Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

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Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

Longtime recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye predict that John Groce, Illinois' new basketball coach, will turn the Illini program into a significant factor on the Big Ten and national scenes within the next few years.

"We definitely think so," they said. "He already is being well received by high school and AAU coaches. And he now is on the recruiting trail for many of the elite in-state prospects. He has strong connections and he is well respected by his peers.

"It all may not translate immediately with wins and losses but in time he will prove that he is the right man for the job. He is an extremely high energy guy. He seems to take his personality to another level in terms of having an ability to immediately form new relationships. He isn't afraid to talk to anyone."

The Schmidts said Groce has a "great shot" at signing Simeon star Kendrick Nunn. "He built a strong relationship from the beginning going back to when he was head coach at Ohio University. Illinois is in great shape. But Nunn also likes Marquette and UCLA. He will commit to one of those three schools by the end of the summer," they said.

Groce has persuaded Belleville East's Malcolm Hill to honor the commitment that he made to former Illinois coach Bruce Weber. And he is looking ahead to the talented classes of 2013 and 2014.

Before the end of June, the Schmidts predict that Groce "will make a major move" with 6-foot-9 Gavin Schilling of De La Salle, the leading post player in the class of 2013 in Illinois.

"Schilling would bring a different dimension to Illinois. Groce loves his athleticism. He is comparable to Meyers Leonard at the same stage," Roy Schmidt said.

Groce already has offered the top players in the class of 2014--Whitney Young's 6-foot-10 Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 Paul White, Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, St. Joseph's Paul Turner (no relation to Evan Turner), 6-foot-7 Keita Bates-Diop of Normal University and Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is recognized as the best point guard in his class despite his 5-foot-8 stature.

What about Simeon's Jabari Parker, who almost certainly will command the most attention of any player in the nation this summer?

"He is regarded by most to be the No. 1 player nationally," the Schmidts said. "Forget about the pressure put on him externally. He is the type of kid who puts tremendous pressure on himself in a good way. That is what drives him. He has a great work ethic. He constantly wants to prove himself. He wants to do what it takes to become even better than he is."

Parker has indicated that he wants to win a NCAA championship in what everybody perceives will be his one and only year in college before he opts for the NBA draft. So it is speculated that he will choose Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas or Michigan State, the schools most associated with success in the Final Four.

"We would narrow it down to Duke and Michigan State," the Schmidts said. "Jabari has great relationships with (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo and (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. That is a very important factor to consider, his relationship with the head coach. And one other thing to consider: Michigan State is closest to home."

Parker will get more exposure this summer. He will compete in the Peach Jam in Augusta, South Carolina, on July 18-21, then the Nike Fab 48 in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 23-27, then the End of Summer Showdown in Merrillville, Indiana, on July 25-31.

Many critics question whether Okafor, with two years of high school competition ahead of him, will develop to a point where he will be ranked in the upper tier of great big men in history...with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing.

Or will he settle for the second tier with Rashard Griffith, Eddy Curry, Jared Sullinger, Russell Cross and Kevin Love?

"I think in many respects he has already moved into the upper tier, maybe not in production but in terms of expectations and projections," Roy Schmidt said. "College coaches who are recruiting him agree with that assessment. I feel he is capable of being in the upper tier. Even the second tier isn't bad as it is. Okafor has the drive and work ethic and a good inner circle of people working with him in recruiting and skill development."

While Parker and Okafor are the leaders of the classes of 2013 and 2014 respectively, not only in Illinois but perhaps in the entire nation, the memo apparently wasn't distributed to Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, who ranks No. 8 nationally in the class of 2014.

Alexander, according to recruiting analyst Chris Bossi of Rivals.com, was the overall MVP of the recent Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, California. "All weekend long, you could count on Cliff Alexander to be in the paint, mixing it up," Bossi said.

"(Alexander) is a strong kid and he doesn't mind playing a power game. Where other big guys are in a hurry to step out and show their faceup game, Alexander is near the rim, bullying other big men and playing power basketball.

"(Alexander) runs the floor looking for fastbreak dunk opportunities. He's a controlling rebounder and he has great length. His body is one that will easily carry more strength and as he matures and fills out, Alexander will be even more powerful in the lane."

Alexander lists Michigan State, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Georgetown and Marquette among the many major Division I programs that are recruiting him. He'll continue to play with Team Rose in July.

What else are the Schmidt brothers looking for this summer?

"The biggest story locally is the every increasing emphasis on underclassmen and colleges trying to extend scholarship offers to underclassmen and getting earlier and quicker commitments from the classes of 2014 and 2015," they said. "That's mainly because of the enormous talent base in Chicago, so many talented young players. Chicago is perceived as a hotbed. More and more college coaches are jumping into the mix, even more aggressively than before."

The Schmidt brothers list several local players "who are on the fringe of being able to jump to the next level in terms of enhancing their stock, a handful who are capable of going from being a mid-major prospect to the next tier as a high major recruit."

The list is headed by Morgan Park guard Kyle Davis, who has attracted interest from Northwestern, USC, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and LSU; Proviso East guard Paris Lee; Simeon's 6-foot-5 Kendall Pollard; Mundelein's 6-foot-6 Sean O'Brien; and Bolingbrook's 6-foot-7 Ben Moore.

Also 6-foot-7 Malek Harris of Sandburg, who could emerge as one of the leading prospects in the class of 2014. He had a great spring. "Very athletic with a long wing span, strong finisher and good mid-range scoring ability," said Roy Schmidt. Harris already has offers from DePaul, Iowa and Miami (Ohio) and is drawing heavy interest from Indiana and others.

Looking for some unheralded players who could make a big splash this summer? The Schmidt brothers describe Riverside-Brookfield's 6-foot-7 Miki Ljuboja from the class of 2013 as "a hidden gem." Also Mundelein guard Robert Knar, who is committed to Northern Iowa, and 6-foot-7 Alec Peters of Downstate Washington, who is characterized as the best pure shooter in the class of 2013 among wing forwards.

The places to be this summer, the must-see events, are the Peach Jam, Las Vegas and the Super Showcase and AAU Nationals in Orlando on July 18-21 and July 25-31 respectively.

"But we don't see a signature event in the first few weeks of the July evaluation period," Roy and Harv Schmidt summed up. "You're going to see more and more watered down events in July, especially in the first two weeks of the evaluation period, because of the way everything is structured.

"The three actual evaluation periods in July are scheduled in a short time period, set up for four days, Thursday through Sunday. As a result, more promoters will want a piece of the pie. More events will be crammed into short time periods. It will be a matter of quantity over quality. There will be a lot of teams and players at those events but not an overwhelming amount of talent."

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

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