Who is the real Aaron Simpson?

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Who is the real Aaron Simpson?

North Chicago's Aaron Simpson is a contradiction in sneakers. The 5-foot-11 senior guard averages nearly 30 points per game but insists he doesn't want to be the star of his team. He is described as a quiet and humble kid who declined to be team captain because he is "too nice a guy" and doesn't like to yell at other players.

But when the lights go on and the gym is filled with people, Simpson performs like Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. It's Showtime. Coach Gerald Coleman insists he could average 40 points per game if he didn't try to turn every drive to the hoop into a Michael Jordan poster, if he didn't judge some shots by degree of difficulty.

"The coach is right," Simpson said. "I try to make the game harder than it is. I love to put on a show in front of a big crowd. It makes me play better. I go to the basket and do an up-and-under with my left hand and sometimes it won't go in. I could average 40 points per game. But I'm having a good time this year.

"It isn't all about winning games as long as we win in March. I'm having fun right now. In March, we'll get serious. This team has more offense and is more focused that last year's team (that finished fourth in Class 3A despite a 13-16 record). We think we're good enough to win the state championship this year."

How good is Simpson? Is he only a scorer, a one-dimensional player? Will he be a good fit at his chosen school, Illinois State? Or is he capable of playing at a higher level? How much better can he be? Can he accomplish his goal of being Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2012? Is he in a class with Simeon's Jabari Parker?

"As an offensive player, on a scale of 1 to 10, he is probably a 9," said North Chicago coach Coleman. "He must get stronger on defense. He needs more body strength and needs to hit the weight room. But his offense will take care of itself at the next level.

"What people don't know about him is he would prefer to have 30 assists and 10 points per game. He is a better passer than a scorer but nobody knows it in high school. The real Simpson is seen in AAU competition...the total game, better defensive player, better assist player. But you see his offensive side in high school because he has to score for us to win."

Simpson credits former Chicago Bulls player Dickey Simpkins of the Next Level Performance training company in Lincolnshire for his development. He has been working with Simpkins since seventh grade and playing with and competing against some of the best high school players in the country on the AAU circuit.

"I went to (NLP) to learn more about the game," Simpson said. "When I went there, I only knew how to score. I didn't know anything about defense. I wanted to learn how to dribble, how to be a better person, to be a man instead of just a basketball player.

"It has been a great experience, like family forever. I have improved on my attitude with referees. I've gotten better with my decision-making on and off the court and I've become a better player on defense.

"If I could be a person that isn't on everyone's scouting report, I'd like to be a role player. I don't want to be the star of the team. I prefer to be an assist man. I like to see my teammates score. It shows it isn't all about me.

"Sure, they are recruiting me as a scorer in college. But I want to be an all-around player. I don't like to be labeled as a scorer. People think that is all I can do. I want people to say that I'm an all-around player."

Simpkins has helped to train and develop Simpson into an all-around player. He believes he could play at a higher level but insists Illinois State is a good fit and provides an excellent opportunity for Simpson "to make a name for himself in the Missouri Valley." He also believes Simpson and Jabari Parker are the two leading candidates for the Mr. Basketball prize and Simpson "is putting in a good campaign for it."

"He is definitely a high-major player," Simpkins said. "He is a scorer who can put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways. He has to score in high school. But he can do everything. He has a good feel for the game. He has a high basketball IQ. He was doing things in seventh and eighth grade that most juniors and seniors in high school couldn't do at the time.

"He has an Allen Iverson-type body structure and that type of game. He has grown into his athleticism. He can score and pass and defend. He can play point guard or shooting guard. He can play in the NCAA for any school. But ISU is a good fit for him across the board."

Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye also have been impressed with Simpson and also believe he made the right college choice.

"Simpson is a scorer first and foremost and there is no question that he can put points on the board in a hurry," they said. "He is capable of scoring in a variety of ways, whether driving to the basket, getting out on the break or shooting from behind the three-point line. He also has great speed from baseline to baseline and we like the fact that he is a tough and competitive and has a winning edge.

"If Simpson had the playmaking skills to match his scoring ability, he would be a high major player. Nevertheless, he is perfectly suited for the Missouri Valley and has the potential to provide Illinois State with the same offensive punch that (former Phillips star) Osiris Eldridge did."

Simpkins and Coleman advised Simpson not to get caught up in big-name college programs or high-profile coaches or Dick Vitale-type hype, to pick a school where he can make a name for himself and achieve his dreams. When Simpson chose ISU, everyone felt he had made the right decision.

"Kids understand that if you are good enough, it doesn't matter where you play, mid-major or major or NAIA, you will be seen wherever you play if you have the ability to play," Simpkins said.

"When he came to us in seventh grade, everybody connected with AAU wanted him to play for them. But he understood and bought into what we taught him and he benefited from our mentoring and believed we had his best interest in mind. He was loyal to our program all the time."

Simpson is loyal to Coleman and the North Chicago program, too. As a sophomore he wore No. 23, Michael Jordan's number. But he broke a finger and was devastated when he couldn't help his brother Michael and his team qualify for the state finals. His brother wore No. 1. Now Aaron does.

"This is all for Michael," Aaron said. "Everything I do is for him."

North Chicago is 6-1 going into its game against Culver (Ind.) Military Academy in the opening round of the State Farm Classic in Bloomington on Dec. 27. The Warhawks, whose only loss was to highly rated Warren on a last-second shot, are the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Along the way, he could surpass Josh Allen as North Chicago's all-time leading scorer.

Even though he is averaging nearly 30 points per game, Simpson knows he can't win a state title all by himself. This year, he has plenty of help.
Eight other players returned from last year's Final Four squad. According to Coleman, they are quicker and closer and more athletic than a year ago.

Other major contributors are 6-foot-2 senior Marszhon Bryant (13 ppg, 10 rpg), an outstanding rebounder and defender who had 20 points and 16 rebounds against Lakes in a recent game; 6-foot-4 sophomore Amos Mays (15 ppg), a transfer from Zion-Benton; and 6-foot-5 sophomore Kurt Hall (6 ppg, 7 rpg).

"We were 0-5 at this time last year; now we're 6-1," Coleman said. "We are very talented. We think we can win Class 3A this year. But we need Simpson to be our leader. This team will go as far as he plays. He has to take every game as though he is going to the next level.

"He is too nice a guy. He doesn't like to be in the limelight but he wants to put on a show. He is the only player I have had in six years that I allow to have fun on the floor. He gets away with things this year that I normally wouldn't let him get away with. But my job is to prepare him mentally to handle coaches at the Division I level and we've done that."

"I want to put up a performance for fans and win a game," Simpson summed up. "We want to go Downstate again this year. But we don't want to go for a vacation, which is what people thought we did last year when we lost, that we didn't go to take care of business. This year, we'll be all business."

Stevenson senior Justin Smith commits to Indiana

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Stevenson senior Justin Smith commits to Indiana

Stevenson senior and Mr. Basketball candidate Justin Smith ended his recruitment on Monday night by committing to Indiana on Twitter.

The 6-foot-6 Smith averaged 17 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on 52.2 percent shooting last season as the high-flying wing was a third-team CSN All-Area selection.

Regarded as the No. 105 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings, Smith is going to be one of the main players to watch in the area this season as he's already helped the Patriots win a state championship as a sophomore while producing big numbers as a junior.

Smith joins three-star point guard Al Durham in Indiana's recruiting Class of 2017.

Now that Smith has ended his recruitment, Evanston's Nojel Eastern and Thornton's Alonzo Verge are the two best uncommitted prospects in the area as all three players are major candidates to win Player of the Year honors.

Notre Dame: What Brian VanGorder set out to do, and where his defenses failed

Notre Dame: What Brian VanGorder set out to do, and where his defenses failed

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two and a half years ago, the hiring of Brian VanGorder was billed as the natural next step to take for Notre Dame's defense after the departure of Bob Diaco and his bend-don’t-break scheme.

Notre Dame’s recruiting was picking up steam entering Year 5 of the Brian Kelly era — its 2013 class was ranked by Rivals in the top five nationally — and with more athletic playmakers coming to campus, the hope was an aggressive, multiple defense stuffed with sub packages and NFL tenets could bring the Irish consistent success.

On Sunday, Kelly fired VanGorder following 30 games of inconsistent, largely ineffective defense. Looking back on what was expected of this defense — and the results that followed — it’s clear to see why that decision was made.

“We have a great base, and we have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and an expectation, and now we're going to take it to the next level defensively,” Kelly said prior to spring practice in 2014, “and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level.”

When Kelly hired VanGorder in January of 2014, he pointed to a few things. First, he said VanGorder was “one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around.” Second, he said VanGorder “understands player development.” Third, he pointed to VanGorder’s reams of experience, like his winning of the Broyles Award while Georgia’s defensive coordinator and his four seasons of experience as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator, too. And fourth, Kelly pointed to VanGorder being an enjoyable person to be around who’s “the right fit for me and my staff.”

Above all else, VanGorder’s defense was supposed to be fun — as in, it’s one that allows players to make plays, whereas Diaco’s defenses heavily relied on two-gapping, playing off coverage and waiting for an opposing offense to make a mistake. Diaco’s defense was a college defense; VanGorder’s was an NFL one.

There was little questioning the immediate buy-in to VanGorder's scheme. Nose guard Jarron Jones, now a fifth-year graduate student, explained back in April 2014 what the defense set out to do:

“You're part of a new defense and you're playing more to your advantage and showing off being more aggressive instead of being more disciplined," Jones said. "You're the attacker, you're not the one having to read the attacker."

So when Kelly fired VanGorder on Sunday, and pointed to a lack of “energy and enthusiasm and fun,” it represented one of the bigger shortcomings of this defense. And outside of a handful of games in 2014 and 2015, Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t the attacker — it was being attacked.

“The whole philosophy is that we don't want the offense to dictate how we play defense,” former defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said in April of 2014.

In four seasons under Diaco, Notre Dame’s defense averaged 26.3 sacks, 51.5 passes defended, 67.8 tackles for a loss and 19.8 turnovers per season — which comes out to 2 sacks, 4 passes defended, 5.2 tackles for a loss and 1.5 turnovers per game.

Over VanGorder’s 30 contests, Notre Dame’s per-game averages: 1.7 sacks, 3.7 passes defended, 3.9 tackles for a loss and 1.4 turnovers. Statistically, in no relevant aggressive area was Notre Dame’s defense better under VanGorder than it was under Diaco.

“You're gonna have some big plays but you're gonna make a lot of big plays too," Cooks said of VanGorder’s defensive expectations two years ago, "so it's a little give and take there."

Notre Dame indeed allowed more big plays under VanGorder: In total, 13 plays of 60 or more yards (0.43/game) and 64 of 30 or more yards (2.1/game). In Diaco’s four-year tenure, Notre Dame only allowed five total plays of 60 or more yards — as many as the Irish have allowed in 2016 alone — and 55 plays of 30 or more yards (1.1/game).

This isn’t to say Diaco’s defense was perfect and Notre Dame needs to go running back to something similar to it — the Irish defense ranked 48th in S&P+ in 2013 and was gouged by Michigan and Oklahoma that year. But that was far and away the worst year Notre Dame’s defense had under Diaco (in S&P+, it ranked 10th in 2010, 11th in 2011 and 8th in 2012). Notre Dame’s best year under VanGorder was 2015’s 35th-ranked defense by S&P+ — that group was stocked with captains, upperclassmen and NFL talent — and he was fired with Notre Dame sitting at No. 78 in defensive S&P+ in 2016.

A common critique of VanGorder’s system was that it was too difficult and that it threw far too much at student-athletes also balancing classwork. Players pushed back on that notion last week, as did Kelly during his teleconference on Sunday. But something had to be behind all the poor fits and blown coverages, right?

“There's not too much defense,” Kelly said. “There's probably too much analysis maybe, and we're going to streamline it and we're going to keep it fundamentally sound, certainly and we're going to allow our kids to play fast and free, and have some fun at it.”

But whatever the reasons for why this defense didn’t work, the over-arching fact of the matter was that Brian VanGorder’s defenses didn’t work. They set out to create havoc back in 2014 and fell entirely short of that goal.

Said VanGorder in March of 2014: “I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach.”

Notre Dame, outside of a few games that look like outliers on a troubling trend line, rarely controlled a game with its defense under VanGorder. It’ll have to hope Greg Hudson, or the next guy who comes into that role, can at least accomplish that.

Otherwise, those three losses in which Notre Dame scored at least 28 points could only be the beginning in what may wind up being a disastrous year in South Bend.