Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

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Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

The biggest day in the life of Larry Austin Jr.--up to now, that is--comes on Feb. 18. It will be his 16th birthday. It is only a coincidence that his Springfield Lanphier team, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, will meet second-rated Peoria Central on that date.

"That morning I get my driver's license," Austin said. "I'm looking forward to being able to drive. I don't want to depend on my parents all the time."

If he had a choice, Austin would choose a Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer for his first vehicle, not a Ferrari or Sting Ray or Lamborghini.

That's because Austin, or LA to his friends, is all about being a utilitarian, nothing flashy. He prefers the grunt work, not the spotlight. Of all the many things he does on the basketball floor, he likes to make steals, not shots. He plays with enormous poise and maturity, rare for someone who enjoys watching cartoons.

Austin is a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard who averages 11 points, four assists and five steals for a 20-2 team that will meet highly rated Chatham Glenwood and Peyton Allen on Friday night for the Central State Eight Conference championship.

He already has received scholarship offers from Illinois, Bradley, DePaul and Memphis but most of the major programs, including Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State, are showing interest. Longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Austin among the top 50 players in the class of 2014.

Austin has built a national reputation despite his modest statistics. As a member of the 12-member USA men's developmental national team that won a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 championship, he averaged only four points but accumulated seven assists and seven steals per game while playing with Simeon's Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor.

"He has a great basketball IQ. He plays at a high level," Lanphier coach Chuck Shanklin said. "He does so many different things. His big statistic is the number of steals per game. His performance in the summer with Parker and USA Basketball brought him to everybody's attention. He will be a point guard in college."

That's what is attracting the major schools--Austin's point guard skills. Have you noticed how many teams in college and the NBA are desperately looking for leadership, someone to steer the ship and prevent it from sinking?

That's why former Thornridge and Indiana star Quinn Buckner, perhaps the most celebrated leader ever produced in Illinois, was the first player ever selected among the top 10 in the NBA draft who didn't average more than 10 points per game. Everybody coveted his point guard and leadership skills.

"The biggest thing that Austin has going for him are the positive intangibles that he brings to the table," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"He sports considerable toughness, is a strong man-to-man defender, has great leadership qualities and plays unselfishly. In addition, he has outstanding speed and quickness which combined with his strength allow him to consistently get to the basket.

"His perimeter shooting is still suspect and he is definitely not a scorer like Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is the other elite point guard in the class of 2014. Nevertheless, Austin possesses many of the attributes that warrant him drawing potential as a potential high major recruit."

Recruiting seems to be the last thing on his mind. With more than two years left to play at the high school level, he can expect many more offers, giving him endless options and opportunities to select the program of his choice, what is best for him. And there is no hurry to do it.

"I just want to stay focused and stay in the gym and do my schoolwork," he said.

At the moment, Austin doesn't play point guard on a team that is led by seniors Everett Clemons, T.J. Davis and Jaylen Briggity. But Austin will move to point guard as a junior. He knows that is his position for the future and he welcomes the challenge.

"A pure point guard is someone who controls the game very well and makes other players better," Austin said. "He has to have a pass-first attitude. His job is to get everyone involved in the game as soon as possible before he thinks about taking shots.

"Leadership is about communicating with other players, taking the game over when it is necessary, scoring when you have to, being in control of the game. When you see people arguing, you know they are in a bad position. It's your job to tell them what to do and when to do it."

Austin admires NBA stars Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and watches them whenever possible. He marvels at Rose's quickness and how Paul comes off pick-and-rolls. But he always talks about "playing my game" and not trying to copy someone else's.

At the USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he minded to his own business. "I learned how to compete every day. I realized that someone always is working when you aren't. It takes hard work every day if you want to be a great player, if you want to get better. We talked about little things that help you to win games...hustle plays, getting loose balls, breaking down defenses, drawing fouls, getting rebounds, how to make plays," he said.

It didn't take him long to realize that basketball was his future. He stopped playing baseball in second grade, after only one season as a first baseman. He said the game was too slow for him.

"Why basketball? I like intensity, the way we compete against other teams. The atmosphere is there," Austin said. "I like to make steals. If I get a steal and a breakaway and a dunk, it fires up my team and gets the crowd into the game. That's what makes it fun for me. I just go out and play and have fun."

Where it all went wrong for Cubs and Miguel Montero

Where it all went wrong for Cubs and Miguel Montero

WASHINGTON – The Cubs swiftly reacted to Miguel Montero’s jaw-dropping criticism of Jake Arrieta, dumping the veteran catcher the day after the Washington Nationals ran wild with seven stolen bases and exposed some of the issues within the visiting clubhouse.

You could read the writing on the wall Wednesday morning when Anthony Rizzo’s comments on his weekly WMVP-AM 1000 appearance went viral. An All-Star first baseman who is tight with management and picky about when he decides to speak up called out Montero as a “selfish player.”

In designating Montero for assignment – a source confirmed catcher Victor Caratini will also be promoted from Triple-A Iowa – the Cubs will have to eat roughly half of his $14 million salary in the final year of his contract. 

Montero’s biggest sin is that he no longer produces like the two-time All-Star he had been with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he developed a reputation for blunt honesty and a willingness to mentor young players. The Cubs wanted that edge when they traded for Montero at the 2014 winter meetings, part of a dramatic makeover that included signing ace pitcher Jon Lester to a $155 million megadeal.

Montero’s goofy “#WeAreGood” hashtag on Twitter became a symbol for a rising franchise and a loose team that didn’t care about the weight of history. 

But where Montero could be the spokesman in Arizona and wear the target on his back, a backup catcher can’t torch a Cy Young Award winner and the team’s running-game strategy when he is 0-for-31 and Contreras is throwing guys out 34 percent of the time.     

Montero welcomed Contreras and Kyle Schwarber to the big leagues, generously trying to help with their learning curve, even as they kept taking his playing time. Montero didn’t exactly have the same reaction to David Ross becoming a media darling and a crossover celebrity.

[RELATED: Miguel Montero sends classy goodbye to Cubs players and fans]

Montero already put himself in jeopardy in the immediate World Series aftermath, ripping manager Joe Maddon in a radio interview on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally.  

Montero couldn’t help himself, even after delivering a pinch-hit grand slam against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, and driving in what turned out to be the winning run in the 10th inning against the Cleveland Indians in a World Series Game 7.

Montero wouldn’t bite his tongue late Tuesday night after a sloppy, frustrating 6-1 loss at Nationals Park. With a 39-38 record, several key players on the disabled list and a clubhouse far more complex than Maddon’s Woodstock visions, the Cubs are in crisis mode.   

“It really sucks because the stolen bases go on me,” Montero said. “When you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time. It’s just like: ‘Yeah, OK, Miggy can’t throw nobody out.’ Yeah, but my pitchers don’t hold anybody on. It’s tough, because it doesn’t matter how much work I put in.

“If I don’t get a chance to throw, that’s the reason why they were running left and right today, because they know he was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame that it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anybody out.”

Miguel Montero sends a classy goodbye to Cubs players and fans

Miguel Montero sends a classy goodbye to Cubs players and fans

Miguel Montero's Tuesday night comments showed questionable judgement, but the veteran catcher was all class in a farewell statement.

Montero said goodbye to his Cubs teammates, staff members and the city of Chicago Wednesday in a series of Tweets:

It's a perfect way for Montero to sign off, using the hashtag that united fans in 2015 as the Cubs' championship window first opened.

Montero has been an integral part of the Cubs the last three years, hitting maybe the biggest home run in franchise history (the grand slam in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers) and helping mentor Willson Contreras.