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."

Preview: White Sox aim for 20th win in series finale vs. Red Sox on CSN+

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Preview: White Sox aim for 20th win in series finale vs. Red Sox on CSN+

The White Sox aim for win No. 20 in their series finale against the Boston Red Sox tonight on Comcast SportsNet Plus. Coverage begins with White Sox Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Henry Owens (0-0) vs. Erik Johnson (0-0)

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David Ortiz paces Red Sox past Carlos Rodon, White Sox

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David Ortiz paces Red Sox past Carlos Rodon, White Sox

Carlos Rodon hasn’t been too far off the mark in his outings early in 2016.

His April 18 start aside, the team’s 2014 first-round pick has thrown the ball very well. Yet six starts into his sophomore campaign, Rodon has a 1-4 record.

The young White Sox left-hander made only one big mistake on Wednesday night and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz took advantage. Ortiz’s fifth-inning home run off a Rodon fastball got the Red Sox on track and they tacked on several runs late to snap a three-game winning streak for the White Sox, who fell 5-2 in front of 14,383 at U.S. Cellular Field. Jose Abreu homered, but that was all for the 19-9 White Sox, who were stymied by seven sharp innings from Clay Buchholz.

“Just one pitch, and that’s the name of this game I guess,” Rodon said. “One pitch changes the game pretty dramatically. That’s why people love baseball I guess.”

Rodon has discovered the importance of one pitch several times this season.

He threw an outstanding game in his first start at Oakland on April 6 only to be felled by an opposite-field homer by Mark Canha. In his last turn in Baltimore, Rodon was on cruise control before his defense did him in. Later in the contest, Rodon allowed another opposite-field blast to Nolan Reimold, which sealed the southpaw’s fate.

On Wednesday, Ortiz taught him a lesson after Rodon issued a two-out walk to Xander Bogaerts with the White Sox leading 2-1 in the fifth. Rodon left a 1-1 fastball over the plate and Ortiz turned on it and drove it 397 feet to right on a windy, cold night.

“Don’t throw a fastball down the middle to Big Papi,” Rodon said.

It was the sixth homer of the season and 509th of his career for Ortiz, who is set to retire after the season ends.

But Big Papi wasn’t done yet.

He followed a pair of one-out singles in the seventh inning with one of his own against Zach Duke. Ortiz beat a White Sox shift and dribbled a single through an open spot on the left side of the infield to drive in run No. 22 on the season and put Boston ahead 4-2. The Red Sox added another run in the eighth.

Ortiz, 40, is hitting .311/.404/.633.

“He comes up big in certain situations,” White Sox leadoff man Adam Eaton said. “Ortiz is a heck of a hitter, and he’s gonna make you pay.”

The White Sox couldn’t do the same with Buchholz, who entered the game 0-3 with a 6.51 ERA. Eaton said the right-hander kept them off-balance by using all five of his pitches. Buchholz appeared to have trouble keeping the ball down in the first as Eaton flew out deep to left ahead of a Jimmy Rollins single and Abreu’s two-run homer, his first since April 19. Abreu’s fourth homer snapped a 61-plate appearance drought and put the White Sox ahead 2-0.

But Buchholz settled in and retired 19 of the last 22 batters he faced, including 10 in a row.

He limited the White Sox to two runs and three hits while striking out six.

“We got off well there, Jimmy getting on and Jose hitting a homer, but we can’t stop there,” Eaton said. “You know as an offense you can’t stop there.”

A lack of run support has also been an early theme in Rodon’s starts.

The team has scored a total of 10 runs with Rodon on the mound in six starts. Entering Wednesday, his 2.1 run support average per nine innings ranked 67th among 73 qualified starters, according to baseball-reference.com.

The limited backing has often left Rodon -- who minus his April 18 start against the Los Angeles Angels has a 3.03 ERA -- susceptible to one mistake costing him the game.

“I think he learns something every time out there,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “There's something to be gained from it and for him, he's going to be better for it. He's got great stuff, a competitor and all that, but you always learn stuff as you're going through this. Even looking at Sale or Quintana, they're still doing things and you learn something every time you're out there. Carlos is no different.

“We know he's a good pitcher, but even the good ones run through tough stretches.”

Jose Abreu's hot streak a good sign for White Sox

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Jose Abreu's hot streak a good sign for White Sox

Jose Abreu made it official on Wednesday night -- he’s on fire.

Everyone around the White Sox has known this hot streak would soon arrive. They saw signs in Toronto and again in Baltimore as he began to drive the ball to right with authority. They heard the sounds his lumber produced when he smacked another pitch.

But the first baseman confirmed it in the first inning Wednesday when he snapped a 61-plate appearance homeless streak with a towering two-run homer to left. And the idea that the White Sox have played as well as they have without consistent production from Abreu has the club very optimistic about its chances to contend this season.

“It’s awesome,” leadoff man Adam Eaton said. “You know it’s going to happen. He’s never not going to get going and be the type of hitter he is.”

“You’ve seen the month we’ve had and realistically without him producing a tremendous amount, without really the hitters producing a tremendous amount. The pitching staff has really carried us.”

Abreu has been a dominant force in the lineup in each of his two previous seasons. The 2014 American League Rookie of the Year has produced 9.3 Wins Above Replacement in his first two seasons, according to baseball-reference.com.

But until this last week, Abreu hasn’t been himself.

He hit .229/.303/.354 in April with 13 RBIs, the fewest he’s ever had in the opening month of the season. He chased pitches that weren’t his and got away from his game, rifling inside fastballs to right field. Yet the lengthy slump from a player who hit .303/.364/.540 with 66 homers and 208 RBIs in his first two seasons hasn’t dramatically hurt the White Sox, who entered Wednesday with the best record in the AL.

Abreu said the stretch reminds him of 2009 when he got out to a slow start and his team, the Elefantes de Cienfuegos, continued to play well in the Occidental Division of the Cuban National Series. Despite Abreu’s early slump, Cienfuegos finished in second place in the division and earned a postseason birth as it did in each of Abreu’s final eight seasons.

“I’ve had this moment before in Cuba,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “I was struggling and the team was winning games.

“We won that year. That’s the same kind of feeling as I’m having right now because we’re getting all together, working hard and pulling in the same direction and that’s probably something God has for us for the season and I’m happy.”

Manager Robin Ventura might like similar results from this situation. Abreu finished the 2009 season hitting .399/.555/.822 with 30 homers and 76 RBIs in 393 plate appearances. Projected out to 600 plate appearances, Abreu would wind up with 45 round-trippers, or nine more than his career high.

No matter what kind of numbers Abreu produces, it’s clear he’s in a better position to do it after a slow start. From April 25 through Tuesday, Abreu hit .406/.486/.531 with nine RBIs in 37 plate appearances. While he hadn’t gone deep in that span, Abreu walked five times and struck out only three.

Abreu said it’s a function of improved timing. He feels right when he drives the ball on a line to right as he did throughout a four-game series in Baltimore. Those are the signs Ventura has seen plenty of lately.

“It sounds better,” Ventura said. “His hands work better. It just seemed like he could pull the inside pitch a little better and drive some more to right field. He was working on it, probably gave up a couple of at-bats trying to find it, knowing it might not look right. We could tell what he was trying to do, and I think it has helped him as we got home, how it feels for him.”

Eaton looks forward to what it can mean for the White Sox. The offense entered Wednesday with 45 runs in the past eight games after it produced 62 in the first 21.  

“He stays inside the ball really well, he goes the other way really well,” Eaton said. “That’s where his power is and somebody hangs one, he’ll pull it

“When he starts doing that and barreling balls the other way, and they throw a 95-mph heater on the inside part of the plate, he shoots it to right with authority and that’s when you know Jose is going.

“It should be interesting once he gets going and gets in a rhythm.”