Curie, Alexander building a reputation


Curie, Alexander building a reputation

Most basketball addicts in Chicago, from NBA coaches to everyday fans, are probably aware of Jabari Parker, the next potential homegrown superstar in the Windy City. In addition to the 6-foot-8 high school junior at Simeon Career Academy, Derrick Rose's alma mater, many observers also know about Jahlil Okafor, a 6-foot-10 sophomore center at Whitney Young Magnet High School, considered the best big-man prospect in his class nationally.

While it's hard to predict the future, even at their precocious stages of development in their careers, Parker and Okafor are regarded as near-guarantees to be college stars and eventually, NBA players. Add a third player to that list: Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-9 sophomore at Curie Metropolitan High School who doesn't have the same recognition as the aforementioned pair -- although his summer AAU and camp exploits led some talent evaluators to rank him alongside Okafor as one of the top players in their class -- but that could change in the near future.

One look at Alexander and it's easy to come to the assumption that he has some potential. To go along with his height, the sophomore is also extremely long and already possesses a chiseled, college-ready frame. He runs the floor with ease, snatches rebounds and blocks shots like his life was on the line. He throws down ferocious dunks in traffic and even possesses a feathery touch on his elbow jumper. He's still a bit raw as a player and needs to polish the rough edges of his game, but that's expected, as he only has three years of organized basketball experience under his belt.

"Cliff's got a big upside. Ever since we got our hands on him when he was 13, 14, we knew he had a big upside, but it was just more about his work ethic," said Reggie Rose, the older brother of the Bulls point guard and the man in charge of Alexander's AAU team, the D-Rose All-Stars. "Now, he's getting a work ethic, we keep him traveling with adidas Nations, so as a big man, I think his skill level is great for a big man,"

"He reminds me of Rashard Griffith a high school All-American at King High School before playing at the University of Wisconsin and having a brief NBA career, who I played against. He's more of a rebounder, shot-blocker," continued Rose, a high school star himself at Hubbard High School before playing his college ball at the University of Wyoming. "He's going to be a more complete big man. He's not one of those big men out there on an island, dribbling and trying to shoot jump shots. I think he's going to be more of a dominant big man down low,"

Added Alexander's high school coach, Mike Oliver: "We knew he was big, but he was a kid we really thought we could work with, a kid who really wanted to work hard.

"Then, he wanted to change his environment. He came from the heart of the West Side and then when we brought him up into Curie, he fell in love with it because it was a different atmosphere," he continued. "You don't have to worry about all the extra stuff going on, concentrate on school and basketball."

Oliver said Alexander's father is former Robeson High School and Kennedy-King College standout Clifton Terry, a 6-foot-7 player about whom Oliver claimed, "What we used to refer to him as was a 'poor man's Scottie Pippen.'" Terry declared for the 2001 NBA Draft out of Kennedy-King, a two-year community college, and had a brief stint in the NBA D-League, but is presently incarcerated.

Although Oliver says basketball is "in his genes...Cliff, he knows the game," Alexander was a late bloomer for practical reasons.

"You just can't go to the court because of safety," said Oliver of Alexander's neighborhood, the West Side's Brian Piccolo community. "And Cliff had no interest in basketball."

Still, Alexander adapted quickly during his freshman campaign at Curie and by the end of the season, word of his play had started buzzing in the city's hoops community, not to mention among college coaches.

"It was very, very important for Cliff that he got a chance to play right away. He stepped into a situation where we really didn't have any big guys in front of him. People fail to realize that Cliff missed the first 10 games of the season because he had a heart murmur, so we knew he was going to be a player, but we didn't think he'd be ready that fast," said Oliver of Alexander's eye-opening debut season. "I think we really started jelling in the playoffs when he had a couple of breakout games. Cliff is better on defense right now than offense. He's only been playing basketball three years. But Cliff's a hard worker. Personally, I was very surprised that he developed that fast."

"Personally, he reminds me of a young Amar'e Stoudemire, Six-ten, real long, but still very athletic for a big guy. He can step out and hit that 15-footer. But people haven't seen the best of Cliff," he continued. "His timing and the way he runs the floor, and he gets involved in every play. Cliff is actually a good jump-shot shooter, but by him being so big, everyone wants to play him inside. He's got all of the tools."

Alexander continued his progress over the summer, with strong performances in front of coaches during the July evaluation period, highlighted by outings in a Las Vegas tournament, as well as a televised August showing at the finale of adidas Nations, the sneaker company's camp that has training sessions bringing together top domestic and international talents from the spring throughout the summer before a final event, held in California this year.

"The highlight to me was when I went down to Vegas and watched him play. Just to see him compete against the other major big men that's in his class and the poise he showed, and the jump shot he's been working on," observed Rose. "Everything he had been working on from adidas Nations, he took that into the summer."

More significantly, added Oliver, "He got a chance to play against the better players around the world and got a chance to experience life outside poverty, so he got a chance to just go out and relax, get away from all this nonsense in Chicago.

"The problem we have is that everybody's in his ear, trying to get him to transfer and I hope he understands, you make your own name. He's made his name -- where were all those people before he became Cliff Alexander? -- and I think if we keep him in that frame of mind, he'll be OK. By him going to play with adidas Nations, he's getting a chance to see the world, be around a lot of other positive people, and Reggie, with his foundation, that's really helped him a lot," he continued. "We're telling Cliff, 'With the notoriety you've got, a lot of people are looking up to you,. so you've got to use that as a positive tool to help the younger guys that's behind you,' and even some of the juniors and seniors. When he speaks, people listen

"He's a great kid. He's one of those kids you'd love to take your daughter out. He's very humble, he's not stuck on himself. Sometimes he's too friendly. He's just a heart-warming, appreciate everything you do for him, 'yes, sir; no, sir' type of guy. Some of the kids who get the publicity he gets can't handle it well. So far, he's been doing a great job handling success."

Oliver acknowledges that with Alexander, Curie's team could also garner more attention. The program, which flies under the radar despite annually being at least a contender in the Public League and annually sending players to Division I colleges, lost last year's star, current UIC point guard Greg Travis, to graduation, also boasts a backcourt of seniors Devin Foster and Malcolm Hill-Bey, both Division I prospects, as well as Iowa-bound football star Maurice Fleming (who will start the season on the sidelines, due to a knee injury) and another sophomore big man, 6-foot-10 Detalion Jackson, who's viewed as much more of a project than Alexander.

"In our open gyms, we had some of the top coaches in the country watching this kid, a sophomore, work out," said Oliver, who coached current Louisville freshman Wayne Blackshear during his first two seasons before the swingman, a McDonald's All-American as a high school senior, controversially transferred to CPS rival Morgan Park. "If everything goes right, we'll be that nationally-known team, like Whitney Young, like Simeon."

Curie will have the chance to test out theory, as they could play Simeon in the Pontiac holiday tournament and have a matchup with Whitney Young in a January shootout, in which Alexander would be pitted against the aforementioned Okafor. In the meantime, Alexander continues to get besieged by attention from colleges, including Michigan State, DePaul and Illinois, although Oliver claims Kentucky, which hasn't yet been active in his recruitment, is the program Alexander talks about the most.

Still, Oliver emphasizes that his prospect is far from a finished product.

"We want him to get better on defending the post. He's going to become a better scorer because that just comes with a lot of easy baskets," said the coach. "Right now, we want him to concentrate on playing 32 minutes, concentrate on playing a whole game. Sometimes, being a young guy, he takes plays off."

But after seeing him power over and through an opponent -- another well-regarded big man for a strong city program, who will remain nameless -- for an earth-shattering, gym-rocking dunk on the final day of Oliver's fall league tournament, it's hard not to accentuate the positive. Alexander has a ways to go, but with his already-impressive basketball foundation and God-given gifts, it's clear that with continued work and improvement, he could one day play on the highest level.

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.