Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

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Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith couldn't be happier. Even with their peers around the city -- including some at their school -- receiving much more attention for the colleges recruiting them and their status as basketball prospects, the two seniors at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the West Loop are content.

That's because the duo recognizes that even if they don't achieve stardom in their final prep basketball campaign, they're still in great shape. Brooks, a 6-foot-5 undersized power forward with tremendous athleticism, and Smith, a versatile, 6-foot-2 combo guard, could have waited out the recruiting process until the spring and with the benefit of an expected successful season for Young, perennially one of the top hoops programs in the city and state, accepted scholarships to programs on the lower rungs of Division I college basketball.

Instead, the pair made a decision to attend the University of Chicago, one of the nation's top academic schools, which plays on the Division III level and is hardly renowned a basketball powerhouse. They made a choice for their future.

"Really, I look at I have going for me right now and I had some Division I offers, but really because I'm such a good student, too," said Brooks on why he committed to attend the Hyde Park university. "I feel that University of Chicago gives me the best opportunity to take advantage of both my skills on the classroom and my skills on the court."

Chimed in Smith: "Pretty much education. It's a great opportunity. I couldn't pass it up."

Earlier this month at the United Center, Smith and Brooks joined their teammates -- including sophomore center Jahlil Okafor, one of the nation's top prospects in his class -- at a Nike-sponsored pep rally for some of the better high school teams in the city, including Simeon Career Academy, Derrick Rose's alma mater. However, even among the likes of Okafor and Simeon junior superstar Jabari Parker, arguably the best high school player in the country, the unheralded Whitney Young duo stood out.

Brooks boasts a 4.4 grade-point average (on a weighted scale, as Young, the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama, offers an array of Advanced Placement courses, giving students college credits before they even hit campus) and a 31 score on the ACT, while Brooks has a 4.3 GPA -- "Smith beat me on that," he joked -- and a gaudy 32 ACT. In other words, even if they couldn't play basketball, these are two kids who could attend their prestigious future university. But don't think they're merely two kids who happen to suit up for high-level squad like Whitney Young and can't actually play.

Although neither is a starter -- playing behind the likes of Okafor, junior big man Tommy Hamilton, who is ranked among the top 50 players in his class nationally, Paul White, a 6-foot-8 talent regarded as one of the top 50 sophomores in the country, and fellow seniors Jermaine Morgan (a post player and fall Colorado State signee) and UIC-bound sharpshooter Gabriel Snider, is nothing to be ashamed of -- neither is an unfamiliar name to observers of Chicago high school basketball. Watch a Whitney Young game and you'll see two valuable contributors who could be putting up gaudy statistics for an average high school team in the city, as well as recruits who were pursued by numerous college programs.

"I had Florida A&M, Northern Illinois, annual Division II title contender Northern Kentucky and we had some Ivy League looks, but they never really offered us, so this was the best opportunity," said Smith.

Added Brooks: "I had Southern Illinois and UIC, too."

So it's not as if college coaches weren't aware of their abilities, as they often excelled on the summer AAU circuit, where their individual skills could be evaluated outside of the context of Young's loaded team. (Full disclosure: I've personally seen both of them play in outside events and for their team since they were sophomores and upon seeing them at University of Chicago's exhibition game at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I simply assumed they were recruits invited by UIC, instead of potential "U of C" recruits.)

"Phenomenal kids. Two kids who are unbelievable hard workers in the classroom and who take that hard work and transition it to the court also," gushed a Young assistant coach. "When you look at where they came from and where they are now, they're classic stories of achievers and really, that's what the Whitney Young model is, achieving and wanting to be the best."

At the University of Chicago, Brooks and Smith have a chance to be the team's focal points, something they missed out on in high school. That played a part in their decisions, but more importantly, armed with a degree from the institution, the odds that they'll be successful in life are greater than even their most talented counterparts.

"Well, of course you've got people around you doing things and you kind of want to do what they're doing, too," said Brooks. "So, of course that was something, but I still feel like the University of Chicago's a great opportunity. I'm not really losing out on anything.

But before giving them too much credit as trend-setters, it should be noted that the move isn't entirely unprecedented. University of Chicago has a freshman point guard on its roster, Royce Muskeyvalley, who in addition to having an excellent name, was the teammate of co-Illinois Mr. Basketball Chasson Randle, currently a starting guard at Stanford (not exactly a shabby academic institution itself) while attending Rock Island High School, the 2011 state champions.

"When we visited down there, we stayed with Royce and he's a really cool guy. He was telling us it's a great opportunity," said Smith of his future teammate, who also received recruiting interest at the Division I level. "He was in the same position as us. We had DI looks, but the University of Chicago, you can't pass something like that up."

Do yourself a favor sometime over the next five years: Head over to Hyde Park (easy for me to say, living in the neighborhood) and check out a University of Chicago home game. Competing in one of the top conferences in Division III, the level of basketball might surprise you, especially with a boost from at least three Division I-caliber athletes. Better yet, with NBA basketball not set to start until Christmas, watch a Whitney Young game -- I'd recommend their Dec. 23 tilt against Simeon at UIC -- to see two young men who may not be headliners on the floor just yet, but are definitely a refreshing example of what athletics should be about.

White Sox draft pick Zack Collins wins Johnny Bench Award

White Sox draft pick Zack Collins wins Johnny Bench Award

This June just keeps getting better and better for Zack Collins.

Collins was selected by the White Sox with the No. 10 pick in the MLB Draft, made it to the College World Series with the University of Miami, signed his first professional contract and now he is the Johnny Bench Award winner.

The Johnny Bench Award was created in 2000 and is given to the top college catcher in Division 1. Previous winners include Buster Posey and Kurt Suzuki.

Collins already had a haul of first-team All-America honors from Baseball America, D1Baseball, the NCBWA, Perfect Game and Rawlings.

Collins hit .363 with 16 home runs, 59 RBIs and a .668 slugging percentage. He also led the nation with 78 walks this season for the Hurricanes, which went 0-2 at the College World Series. Collins started 62 of 64 Miami games and made 59 of those starts at catcher.

How Bulls could land a max free agent and re-sign E’Twaun Moore

How Bulls could land a max free agent and re-sign E’Twaun Moore

Quick note here because we are all eager to get back to our twitter feeds and wild speculation. Even though the Bulls will only have approximately $24 million in cap space, there is one situation in which they can sign a Tier 1 max player AND re-sign E’twaun Moore.

This all hinges on the deal (and discount) that Moore would give the Bulls. The Bulls have Early-Bird rights with Moore; that means they can potentially sign him to a deal and not eat into their cap space. There are a lot of rules into how this works and I won’t bore you with details, but the bottom line is that the Bulls can offer a 3-year deal for approx. $21 million or a 4-year deal for appox $28 million. If Moore accepts this contract, the Bulls just to have account for his ‘cap hold’ of $980,431 in free agency until the actual deal is signed. 

This potential deal would leave the Bulls approximately $23 million to spend, well above the $22.2 million it would take to land a Tier 1 (0-6 year NBA player) in free agency. This includes restricted free agent Harrison Barnes. Again, this only works if Moore doesn’t want to test free agency, or doesn’t receive a better offer in free agency. If Moore wants more money, the Bulls have to use their cap space to sign him to a larger deal.

One important key to any restricted free agent like Barnes, the Warriors will have 3 days to match any offer sheet that Barnes signs. Barnes can’t sign an offer sheet until July 7th, so the Warriors effectively will have until at least July 10th to make that decision. This prevents any team like the Bulls ‘swooping’ in and landing Barnes while Kevin Durant conducts his meetings in the Hamptons.

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

Cubs aren’t sweating loss to Mets or NLCS flashbacks: ‘Big-boy games are totally different'

NEW YORK – The Cubs didn’t overreact to getting swept in last year’s National League Championship Series, but the New York Mets did expose some underlying issues while a deep playoff run created a sense of urgency in Wrigleyville.

The Cubs spent like crazy on the free-agent market (almost $290 million) and wore T-shirts around spring training that literally put targets on their chests, knowing the look would go viral on social media and spark love/hate responses.

Making a statement? Sending a message? That’s so last year, when the Cubs were a team still trying to find an identity and learn how to win. The Mets are now the ones feeling the season-on-the-brink anxiety, desperate for offense and crossing their fingers that all those talented young pitchers stay healthy.

Maybe this becomes a turning point for the defending NL champs, beating the Cubs 4-3 on Thursday night at Citi Field to kick off a marquee four-game series in front of 40,122 and a national TV audience. Not that John Lackey – the playoff-tested veteran the Cubs signed to lengthen their rotation for October – felt any added significance in facing the Mets.

“None,” Lackey said. “It’s June, who cares? Big-boy games are totally different.”

Yes, Lackey was “pretty surprised” and a little miffed that manager Joe Maddon pulled him with a runner on and one out in the seventh inning and the Cubs holding a 3-1 lead. Joel Peralta failed this bullpen audition, walking Alejandro De Aza (.158 average) and giving up an RBI single to just-promoted-from-Triple-A Las Vegas rookie Brandon Nimmo.

Neil Walker put the pressure on highlight-reel defender Javier Baez, who fielded a chopper at second base, didn’t have a play at home plate and made the split-second decision to throw toward backpedaling third baseman Kris Bryant. The Mets showed last October that little things matter in big-boy games, and the throwing error from a Gold Glove-caliber player suddenly gave them a 4-3 lead.  

“Getting beat’s one thing,” Lackey said. “But when you feel like you kind of gave one away – or let one go – that’s a different kind of loss.”

The Mets (41-37) might not have must-win games in July, but they needed some good news in “Panic City.” Steven Matz, who set off alarm bells this week with the disclosure he’s been pitching with a bone spur in his left elbow, managed to work into the sixth inning and throw 104 pitches, giving up homers to Bryant and Baez but limiting the damage to only three runs.

Yoenis Cespedes, who revived a lifeless lineup after last summer’s trade-deadline blockbuster, energized the Mets again with a big swing in the sixth inning, drilling a Lackey pitch 441 feet out to left field and onto the third deck, creating a 110-mph exit velocity with his 19th home run.

“New year, different team, different circumstances,” said Jake Arrieta, who lost Game 2 here last October, watching Daniel Murphy reach so far down for a curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, driving it out for a momentum-shifting, first-inning, two-run homer. “We’ll probably relive some memories that weren’t very exciting.

“You never want to lose one step from a World Series. But, again, we had a team that was very young with a lot of rookies contributing. We gained a lot of valuable experience from those games, regardless of the outcome. And we’re obviously better for it this season with some new pieces. We look forward to ending in a little different fashion this year.”

The Cubs (51-27) still don’t have the answer for Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who finished off all four NLCS wins last October and is now 27-for-27 in save chances this season. Miguel Montero led off the ninth inning with a pinch-hit walk and Ben Zobrist followed with a double into right field before those all-or-nothing contact issues resurfaced.

Familia responded by striking out Bryant swinging – all six pitches were marked as sinkers clocked between 97 and 98 mph – and intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo to load the bases. Maybe this exposure will pay off in the playoffs, but Familia struck out Willson Contreras swinging and got Javier Baez to pop out to end the game. The Citi Field sound system started playing Ace Frehley’s “(I’m Back, Back in the) New York Groove.” Not that the Cubs were having flashbacks.

“We know the feeling of getting eliminated, getting swept, but I think we’re onto bigger and better things,” Bryant said. “We’re ready for it. Different year, different players here, different attitude.”