Young's Okafor rounding into form

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Young's Okafor rounding into form

How good is Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 sophomore center?

"He is the second best prospect in Illinois regardless of class behind (Simeon's) Jabari Parker," said Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"Actually, the gap between them is not all that great. Like Parker, Okafor is a certain one-and-done player in college and has a great chance to be a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. We have not seen a current high school post player who is any better."

With 6-foot-9 junior Tommy Hamilton recovering from surgery to repair a torn patella and sidelined for at least four more weeks and 6-foot-9 sophomore Paul White still recovering from an injury and not performing up to expectations, the burden is on Okafor to carry the Dolphins as far as he can take them. And his shoulders are proving to be very strong indeed.

"When I look at today's game, there aren't any guys who want to play with their back to the basket and go into the post," said Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "(Okafor) wants to be a pure post player. He isn't interested in shooting from the outside. He wants to play with his back to the basket. He is a player that one man can't defend.

"Remember, he is only 16. He has established a great body of work at a young age. He has a great upside. He will impact the high school game in ways no other player has in this state. After four years, we will say he not only is a great offensive player but a complete all-around player."

"Okafor is consistently dominant in the paint and is impossible to move on the block," Roy Schmidt said. "He simply overpowers all of his competition. He is already more advanced and has more maturity than most centers at the college level. There is no question that the sky is the limit."

After observing Okafor for the first time at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina -- he had 23 points and seven rebounds in the first half of one game -- longtime recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports was impressed. But he still had some reservations.

"He is very advanced offensively for a young player. He is strong, big, rebounds and does it all," Gibbons said. "But he isn't a great athlete. He has size and strength and uses it well for a sophomore. But I don't know if he'll be one of the all-time greats."

Another longtime recruiting analyst, Dave Telep of ESPN, described Okafor as "the next Jared Sullinger," comparing him favorably to the Ohio State star who is a leading candidate for National Player of the Year recognition in 2012.

Slaughter believes Okafor could emerge as the best big man ever produced in Illinois, better than NBA lottery pick Eddy Curry of Thornwood and Rashard Griffith of King. "Curry and Griffith were not at his level of offense at the same time in their development," Slaughter said.

At the moment, however, Okafor is all about potential. He is a 16-year-old sophomore who isn't in the best of shape, doesn't run the floor well, hasn't learned to face the basket and must develop in several areas in the next two years before he can be compared to 6-10 Russell Cross, the former Manley star who probably was the most dominating and intimidating big man ever produced in Illinois.

Cross was an All-Stater in 1979 and 1980. He led Manley to the state quarterfinals in 1979 and to the state championship in 1980. He starred for three years at Purdue, then opted for the NBA and was the sixth overall pick in the 1983 draft by the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered in high school that never fully healed eventually limited his NBA career to only one season.

The state has never produced another player like Cross, before or since. He was tall, long, mobile and agile, a great rebounder and shot blocker and defender, a high school version of Bill Russell without any exaggeration. At this time, Okafor doesn't resemble Cross in any way, shape for form.

"(Okafor) has become a better rebounder this year," Slaughter said. "Defense will come with more work. And better conditioning, too. Will he be the defensive player that Cross was? Will he be as good as Anthony Davis (the Kentucky freshman from Chicago Perspective)? I believe in the next two years he will be a phenomenal defensive player."

In fairness, Okafor and his Whitney Young team are competing against what is arguably the toughest schedule of any high school in the country. The brand of competition can't help but to improve his skills, bolster his motivation and inspire his resolve.

Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Okafor as the No. 2 player in the class of 2014 behind 6-foot-7 Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian-born wingman who attends a prep school in Huntington, West Virginia.

Okafor claims his recruiting is wide open, that he isn't close to making a decision, that he is enjoying the process and plans to take full advantage of his opportunities to evaluate colleges, their coaches and programs and campuses. He already has made unofficial visits to several schools, including Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Illinois.

He has several scholarship offers from major Division I schools but his father denies a published report that his son is "most impressed" with Arizona, Duke, Illinois and Michigan State. It is much too early, his father insists, to disregard Ohio State, Georgetown, Connecticut, Iowa, Arkansas, Purdue, Tennessee, Missouri and DePaul.

And what about four perennial national powers that are on his wish list but haven't offered scholarships yet--Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse? Each has talked to Slaughter and expressed interest in recruiting Okafor.

Look for Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse to leap into the Okafor sweepstakes. Each has talked to his coach and expressed interest in recruiting him. But they haven't offered yet. Okafor did make an unofficial visit to the North Carolina campus.

Okafor also has talked to Kentucky freshman star Anthony Davis and would like to be in a position to consider Kentucky. "I'm a big fan of Kentucky. I really like what they have to offer. But I haven't heard from them," he said. However, some critics doubt Okafor could be effective in the dribble-drive offense that coach John Calipari employs.

What else do you need to know about Okafor?

He is a distant cousin of Emeka Okafor, the former Connecticut star and 2004 Olympian who currently plays for the New Orleans Hornets in the NBA.

He was a member of the gold medal-winning USA Under-16 national team that won the FIBA Americas championship and qualified for the Under-17 FIBA world championship in 2012.

He plays the tuba.

His favorite basketball announcer is Dick Vitale.

Well, nobody said he was perfect.

James Blackmon Jr. will be back with Hoosiers in 2016-17

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James Blackmon Jr. will be back with Hoosiers in 2016-17

After missing the majority of last season, James Blackmon Jr. will return to Indiana for his junior season.

Blackmon had entered his name into the NBA Draft, taking advantage of new rules allowing underclassmen to do so without hiring an agent and participate in team workouts while still being able to return to the college level with their NCAA eligibility intact.

But after learning more about his pro potential, he withdrew ahead of Wednesday night's deadline.

Getting Blackmon back will almost be like adding a completely new player for Tom Crean, whose Hoosiers won a regular-season conference championship last season without Blackmon playing in a single Big Ten game.

Blackmon shone as a freshman, averaging 15.7 points and 5.3 rebounds during the 2014-15 campaign. Last year, he averaged 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in 13 games and posted significantly better shooting numbers, shooting 48 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from 3-point range.

It was reported Tuesday that Troy Williams will forego his senior year at Indiana and stay in the draft, and the Hoosiers lose their best player with the graduation of Yogi Ferrell. But Blackmon's return as well as those of Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby should make Indiana a formidable threat in the Big Ten in 2016-17.

Why Cubs can't take Jake Arrieta’s brilliance for granted

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Why Cubs can't take Jake Arrieta’s brilliance for granted

ST. LOUIS – When the Cubs returned home to Wrigley Field after Jake Arrieta’s second no-hitter, veteran catcher/media go-to guy David Ross stood in front of his locker and listened to a question about whether or not he had seen anything like this before. 

Surrounded by reporters in the new state-of-the-art clubhouse, Ross immediately cited two other examples he witnessed up close during a big-league career now in its 15th and final season: Kris Medlen and Eric Gagne.  

This is not at all suggesting that Arrieta is heading toward Tommy John surgery or a performance-enhancing drugs scandal or a steep drop off the cliff. But Medlen’s narrow window of greatness and Gagne’s game-over flameout shows the Cubs can’t take Arrieta’s brilliance for granted.  

Arrieta proved he’s not a cyborg on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, even as the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals and won his 23rd consecutive regular-season start.   

Since 1913, only three other pitchers had seen their teams win 22 straight starts, according to STATS Inc.: Carl Hubbell (New York Giants, 1936-37); Whitey Ford (New York Yankees, 1950-53); and Medlen’s 23-start run with Ross and the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012.    

“I don’t take it for granted,” Ross said. “When you look at the daily performance, you see him just carrying you as a team. You can’t take that for granted, because you realize it’s special. It almost adds a little bit to your energy level, because you’re expecting great things from him and you don’t want to let him down as a teammate. 

“You’re like: ‘I’d better bring my A-game, because this is our stud and he’s doing some special things and I want him to keep doing these special things.’ We don’t ever want to think that one of our guys have a chink in the armor. You just want them to keep rolling.”

Medlen appeared in only two games for the Braves in 2011 and underwent a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow in 2014. He earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year and is now on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation.    

Ross also caught Gagne during the 2003 season where the Los Angeles Dodgers closer went 55-for-55 in save chances and won the National League Cy Young Award, part of a run where he converted 84 consecutive saves. 

Gagne needed the Tommy John reconstruction of his right elbow in the middle of the 2005 season, bounced around to three different teams, showed up in the Mitchell Report (featuring a due-diligence e-mail from Theo Epstein to a Boston Red Sox scout) and later admitted to using human growth hormone.     

Again, this is simply a reminder to appreciate what you’re watching here. 

This was the first time Arrieta allowed a regular-season run in the first inning since May 29, 2015 against the Royals, according to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago stats guru Christopher Kamka, and the first time he allowed four runs in a regular-season game since June 16, 2015, or Kyle Schwarber’s big-league debut.   

“I’m not a big numbers guy, but I watch how he makes really good major-league hitters who get paid a lot of money (look),” Ross said. “He makes them look not very hitter-ish. I just read the swings – and the takes even. 

“Guys are taking fastballs down and away with two strikes like it surprises them. And I know that’s what 90 percent of us are looking for when you get two strikes, just trying to make some contact. The ball explodes out of his hand because he hides it so well.”

Which made it jarring to see Arrieta give up his first home run in more than six weeks when Randal Grichuk drove a ball over the right-center field fence and into the St. Louis bullpen in the second inning. Pitching coach Chris Bosio quickly visited the mound during a stoppage in fourth inning. Left-handed reliever Travis Wood warmed up in the bullpen during the fifth inning.

Arrieta escaped that bases-loaded jam when third baseman Tommy La Stella made a diving stop to his right on a Grichuk groundball and threw to second base for the third out. That was it for Arrieta, who threw 93 pitches and watched his ERA soar from 1.29 to 1.72.

“I walk to the park a lot, so you hear people talking,” Ross said. “It’s funny. It makes me laugh when you’re at a restaurant or something and you hear them talking about: ‘Yeah, Arrieta’s going today, maybe he’ll throw a no-hitter.’ It’s not that easy, people! 

“But you feel that energy in the atmosphere. And you know the other team is going to bring their best, because they understand they’re facing one of the best in the game, if not the best.”      

Caleb Swanigan returning to Purdue for sophomore season

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Caleb Swanigan returning to Purdue for sophomore season

Purdue has experienced a decent amount of turnover this offseason, but one key piece from last season's squad will be back in the fold for 2016-17.

Caleb Swanigan announced Wednesday that he will return to the Boilermakers for his sophomore season, withdrawing from the NBA Draft.

"The NBA is right there and always will be, but you always have to have patience and do what’s best for you," Swanigan said in the team's announcement.

Swanigan is one of many underclassmen who have taken advantage of new rules allowing them to declare for the draft without hiring an agent and participate in team workouts while still being able to return to school with their NCAA eligibility intact.

The process is undoubtedly beneficial to players, who were able to gather more information about their pro potential but still take time they need to develop and better prepare themselves for the NBA at the college level.

"We are excited that Biggie has withdrawn from the NBA Draft and will return to Purdue," Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter said in the announcement. "He has the potential to make a huge jump from his freshman season and will be a big part of what we do next year. He received great experience going through this process and will use the feedback he received to make him a more diverse player."

Swanigan's return is a big boost for Purdue's chances in the upcoming campaign. As a freshman last season, the big man averaged 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.

Swanigan joins Vince Edwards in withdrawing from the draft and returning to West Lafayette, giving the Boilers back three-fifths of their starting five from a season ago (P.J. Thompson being the other) as well as other impact players such as Isaac Haas and Ryan Cline. Plus the team added former Michigan point guard Spike Albrecht as a grad transfer this offseason. Purdue should go into the 2016-17 campaign as one of the favorites in the Big Ten.