Early returns for former member of Bulls' "Bench Mob"

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Early returns for former member of Bulls' "Bench Mob"

PHOENIXTheres two schools of thought when it comes to the Bench Mob, the Bulls beloved bench from the past two seasons.
One is that the organization should have done whatever it takes to keep them, while the other camp understands that the realities of the new CBA, coupled with the fact that with Derrick Roses uncertain status for this season, didnt make sense to keep the group intact if contending for a title wasnt a sure thing.
Regardless, whats done is done and, except for holdover Taj Gibson, who was recently rewarded with a new long-term contract extension and is averaging 7.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per night in 21 minutes, the group dispersed to various locales over the summer: Kyle Korver was traded to Atlanta, Ronnie Brewer waived and eventually signed by New York, C.J. Watson suffering the same fate but going to the borough of Brooklyn instead of Manhattan, John Lucas inking a free-agent deal with Toronto and Omer Asik famously signing a three-year deal worth nearly 25 million in Houston, as the Rockets poison pill in the final season put the Bulls in a tough position.
Its only two weeks into the NBA season, but now that the old favorites are settled into their new homes, its worth checking on how theyre faring.
Asik, Gibsons former tag-team partner, was quietly yearning for not only more playing time, but a starting role, something that the presence of Joakim Noah prevented in Chicago. Now in Houston, Asik playing north of 32 minutes an outing and has shown remarkable offensive developmentthough not entirely unprecedented, judging from his play in international competition while representing his home country of Turkeyas well as being a defensive anchor for the Rockets and one of the leagues top rebounders.
Used as a screener on high pick-and-rolls for the much-ballyhooed backcourt of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, Asik has fared wellsomething Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau could have predicted, given his praise of Asiks ability to set picksbut more surprisingly, hes displayed better hands and touch than witnessed in Chicago, resulting in 9.9 points per game, to go along with his monster 13 rebounds a contest. While field-goal percentage is extremely low for a center at 42.1 percent from the field, whats shocking is the 72.4 percentage from the foul line from a previously dismal free-throw shooter.
Some of his more impressive game statistics include a career-high 19 points, including 11-for-14 from the charity stripe, to go with 14 rebounds in the Rockets loss to the Heat on Monday, as well as a 19-rebound effortalthough he was scoreless, shooting 0-for-7 from the floorin a Nov. 2 game against Korvers Hawks.
Houston is currently 3-4, as opposing defenses have stymied Harden after his brilliant start, but Asik continues to be effective.
While Asik had less fanfare coming to Houston than Lin and later, Harden, he wasnt nearly as close to being an afterthought as Brewer when he was acquired by the Knicks. But with instant-offense scorer J.R. Smith more productive in a sixth-man role, Chicago native Iman Shumpert sidelined with an arduous rehabilitation process, he was slated to be New Yorks starting shooting guard at the outset of the season.
Just like when he came to Chicago, Brewer endured a injury that affected him through training camp, but the versatile swingman recovered and after Amare Stoudemire got hurt, New York head coach Mike Woodson opted to start him at small forward, using veteran Jason Kidd in the backcourt with fellow point guard Raymond Felton, shifting All-Star Carmelo Anthony to power forward, the position at which he was perhaps his best last season.
The oldest team in modern league history has thrived in the early going, racing out of the gates with a 5-0 record and while Brewer is one of the least high-profile players on the squad, hes been a big part of the Knicks success.
Averaging nine points and 6.2 rebounds in 26.8 minutes an evening, Brewer adds a dose of athleticism to a mostly ground-bound roster, as well as a strong defensive presence and somebody who can flourish in transition. It remains to be seen whether Brewer will continue to start when the Knicks have their full complement of players, but as Chicagoans know well, nights like his 13-point, 10-rebound performance against Philadelphia on Nov. 5 can occur for the Arkansas native no matter his role, just as long as he plays.
Korver, one of the leagues preeminent sharpshooters, is sorely missed in Chicago, where the Bulls werent necessarily the most proficient outside-shooting team when he was on the roster, but are clearly in the dregs of the NBA now, even as replacement Marco Belinelli begins to find his stroke. Its unlikely that hell admit it publicly, but Thibodeau feels the loss as strongly as anybody, twice having made reflexive references to Korvers clutch shooting when asked about which players would close out games in Roses absence, by this writers count.
Korver has earned a starting role in Atlanta, which traded All-Star Joe Johnson over the summer, and although many believed the Hawks would take a big step back and enter a major rebuilding phase, at least at this point, theres no reason to think theyre no longer a playoff contender.
Now anchored around the talents of athletic big men Josh Smith and Al Horford, as well as a young, quick guard cadre that includes Jeff Teague, the older brother of Bulls rookie Marquis Teague, along with the likes of offseason acquisitions Lou Williams, Deshawn Stevenson, Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow, Korver has already been identified as a go-to guy down the stretch of games for Atlanta, as evidenced by his 16-point outing, which included 4-for-6 shooting from long range in a win over Portland on Monday. Shooting 37.1 percent from deep and averaging 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 stealsthe latter number a testament to his improvement as a team, if not individual defender, during his tenure in Chicagoin 26 minutes a night, the Hawks are 3-3 thus far.
Watson appears to be finding his niche in the league as a high-level backup point guard to some of the games elite floor generals, as hes now the understudy to All-Star Deron Williams after playing behind Rose for two seasons. All the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Nets move to Brooklyn wouldnt seem to fit his quiet personality, but Watson has been delivering on the court early this season.
Nagged by injuries in the preseason, hes playing almost 25 minutes a night in the Big Apple, averaging 8.3 points a game on 44 percent shooting from the floor, as well as contributing 1.3 steals per contest for the 4-2 club. His season-high is a modest 15 points, notched in a Nov. 3 win over Lucas Raptors, but if Williams goes down with an injury at any point this season, its a fact that hes capable of more prolific numbers.
Speaking of Lucas, just knowing that the journeyman finally achieved some security on the professional level by signing a multi-year deal with Toronto is a testament to his perseverance, as well as Thibodeaus belief in him, which at least partially stemmed from both their shared time in Houston and the coachs long-time relationship with Lucas father, his former boss in Philadelphia, back when the younger Lucas was a child.
After a strong preseason, howeverhe recorded separate highs of 16 points and eight assistshes been caught in a point-guard logjam, as Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has opted to go with marquee offseason acquisition Kyle Lowry as the starter and veteran holdover Jose Calderon, who got his first career triple-double Tuesday night, as the backup, with Calderon taking over the starting job in Lowrys injury-related absence.
Lucas best regular-season game came Monday, when he had seven points and two assists against Utah, but on the campaign, hes averaging just 2.1 points and 1.1 assists a night on a lowly 17.6 percent from the field in under 11 minutes a game for the 2-6 team. Still, many expect Calderon to be dealt at some point this season, which would open up minutes and a more definitive role for Lucas.
In between mourning the loss of the collective group and the various strengths of the individuals (Brewers athleticism, Korvers marksmanship, Watsons scoring ability, Asiks defensive presence and Lucas knack for rising to the occasion) and fans similarly passionate ire when things didnt go right (Brewers lack of outside shooting, Korvers defensive issues, Lucas shoot-first tendencies and most famously, Watsons decision to pass the ball to Asik, who missed a pair of free throws in Game 6 of the Bulls first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia, which eliminated the team), it has to be accepted that the Bench Mob era is finally over, with the old guard better off for the experience and the teams new second unit still finding its way.
The first reunion, with Asik in Houston, during the Bulls ongoing Circus Trip, is soon to come and while its unlikely to be a tearful experience, it should certainly bring back some fond memories.

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are so strong up the middle that Javier Baez can star for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and return to camp as a super-utility guy/late-game defensive replacement. 

But that projection in late March is based on across-the-board health, which never happens in a 162-game season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) hasn't played in a Cactus League game in almost a week. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) became a late scratch to Friday's lineup at Sloan Park.

After trying to make a diving catch in center field, Albert Almora Jr. exited in the third inning of a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians with what the Cubs called "left neck tightness," though he still plans to play in Las Vegas this weekend.  

On the other side of the spring-training complex in Mesa – away from the crowd of 15,473 in a minor-league game against a Colorado Rockies squad – the Cubs did get a positive piece of news on the health front: Kyle Schwarber went four innings behind the plate, going Tony Pena style and trying to reduce the stress on his body.

"I love catching," Schwarber said. "Whenever I played baseball, I was always a catcher. For me to be able to do that today – and feel pretty good about myself walking away from the day – it was a good step."

This is clearly important to Schwarber, an intensely driven personality who doesn't want to hear "no." Otherwise, the Cubs probably would have shut this down already, not wanting to risk it with a franchise player, someone who might blast 35 homers at the top of their lineup.

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But the medical staff cleared Schwarber when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – and it could become a valuable skill again. 

"The most difficult part I would probably say was setup-wise," Schwarber said, "trying to find that timing of your moves and everything like that. Sometimes I felt like I was a little late getting my setup. But that all came. It's been a year since I got behind there, so overall everything went really well."

The Cubs already have one of the best young catchers in the game (Willson Contreras) and a two-time All-Star making $14 million this season backing him up (Miguel Montero). Schwarber doesn't want to put a number on how many starts he might make behind the plate, though the Cubs have framed it as in case of emergency, an extra late-inning option for manager Joe Maddon or maybe something that makes sense with a particular matchup. 

"As of right now, it's still the third-catcher role," Schwarber said. "I'm down for whatever, but I know the majority of the time is going to be out there in left."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Mark Sanchez officially signs with Bears

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Mark Sanchez officially signs with Bears

On the latest edition of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Chris Emma, Seth Gruen and Danny Ecker join David Kaplan to discuss the Mark Sanchez signing. Does this mean the Bears won't draft a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft? 

Later, the White Sox named Jose Quintana their Opening Day starter, but lose Carlos Rodon and Todd Frazier to injuries. 

Finally, Robin Lopez is back after serving a one-game suspension. The panel looks at the Bulls matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below.