socially qualified kids who are pursuing high school and college basketball dreams," Mullins said. "I have never worried about the perceptions of summer basketball. I am confident of what we have done. Our best recommendations come from the players who have played for us."Summer basketball has come a long way since the days of Ray Meyer's camp. Mullins believes it is mostly for the better. "It allows more participation than in high school. It allows more instruction and allows the players to compete outside their area and gives them more recruiting exposure. They aren't just limited to Midwestern schools," he said."In addition, there is a high level of coaching. The kids play against a better caliber of competition than in high school, against other Division I prospects. It is the same trend in all youth sports in the last two or three decades, including soccer and swimming and tennis and volleyball for boys and girls. More kids are getting more opportunities than ever before."

Morning Update: Bulls win first meeting with Cavs; LeBron pays off Cubs-Indians bet

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls win first meeting with Cavs; LeBron pays off Cubs-Indians bet

Here are some of Friday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Bears-49ers: And the winner is?

Jonathan Toews practices but won’t play vs. Flyers

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

White Sox reportedly asking for No. 1 prospect plus more in trade return for Chris Sale

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

White Sox agree to one-year deals with Brett Lawrie, Avisail Garcia

LeBron James pays off bet, rocks Cubs uniform to the United Center

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

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USA TODAY

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

Two nights after managing just 90 points in a lackluster home loss to the Lakers, the Bulls entered Friday night’s tilt against the defending-champion Cavaliers with a specific offensive game plan.

Attack, head coach Fred Hoiberg told his team, the interior of the Cleveland defense early to establish a presence in the paint. Knowing the Cavs, for all their strengths that made them NBA champions five months earlier, lacked a true rim protector, the Bulls made it a point to get Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez going.

The Bulls managed to do exactly that, tallying a season-high 78 points in the paint in their 111-105 victory over the Cavaliers. And while Lopez was again his usual efficient self and Gibson turned in his best performance of the season – the two scored 33 points on 15-for-23 shooting – it was point guard Rajon Rondo who proved to be the kick-starter for a Bulls offense that needed to be at its best to match Cleveland’s star power.

Rondo logged his first triple-double with the Bulls in the victory, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. But looking past the raw numbers, it was the shots Rondo took, and the passes he made, that allowed the Bulls to play so efficiently on offense and ultimately come away with their most impressive victory of the year.

Of Rondo’s 12 assists, all but two of the made shots off those passes came from a distance farther than 7 feet. Ten of Rondo’s assists resulted in baskets in the paint, of which the Bulls had 39 as a team. Squaring off against a subpar defender in Kyrie Irving, Rondo was active in knifing into the paint and finding open bigs inside. Rondo had six assists in the first quarter, and all but one resulted in baskets within 3 feet of the hoop.

All four of his made field goals in the first half were layups, as was his only bucket in the third quarter. His putback midway through the fourth quarter was also at the rim, and gave him his tenth rebound to secure the triple-double. Two possessions later he connected on a 3-pointer that gave the Bulls an eight-point lead; Cleveland never got closer than four the rest of the way. Rondo only took three shots outside of the paint. Friday marked the first time in a month Rondo had shot better than 50 percent from the field in back-to-back games.

Past Rondo’s own numbers, Gibson said that the Bulls’ point guard was instrumental in leading the Bulls’ offense to match up against a Cavaliers offense that entered the night second in the league in efficiency.

“He’s like a quarterback. Even though he never really played any contact football the way he always gathers the huddle, he always sees what’s going on in the game,” Gibson said. “He’s always encouraging. He’s pushing it. He’s a great teammate and I know he got a lot of criticism before the year, a lot of people talk about the negative that’s in it, but he’s been showing me nothing but great stuff on and off the court.”

In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere to it simply because of the matchup between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, as well as the defending champs coming to town, the veteran Rondo took it upon himself to lead the Bulls offense. Though the Bulls wanted to avoid getting into a track meet against the fast-paced Cavs, Rondo didn’t allow the offense to become stagnant when it was apparent they could get into the paint at will.

“I thought Rondo was great all night long,” Fred Hoiberg said, “getting guys out and running, pushing them. You can hear him yelling “run with me” to get the guys down the floor. Rajon was a huge factor.”

His defense will continue to be a liability – Irving had an off-night shooting more than anything – and he won’t score 15 points each night, but his leadership and ability to run an offense with precision has the Bulls behind their floor general as they head into the season’s second month.

“He’s always inspiring. He’s one of those guys you want to go to war with. He’s one of those guys that’s in the huddle, you know that every time down the court if it’s a wrong call, a foul, a scuffle, if you not feeling right he’s always going to have your back no matter what.”