A tale of two coaches: Caneles, Evans

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A tale of two coaches: Caneles, Evans

I don't know Kaleb Canales personally. Before Thursday, he was just a name.

In NBA circles, he was regarded as an up-and-coming young assistant with a reputation for having a strong work ethic and good individual relationships with players, similar to a coach Windy City fans are somewhat familiar with. But after Friday night's win over the Bulls -- in his first game as an NBA head coach, following Nate McMillan's ouster Thursday, after Portland's 40-point loss at the hands of the Knicks (featuring their own new head coach) and coinciding with the trade-deadline deals that shipped veteran mainstays Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby to New Jersey and Houston, respectively -- the 34-year-old interim head coach of the Trail Blazers already has a win over the league's top team under his belt, not to mention same instant name recognition.

"Just a special time for us as a team, as an organization, as a family. All the credit goes to the guys in that locker room for holding it together. Obviously it's a special win because you can imagine everything that's going on," Canales, the NBA's first Mexican-American head coach, said afterwards. "We just talked about staying in the moment and controlling what we can control, and we did that tonight."

"Our team spirit was there tonight and it was a team victory all the way through," he continued. "We just made adjustments at halftime as a staff and we talked about certain wrinkles that we felt we could go with, and we were just fortunate that they worked out.

"Canales told his players in the locker room after the game that I loved them and with the commitment we asked this morning, they committed to it and we're going to hold them accountable for the rest of the year."

McMillan was viewed as one of the league's upper-echelon coaches for years, but after years of devastating injuries, it seemed as if the former Seattle Supersonics guard had simply run his course with this season's edition of the Blazers. Under Canales, at least in his head-coaching debut, Portland appeared rejuvenated, even as short-handed as they were after the trades, and shocked a Bulls team coming off an inspired Wednesday win over the Heat.

"To be honest with you, it's kind of relaxing. I've been very blessed and fortunate to get this opportunity. It's very humbling," Canales, who acknowledged that it's been a "tough year" for a Portland squad looking in at the playoffs from the outside at the present, remarked. "I just wanted to go out there and compete. That's what we want to do every night. We wanted to compete and play together."

"We're focused on practice tomorrow," he added. "We talked about it and in our league, wins and losses, the biggest thing you gain from it is in practice the next day and obviously we know we've got to get some work tomorrow.

"I have a lot of sweat equity with these guys. I've spent a lot of time with them."

Now, Anthony Evans, I do know. But to most people, the head coach at Norfolk State University, like Canales, was pretty much anonymous before Friday.

A No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, consisting of all historically black colleges and universities) tournament, Evans' Spartans team was matched up with Missouri, the Big 12 tournament champions, in the opening round. Missouri was picked by many observers to make it to the Final Four; instead Norfolk State upset them, the first of two No. 15 seeds -- Lehigh, which beat Duke, being the other -- to win on the evening.

"I apologize, but I don't apologize because this is a dream come true, to get to the NCAA Tournament, actually win a game, representing the MEAC, who have done it before. One of the people who I called was MEAC rival Coppin State head coach Fang Mitchell. Fang Mitchell, years ago, was a 15 seed who beat Texas. He gave me some great advice. He told me to keep the game close over the increments, but tell the kids to go out and have fun. We did that last night and we got our first victory in the NCAA Tournament," Evans told CSNChicago.com. "It's great for college basketball. These are the stories that you live for when you're growing up and they talk about Cinderella. These are the teams that they mean. Lehigh, there's a guy on staff, Steve Ott, that I know. He actually played under me when I was at SUNY-New Paltz as an assistant, so I'm happy for the staff, happy for him and definitely elated for us. Hopefully both of us can continue through the tournament."

I've known Evans since he was an assistant at Norfolk State -- he recruited a high-school player I worked with in Philadelphia -- and always thought highly of him, but I can't say I expected him to knock off Missouri. To be frank, his team broke my bracket, though the joy of a friend's success outweighs me winning an NCAA Tournament pool.

However, I wasn't surprised that it was a close game. I watched Norfolk State take Marquette to the wire in the championship game of the Paradise Jam holiday tournament (before the hectic NBA season started), after getting absolutely destroyed by Jimmy Butler's alma mater in an earlier matchup.

Kyle O'Quinn, the MEAC player of the year, conference tournament MVP and defensive player of the year is the main reason the Spartans got the historic upset, as the 6-foot-10 senior went for 26 points and 14 rebounds against Missouri. O'Quinn is solid, blue-collar type who has received interest from NBA teams throughout the season.

"When he first came to us, he was really, really raw. He's only been playing basketball for about six years. We had to put all the basics in with him, with footwork and everything. He's developed, he's matured all-around. He can block shots, rebound and his offensive game has definitely come around because he can make a back-to-the-basket move, rock-steady. He hit a three-point shot Friday, which he has done for us time and time again for us this year," Evans said of O'Quinn, his fellow native New Yorker. "He's just been a pleasure to coach the last four years. He showed last night that he can be a dominant force and I hope some of the teams in the league will pay attention,"

Still, even with O'Quinn, whose only Division I scholarship offer was from Norfolk State after only seeing significant playing time as a high school senior, beating one of the best teams in the nation would be a tall task. Evans believed that Missouri's unconventional style and smaller lineup actually played to his team's advantage.

"We started breaking down some film and we watched Missouri play. They play four guards. In the MEAC, we see a lot of that and they were similar to Marquette. They wanted to get up and down the floor, they wanted to play a fast pace, score in the 80s, so we thought our matchups were pretty favorable for us. Once we started playing last night, Kyle got off to a great start. He was really aggressive at the beginning of the game. I thought he set the tone for the rest of the team," he said. "At the end of the game, they were a little fatigued because some of the threes they were hitting in the first half, they started missing, so we were rebounding, we had a six-point lead and if we hit some free throws, we could have extended it, but we missed them and they got back in. Pressey hit a real, real deep three to put them within one, but we responded and as long as we responded to the runs and the plays that they made, I thought we had a good chance of pulling the game out."

As improbable as O'Quinn's journey was, his coach can relate. Evans worked his way up from being a volunteer assistant at a New York junior college to becoming an assistant coach at Norfolk State for four seasons before being hired as head coach five seasons ago, with stints as a Division III assistant and junior-college head coach in between.

"All I knew about was working hard. Working as hard as I could, put the right pieces together, the right staff together and make a run at it. We had a five-year plan. We got to the championship game in the MEAC in '08 and we lost to a very good Morgan State team, but for the last couple years, we struggled a little bit out of conference," he said. "This year, everything came together. We had some transfers sitting out and some seniors coming back, who were hungry to win."

Sunday, the Spartans face Florida, another guard-heavy squad. However, Evans understands that after knocking off Missouri, the Gators will be wary and won't be taken by surprise.

"Everyone's happy, but we know we have a job to do. Florida's going to be a bigger challenge than Missouri because they had a chance to sit down and actually watch us play last night. They're going to be prepared, so we have to play better than we did last night, in order for us to be successful. It's going to be a tough challenge, but I think we're going to be ready when we step on the floor tomorrow night," he explained. "It's good for us because we're not playing against a big, physical basketball team. I think we can match up. I think they might be a little bit more physical than Missouri was, but I like our chances. Again, we have to go in and play our best basketball because we can't think that what we did last night is good enough to win. We have to go in with a sense of urgency, we have to play together, we have to play with composure, so that we can be successful tomorrow night, as well."

Zach LaVine's recovery and performance will either inspire confidence in Bulls rebuild or doom it

Zach LaVine's recovery and performance will either inspire confidence in Bulls rebuild or doom it

The smiles were around as the newcomers of the Bulls put on their best faces as the new era of Bulls basketball was officially presented to the public.

The men who brought them to Chicago, John Paxson and Gar Forman, began the painstaking task of introducing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to a skeptical public that believes the Bulls were robbed without a ski mask for Jimmy Butler.

Sitting next to them was coach Fred Hoiberg, who’s entering his third season with a third different roster and a chance to change a narrative that’s largely nondescript to this point.

“Thursday night we made a decision to move a great player (Butler),” Paxson said. “But over these last four or five days, we sat and talked and are really happy about the direction we’re about to head down.”

It’s a direction they’ve chosen where they know everything has to be done right for it to be fruitful. High draft choices are to be expected, and Paxson has said publicly and privately that they must hit on every single one, starting with Markkanen.

But for the sake of narrative and performance certainty and erasing errors of the past, LaVine has to be the one who leads the rebuild on the floor. It could be awhile before Markkanen develops, and in Dunn it’s uncertain if he had a bump in the road as a rookie or if the Bulls see something in him the Timberwolves failed to focus on.

Dunn could merely be a long unrequited love the Bulls have held onto without actually looking at the evidence he presented in an underwhelming rookie season.

But it’s LaVine who has the most pressure and is as close to a household name as anyone, winner of two straight dunk contests in 2014 and 2015 at All-Star Weekend.

A high flyer with a higher ceiling than anyone on the Bulls roster, LaVine must show he’s not damaged goods as he’s returning from a left ACL tear he suffered in February.

Bumping knees with Detroit’s Andre Drummond on an athletic drive to the basket, LaVine shook off the pain to play another six minutes in that third quarter in Detroit, completely unaware of the severity.

“I just thought it was a sprain,” LaVine told CSNChicago.com. “It wasn’t until I went to the locker room at the end of the quarter and more doctors were called in that I started thinking something was wrong.”

The bad news arrived and surgery wasn’t far behind, turning a promising campaign into one of uncertainty, the same kind that mirrors this franchise. Doctors have told LaVine, his family and representatives his knee doesn’t have the typical wear and tear of average athletes, probably buoyed by the fact his recovery is ahead of the nine-to-12-month usual schedule that accompanies these injuries.

Considering the last torn ACL in Chicago still haunts the franchise, considering LaVine plays the same position as the man he’s replacing and the fact he’s relishing being the man in charge in a similar way Butler did, LaVine’s recovery and development is the one most critical to this franchise’s credibility.

“We talked about it. Hey, look, you wanted to be an All-Star guy,” Paul LaVine, Zach’s father who was in attendance at the Advocate Center, said to CSNChicago.com. “You’re in a bigger market, go out here and get it done. I’m not concerned because my son, each situation, he’s surprised me.”

He averaged 18.9 points in 47 games as a third option behind Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, but when he steps on the floor, yes he’ll have more opportunities but also more defensive attention and a spotlight he hasn’t had to deal with as a pro.

“High school, I didn’t know,” Paul LaVine said. “His first 15 games at UCLA, that’s what got him drafted, he exploded. When he got here, I knew if he got an opportunity on the NBA stage, it doesn’t surprise me.”

But the newest Bull knows he must fight the urge to come back in a superhuman manner, especially playing for the franchise Michael Jordan built. Jordan, through highlight videos and the movie “Space Jam,” became one of LaVine’s idols. More directly, Kobe Bryant became the player LaVine has modeled himself after, as LaVine chose the number eight and wore Bryant’s signature Nikes during his photo shoot after his introductory news conference.

“I'm only 22. I'm ready for it. I'm very humble,” LaVine said with a smile of confidence. “When it's time for me to get going, I'm going to come in here and work my butt off like I always do, going in with full confidence. I'm just extremely excited to get this ball rolling and see what we can do.”

LaVine is often pulled back when he passes through certain benchmarks of his rehab and has to continue to play the long game. Coming back too soon or being pressed to come back got others in trouble.

Headed into restricted free agency after next season, LaVine certainly wants to prove his worth so contract negotiations will be smooth in the offseason. But since the Bulls have clearly chosen their path of a rebuild, one wonders how the two ideals will compete against one another this season.

“Regardless, I’m going to be safe. That’s the main thing, always being safe,” LaVine said. “I always have to take care of myself and this franchise, as well. I’m going to be safe, I’m going to do everything I can physically to get back. Then when I’m at that point, I’m going to be ready. I’m the type of person that’s going to work my butt off to get there as fast as possible. I’m going to be ready when I am there.”

For the Bulls’ sake, LaVine has to be the face of this first step as it might be the closest thing the front office has to inspiring any level of confidence to a weary fan base.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: No Wade, no how

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: No Wade, no how

In the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Jon Greenberg (The Athletic), Lauren Comitor (The Athletic) and Nick Friedell (ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. 

The Bulls have defined their direction, but will that direction include Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo? 

Kyle Schwarber strikes out three times in his Iowa debut. How long will he be in Triple-A?

Plus, Joe Maddon doesn’t care about your lineup concerns, Jose Quintana auditions against the Yankees, and Scott Paddock talks NASCAR and NHRA.

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: