Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

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Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

Marlon Johnson was cut from his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. As a freshman at Joliet West, he played on the B team. As a sophomore, he spent most of his time on the bench.

Now the 6-foot-9 senior is being described as "the next Anthony Davis," comparing him to the former Chicago Perspectives star who now is freshman sensation at Kentucky.

Obviously, like Davis, Johnson has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In a year-and-a-half prior to his senior year, he grew from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-9. After observing him in AAU competition, college coaches began to call. Illinois State offered a scholarship.

"He has a long way to go but he has great potential," Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich said. "He will have to attend a junior college next year to get his academics in order. But in two years, with more experience and 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he will be a major Division I recruit."

Johnson is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds for a Joliet West team that is 17-9, has won two games in a row and will play at Thornton on Friday night for the Class 4A regional championship.

"He was coming together as a junior but he didn't have drive or a work ethic. No kid was coached harder or yelled at more," Yaklich said. "But something finally clicked within him. He got motivated during his junior year. He didn't play much early and it bothered him. He made a lot of changes in the second half of the season.

"He is a unique kid. He loves the game. He kept showing up for workouts in the summer. put in a lot of hard work over the summer and in AAU and he kept getting better. He added skills. We got a lot of calls from college coaches about him during the AAU season. Some people said they saw the next Anthony Davis. We told him he would be a beast as a senior."

Well, the beast is loose. A five-game winning streak in January set the tone for the second half of the season. With Johnson, 6-foot-3 junior Morris Dunnigan (13 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Edwards (11 ppg, 5 rpg), 5-foot-11 junior point guard Carl Terrell (8 ppg, 3 assists) and hot-shooting 5-foot-10 junior Ryan Modiest (6 ppg) coming off the bench, Yaklich believes his team can contend with top-seeded Bloom in the sectional at Lockport.

Joliet West has been there before. Last year, the Tigers were 9-16 and lost to Marian Catholic in the regional. But they were 24-8 two years ago and eliminated Bloom and Homewood-Flossmoor before losing to O'Fallon in the supersectional.

"We're focused now. A lot of pieces are fitting together," said Yaklich, who coached at Sterling and La Salle-Peru before landing at Joliet West five years ago.

Dunnigan, who started as a freshman on the supersectional team, is back after missing his sophomore year with an ACL injury. Without him, last year's team had no identity on offense. "He has expereience as a scorer in big games. He likes the ball in his hands," Yaklich said.

In Tuesday's 64-61 victory over Plainfield South, Dunnigan was limited to nine points but made a basket and free throw with eight seconds to play to spell the difference.

Edwards, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds against Plainfield South, is committed to St. Francis University. Last year, he was the team's seventh or eighth man but has developed into a valuable contributor this season.

Terrell is the floor leader...emotional, vocal, full of energy. And Modiest is the team's best shooter, a scoring threat off the bench.

"In the summer, we talked about Friday night's game, the regional championship, that we had what it takes to win it," Yaklich said. "We knew this team had good potential and good athletes."

He was disappointed that his team finished 9-5 in the Southwest Suburban Conference and third behind Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook.

"We felt we could be better than 9-5 in the league," the coach said. "But we're playing as well as we have all year right now. We really hope we are capable of carrying it over through the regional."

Only the Cubs: Tommy La Stella finally returns from exile

Only the Cubs: Tommy La Stella finally returns from exile

The main takeaway from a 15-minute press conference where Tommy La Stella talked a lot and said very little: Only the Cubs.

Even La Stella realizes he’s fortunate to be working for Joe Maddon, perhaps the most liberal manager in an extremely conservative industry, and Theo Epstein’s front office, which takes a holistic view of player development and built out an entire wing for mental skills. 

There aren’t many other markets where one of the last guys on the roster could dominate multiple news cycles, but the appetite for information on the best team in baseball appears to be endless, and this story is so bizarre, even by Cubbie standards. 

La Stella addressed his teammates inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse for about 10 minutes before starting at second base and batting seventh in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But La Stella – the second act in a trilogy of media sessions in the underground interview room, after Maddon and before Epstein – didn’t offer any real insight into why he refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved home to New Jersey, told ESPN he might retire if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his three-week holdout in the middle of August.

“That’s pretty much between me and them – and me and Theo,” La Stella said. “I understand that there’s going to be people out there who kind of draw conclusions and stuff. And that’s fine. I’m not necessarily out here to make anybody see anything or explain anything. 

“As long as people understand that there are things out there that are kind of personal to me – and I’ve shared those with the guys. It’s not necessarily going to be just like a cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer where everybody goes: ‘Oh, yeah, I get it now.’ That answer doesn’t really exist.”

La Stella confirmed the answer didn't involve a health issue or crisis in his family. This reunion became inevitable the longer the Cubs played this game, taking a softer approach, knowing his left-handed swing could help win a playoff game and not immediately cutting him.

“That was obviously a very real possibility that I was fully prepared for,” La Stella said. “I was at a point in my life, just personally and professionally, (where) that wasn’t something that I was in fear of. I was OK with it.

“The way Theo approached it…I was very lucky because he treated me like a person and not an employee.”

La Stella, 27, isn’t sure if he wants to remain a Cubs employee beyond this season: “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say something, because I don’t have an answer.”

And when asked if he missed the game during his retreat, La Stella said: “I missed the guys. The game, to me, that’s kind of just the avenue for the other type of enjoyment that I get through those guys and the stuff that we get to do together.”

How much of your decision to step away came out of pure frustration after being sent down to the minors with a .295 average?

“None of it,” La Stella said. “I know that sounds absurd to say. (But) that had absolutely nothing to do with that. I made that very clear to Theo. I told him when it happened: I totally understood the move. He’s doing what he believes is in the best interest of the team. I’m all for that.”

It got to the point where an exasperated columnist asked: Do you understand how strange this is for us to comprehend, how there’s nothing to grasp here?

“I hear ya,” La Stella said. “It’s certainly not a typical situation.”

Epstein – who’s in his 25th season in Major League Baseball, which should be converted into dog years after all the time he’s spent with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox – had never seen anything like it before.

“There are appropriate times for punishment,” Epstein said, “and standing up for the organization if we think an individual is acting in a malevolent way and putting himself before the organization and trying to do damage to the team concept.

“I can just tell you that after talking to him, we didn’t feel that way. We felt it was more misguided and not malevolent, so we wanted to work with him to get him back to this point.” 

La Stella’s personal journey included temporarily quitting baseball in high school, transferring from St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and deserting the Atlanta Braves, which he explained as a “completely different” situation: “Somebody close to me was sick in the hospital.”

“One of the things I like about Tommy the most is that he is his own man,” Maddon said. Another thing: “The guy can wake up in the middle of the night and hit a line drive on a 1-2 count.” 

La Stella clearly made a connection with Maddon, forged alliances in the clubhouse with respected professionals like Jake Arrieta and Jason Heyward and should still have that unique hand-eye coordination and contact skills. As for the reaction from the fans…

“It’s tough for me to say, because I haven’t read anything,” La Stella said. “I haven’t looked at anything – good or bad – so I don’t really necessarily know what the perception of all of it is. I’m sure negatively there’s going to be some people who don’t understand, or don’t agree. And that’s fine. 

“A couple difficult personal experiences for me between now and the end of the year isn’t going to outweigh all the incredible stuff I’ve gotten to see here at Wrigley. It’s a pretty sacred place. It’s going to take more than a couple difficult moments for me personally to change any feeling on that.”

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La Stella did admit that he wondered how he would be received by teammates – and if they would question his commitment to the game.

“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t something that eventually enters your mind,” La Stella said. “But the thing that outweighed that for me was I couldn’t not do what I felt was right for me, just because of how it might be perceived by other people.

“That group of guys in there is an unbelievably special group. And if there was one team that would welcome something like this back, it’s those guys. I’m very lucky.”

Only the Cubs.

Preview: Quintana takes the hill as White Sox face Twins on CSN

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Preview: Quintana takes the hill as White Sox face Twins on CSN

The White Sox take on the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Jose Quintana vs. Ervin Santana

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with White Sox Pulse.

Meaningless preseason Game 4 can tilt Bears, other roster decisions

Meaningless preseason Game 4 can tilt Bears, other roster decisions

The Bears will conclude their preseason with the Cleveland Browns for the 13th straight season, part of the NFL’s preference for teams playing closer to home in final preseason games such as Buffalo at Detroit, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Houston at Dallas and Jacksonville at Atlanta, among others.

Correlations between Bears results in Game 4 and what the regular season holds aren’t worth the effort. But several other aspects of Bears-Browns will be:

Who’s up, who’s down

Who plays and who doesn’t have decidedly different meanings for Game 3 vs. Game 4. Healthy scratches from Game 3 typically are at risk in the first round of cuts; five of those DNP’s were among the initial cuts.

The reverse is commonly the case in Game 4. Players sitting out are generally those already included in the roster plans, with playing time going to backups competing for a late roster spot or to show skills sufficient for scouts from other teams to look for them on the waiver wire after the weekend’s final trims. Virtually all of the Bears players sitting out Game 4 last year, won by the Bears 24-0, were ticketed for the initial 53-man roster.

The Bears face some tight decisions at a number of positions, not the least of which is at wide receiver, where only Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White are assured roster spots. Marc Mariani has played his way into quarterback Jay Cutler’s comfort zone and is in a contest with oft-injured Eddie Royal for the No. 3/slot receiver job. Both could secure spots on the “53” as could Josh Bellamy, who was among the Bears’ top special-teams tacklers.

[MORE: CB K'Waun Williams reportedly fails physical with Bears]

Royal is guaranteed $4.5 million for 2016 but Bears Chairman George McCaskey has been consistent in stating that money will not be the sole reason for personnel decisions.

Rookie Daniel Braverman has been a non-factor in games and has not flashed on special teams. Cameron Meredith has a TD catch but has not stepped out on special teams, while returner Deonte Thompson has not been able to overcome injuries enough to make a clear roster statement yet.

“It's so tough,” Royal said. “We've got a lot of guys who can play. This is one of the most talented groups I've ever been around, just from top to bottom. These guys can play, you can see it out there with these practices and the few preseason games that we've had, the guys are out there making plays, so it's going to be some tough decisions to make because everybody in our room can play.”

A chance for an impression

A small handful of players may see the field simply because the Bears haven’t had many chances to see them this training camp and preseason. And they may just need some work.

Linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, both coming off leg injuries that ended their 2014 seasons, both started and played nearly two-dozen snaps against the Browns. Hroniss Grasu, a roster lock as a third-round pick, nevertheless started at center and played every snap. Charles Leno Jr., after starting in a trial at right tackle the two previous games, was tried at left tackle and showed enough to hold onto the swing-tackle job while Jordan Mills’ Bears tenure was ended.

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This year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was a fourth-round Bears pick in this year’s draft but went down with a hamstring injury early in camp and hasn’t seen the field at all through preseason.

“Truth be told, we didn’t see a whole lot of him,” said coach John Fox. “Obviously, we evaluated him on his college tape. Saw him in some of the offseason stuff. He got hurt very early on in camp. It was a legit injury to his hamstring. He’s been in meetings. He’s been with us. But as far as our true evaluation, it’s a little bit of a leap of faith. We’ll kind of march down that road as we move forward.”

How special are ‘teams?

Non-starters typically need to demonstrate a willingness and ability to play special teams. Linebackers Jonathan Anderson and John Timu were undrafted longshots going into camp but played double-digit snaps on special teams, contributed tackles, and by season’s end had each started three games.

The Bears have been anemic on punt returns (1.9 ypr.) and the Bears have spread the job around looking for solutions.

And pay attention to Browns special-team’ers. The Bears once were impressed by the special-teams devastation wrought by Browns fullback Tyler Clutts in the 2011 Game 4 against them. The Browns waived Clutts, the Bears signed him to a three-year deal and Clutts played through the 2015 season, finishing last year with the Dallas Cowboys.