Taylor making seamless transition from Simeon to Marquette

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Taylor making seamless transition from Simeon to Marquette

Steve Taylor is hoping to become both the latest success story to come out of Simeon's basketball program, and the newest 'switchable' to succeed under Buzz Williams at Marquette.
The 6-foot-7 forward was the top-ranked Illinois recruit in the 2012 class, and was pegged by most outlets as a top-70 recruit nationally. He signed with Marquette last November and arrived on campus this summer, ready to make an impact as an inside-out threat.
And though 2012-2013 will mark Taylor's first season with a Division-I program, but he has plenty of experience with a winning program after his time spent at Simeon Career Academy, where he won three straight state championships.
Playing under head coach Robert Smith, who said he runs his practices as close to a collegiate level as possible, Taylor said he came to Milwaukee prepared for what awaited him under Buzz Williams and Marquette.
"We worked hard at Simeon, so when I got here to Marquette it was second nature," Taylor said. "You have to work hard to get what you want. Once I got here, I realized high school practices were nothing like this."
Taylor, along with the top-ranked 2013 recruit Jabari Parker, helped lead Simeon to three straight state championships. Taylor, who called himself the leader of that team, averaged 16 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks per game his senior season, capping a 33-1 record.
Marquette fans got their first glimpse of Taylor at Marquette Madness, held on the school's campus to unofficially open the season Friday night.
Taylor played all 24 minutes of the scrimmage in front of Parker, who took the drive to Milwaukee to watch his former teammate while wearing Taylor's No. 15 Simeon jersey.
Taylor finished with four points and four rebounds. It wasn't a dominating performance, but the 6-foot-7 Taylor more than held his own in the paint against established post scorers, notably junior Jamil Wilson and senior Chris Otule.
But one big difference Taylor is still adjusting to is the speed and size of the game.
No longer is Taylor the tallest player on the court, giving way to the 6-foot-11 Otule and 6-foot-8 Davante Gardner. Even the 6-foot-7 Wilson, who Taylor called one of his biggest mentors during the summer, poses a threat in practice that he is still getting used to.
"I need to get tougher. I know I've improved there a lot, and I've gotten stronger," Taylor said. "But I need to be able to finish around the rim a little bit more."
Part of his improved frame involved adding 15 pounds to his frame since arriving on campus in June. Now up to 234 pounds, Taylor feels confident he can compete for immediate minutes in a Marquette rotation that lost senior Jae Crowder to the NBA Draft.
Crowder, last year's Big East Player of the Year, averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds while playing as an undersized power forward position.
Marquette will have size with the aforementioned bigs, but Taylor said he wants to be part of that rotation.
To do so, he has been in the video room watching film on former Marquette players referred to by Williams as switchables -- forwards with inside-out games who can guard multiple positions on the floor.
That includes Crowder, but also current Chicago Bulls wing Jimmy Butler, who played forward for Williams from 2008 to 2011. Much like Butler, Taylor sees himself as more of an inside player at this point with an improving jump shot.
"I watch film all the time," Taylor said, "and whenever I watch I picture myself doing the same things. I feel more comfortable in the paint because I can score there."
Taylor's comfort level also increased when he came to campus in June because of a new NCAA rule that allowed head coaches to practice with their teams eight hours per week during the summer.
"It's not a lot, but it does give you an opportunity to be around them every day," Williams said. "I think it allows them to stay in some sort of routine, academically and athletically, and I think it put us on a better slope once the school year started."
Taylor is a proven winner, one of the reasons Williams wanted him, and now he's making a seamless transition to the college game. His versatility will be a key asset in Marquette's up-tempo offense, and he understands that if he follows his coach's lead that same success from Chicago will follow him to Milwaukee.
"The way Buzz explained it, I'm just a player. So whatever it is he needs me to do that's what I'm gonna do. So I don't have a set position," Taylor said." And if I do what Buzz says I'll get out there."
And based on Williams' track record with players like Taylor, the Simeon graduate will see success once he's out there, too.

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.

School: HL Richards Bulldogs

Head coach: Tony Sheehan

Assistant coaches: Steve Fleming, Kevin Szczepkowski, Adam Ziemba, Jeff Kortz, Charlie McCullough, Matt Royce, Charlie Kipp, Rick Pratl

How they fared in 2015: 7-4 (5-1) South Suburban Red Conference. Richards made the Class 6A state playoffs and defeated Morgan Park, then lost to Lincoln-Way North in second round action.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Bulldogs make a deep run this fall?

Names to watch this season: RB Pat Doyle, RB/LB Anthony Quinn, OL Joe Capenter

Biggest holes to fill: The Bulldogs welcome back just one returning offensive linemen in senior Joe Carpenter (6-foot-2, 285 pounds).

EDGY's Early Take: The Bulldogs always have speed and athletes and confidence is pretty high in regards to this team. With 12 starters back including the entire starting offensive backfield, expect Richards to make some serious noise this season.

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

The secret to Willson Contreras' success with Cubs: Channeling his emotions

Willson Contreras took the first pitch he saw Sunday and stared down Jose Fernandez. The Miami Marlins ace didn't try to buzz the Cubs rookie and the pitch wasn't close to hitting Contreras. It was just another way of Contreras showing he would not be intimidated by anybody, not even Major League Baseball's leader in strikeouts per nine innings.

Contreras has flashed that kind of spirit throughout his first couple weeks in the big leagues, including his Steph Curry-esque caught-stealing celebration against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But it wasn’t always that way. Mark Johnson uniquely understands how far Contreras has come, the difficulty in harnessing all that and what to expect as a big-league catcher.

"It's been fun to watch him grow as a person and as a player," said Johnson, the current Double-A Tennessee manager who worked with Contreras between 2011 and 2013 in short-season A-ball (Boise) and Class-A Kane County. "He's always been that real emotional player, wearing his emotions on his sleeves. When he was younger, it was kind of hard to contain at times.

"He's always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have. You'd much rather have a player like that than have a player you'd have to kick in the ass every day.

"For him to be able to tone that down a little bit and control that just shows his maturity and the way he's starting to grow up."

When Johnson coached Contreras, he had not yet become the top catching prospect in the game and actually spent all of 2011 playing the infield and outfield (mostly third base).

Contreras made the switch to catcher in 2012 and his career didn't really start to take off until 2015, when he won the Southern League batting title for Tennessee. The Cubs had even left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft prior to his breakout in his age-23 season last year.

"He's come into his own at the plate," Johnson said. "He really started understanding what he needed to do at the plate last year. He made some good adjustments. It was kind of like the rest of his game.

"He's always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much, whether it was his throwing, his catching, his receiving, his hitting. When he started understanding he didn't have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him.

"Like in [2015], I had him [in the Arizona Fall League], and he was clearly one of the best players out there. His bat and his move to the baseball is really shortened and he's come a long way with his bat and throwing."

So how much of that can be attributed to harnessing his emotions?

"It's just maturing," Johnson said. "It's time. Whether it's staff or the other players taking him aside or talking to him about what to do, what not to do, how to handle yourself in certain situations. It’s the more experiences he has and the more he learns.

"He's a smart kid. He's got this incredible passion to play the game, which is so much fun to watch. And I think it's just a matter of playing and getting that experience."

Johnson was a first-round draft pick (26th overall) of the White Sox in 1994 and spent five years on the South Side before moving to the Cubs system in 2005 (Triple-A Iowa) and then ending his playing career back in the Cubs system in 2009-10. He has talked with Contreras about what to expect in a big market.

During his first two weeks in The Show, Contreras had no issues adjusting to Chicago, hitting .355 with a 1.137 OPS, three homers and nine RBI in 11 games while playing catcher (six games), left field (four games) and first base (two games).

"You could put him anywhere," Johnson said. "He loves to play the game. No matter where you put him, he loves to compete. He loves the game of baseball.

"You could put him at second base or any outfield position, first, third. You could probably put him on the mound and he'd probably be a lights-out pitcher. He's just one of those guys that really competes. And that's what you look for in ballplayers."

Contreras has figured out how to keep his love of the game while learning to keep his cool, without censoring himself.

"He looks like the same old Willy," Johnson said. "He has so much fun playing the game. It's just infectious.

"They're going to love him [in Chicago]. Obviously, he's had a tremendous start. He's playing himself into the lineup every day.

"I think anybody that plays the game with that much passion and that much energy and that much life, you got to be likable."

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Derrick Rose will suit up for the perpetually-woeful New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler is headed to a country that has legitimate Zika virus concerns for the Olympic Games, and neither of them has as much uncertainty as the Chicago Bulls as the franchise approaches free agency in a few days.

When the clock strikes midnight Friday, it’ll open up business around the NBA but also cement a sea change for the Bulls as far as their league-wide hierarchy. Two summers ago, the Bulls were getting ready to be the welcoming committee for free agent Carmelo Anthony, believing he was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.

Anthony chose to stay in New York, in large part due to the $50 million disparity between the Knicks and Bulls, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement giving players a greater incentive for staying at home as opposed to bolting to other teams.

The Bulls wound up with a big fish anyway, signing Pau Gasol to a three-year contract he officially opted out of a few days ago, as he and Joakim Noah will depart Chicago for Parts Unknown.

Ironically, that’s the address the Bulls are headed to. Although they have over $23 million in cap space—an amount that’s enough for one max player—they won’t be grocery shopping with the big boys this time around.

They’ll be going bargain hunting, the epitome of what general manger Gar Forman calls “retooling” instead of that other dreaded “R” word: rebuilding.

Taking a couple steps back for the sake of taking a few forward sooner rather than later isn’t the easiest route. But when they decided not to trade Jimmy Butler on draft night or any other recent evening, it was the course of action the franchise decided to take.

“We’re still trying to get a sense of what the market is going to be,” Forman said the night of the NBA Draft, after the Bulls selected Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s gonna happen come July 1 because there’s never been anything like this where there’s such a spike in the cap. So we’re still evaluating that. My guess is opposed to one guy we’ll look to fill some holes and guys who fit the plan moving forward.”

Butler and new addition Robin Lopez are the only starters who can say they’re in the top half in the league at their position, with Butler being in the conversation for best shooting guard.

So if the Bulls are to overachieve and find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race, thus showing the competency in the front office and the sidelines to make themselves a destination in free agency this time next summer, they’ll have to be a team whose sum is greater than its individual parts, unless they snag a top-line wing player like Nicolas Batum (Charlotte) or Chandler Parsons (Dallas)—traditional 3-and-D guys but nowhere near superstars and not even All-Stars.

Even still, the proposition the Bulls are facing isn’t enviable but there’s opportunity for Forman to show he’s ahead of the curve and for Fred Hoiberg to rebound from his very shaky rookie season as coach.

Trading Rose was a start, and teams will be interested in Taj Gibson (as they always are), but it’ll be fascinating to see how the Bulls navigate the territory of employing enough veterans to help the young pieces grow while not wasting the valuable time of a respected player like Gibson.

The prudent decisions, the tough ones the good franchises make are usually through trades—players with existing contracts and not the inflated ones the market will bear.

Athleticism is a need, along with a point guard considering the Bulls are inheriting one who had the lowest-scoring point-per-game average in the league last season in Jose Calderon (7.6 points).

While Calderon’s on-floor leadership and ability to spread the floor from the top (41 percent from 3 last season) will be highly valued should he stick around, the Bulls would be better served looking to upgrade the position, despite a class that won’t initially inspire observers at first glance.

Memphis point guard Mike Conley will certainly be the apple of many teams’ eye, but at 29 he’s at the precious age where not only is this the last big long-term contract he’ll likely sign. But he’ll likely want to do it on a team with a clear trajectory upward as opposed to a slow slope down.

Brandon Jennings is a full year removed from Achilles’ recovery, and could take a short deal to rejuvenate his value on the open market, similar to what Gasol did two years ago but on a different level. Jeremy Lin will command a lot of attention, as will Rajon Rondo.

The athletic wings are a bit deeper, but with the league putting a premium on versatile players who can defend the perimeter, run the floor and shoot, the competition will be stiff and it appears as if the Bulls will have to overpay for quality.

Knicks free agent guard Arron Afflalo could be an intriguing, if not understated option as a wing who can defend and be credible as an outside shooter, able to alleviate pressure on Butler to play 40 minutes on the opposing team’s best scorer.

The Bulls’ interest in Golden State’s Harrison Barnes has been an open secret, given his ties with Doug McDermott, Hoiberg and now-Olympic teammate Butler. But as a restricted free agent it leaves any suitor in limbo for three days while the Warriors decide if they want to match—or if Kevin Durant decides to join the juggernaut.

And given Barnes’ underwhelming performance in the postseason, teams should be wary of Barnes not being able to play above the level he’s been at in Golden State, where he was a fourth option.

Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore is an example as a quality player who’ll be in high demand, but his ceiling isn’t too much higher than his reality.

The Bulls would be wise to resist making a splash in multiple areas, as more than a few teams will commit big money to players who can’t change their stripes no matter what the price tag is.

But if the Bulls are able to resist the trends, they can emerge from Parts Unknown and find themselves in a few years on a road marked “May”—and if they’re geniuses, “June.”