Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

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Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

Longtime recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye predict that John Groce, Illinois' new basketball coach, will turn the Illini program into a significant factor on the Big Ten and national scenes within the next few years.

"We definitely think so," they said. "He already is being well received by high school and AAU coaches. And he now is on the recruiting trail for many of the elite in-state prospects. He has strong connections and he is well respected by his peers.

"It all may not translate immediately with wins and losses but in time he will prove that he is the right man for the job. He is an extremely high energy guy. He seems to take his personality to another level in terms of having an ability to immediately form new relationships. He isn't afraid to talk to anyone."

The Schmidts said Groce has a "great shot" at signing Simeon star Kendrick Nunn. "He built a strong relationship from the beginning going back to when he was head coach at Ohio University. Illinois is in great shape. But Nunn also likes Marquette and UCLA. He will commit to one of those three schools by the end of the summer," they said.

Groce has persuaded Belleville East's Malcolm Hill to honor the commitment that he made to former Illinois coach Bruce Weber. And he is looking ahead to the talented classes of 2013 and 2014.

Before the end of June, the Schmidts predict that Groce "will make a major move" with 6-foot-9 Gavin Schilling of De La Salle, the leading post player in the class of 2013 in Illinois.

"Schilling would bring a different dimension to Illinois. Groce loves his athleticism. He is comparable to Meyers Leonard at the same stage," Roy Schmidt said.

Groce already has offered the top players in the class of 2014--Whitney Young's 6-foot-10 Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 Paul White, Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, St. Joseph's Paul Turner (no relation to Evan Turner), 6-foot-7 Keita Bates-Diop of Normal University and Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is recognized as the best point guard in his class despite his 5-foot-8 stature.

What about Simeon's Jabari Parker, who almost certainly will command the most attention of any player in the nation this summer?

"He is regarded by most to be the No. 1 player nationally," the Schmidts said. "Forget about the pressure put on him externally. He is the type of kid who puts tremendous pressure on himself in a good way. That is what drives him. He has a great work ethic. He constantly wants to prove himself. He wants to do what it takes to become even better than he is."

Parker has indicated that he wants to win a NCAA championship in what everybody perceives will be his one and only year in college before he opts for the NBA draft. So it is speculated that he will choose Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas or Michigan State, the schools most associated with success in the Final Four.

"We would narrow it down to Duke and Michigan State," the Schmidts said. "Jabari has great relationships with (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo and (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. That is a very important factor to consider, his relationship with the head coach. And one other thing to consider: Michigan State is closest to home."

Parker will get more exposure this summer. He will compete in the Peach Jam in Augusta, South Carolina, on July 18-21, then the Nike Fab 48 in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 23-27, then the End of Summer Showdown in Merrillville, Indiana, on July 25-31.

Many critics question whether Okafor, with two years of high school competition ahead of him, will develop to a point where he will be ranked in the upper tier of great big men in history...with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing.

Or will he settle for the second tier with Rashard Griffith, Eddy Curry, Jared Sullinger, Russell Cross and Kevin Love?

"I think in many respects he has already moved into the upper tier, maybe not in production but in terms of expectations and projections," Roy Schmidt said. "College coaches who are recruiting him agree with that assessment. I feel he is capable of being in the upper tier. Even the second tier isn't bad as it is. Okafor has the drive and work ethic and a good inner circle of people working with him in recruiting and skill development."

While Parker and Okafor are the leaders of the classes of 2013 and 2014 respectively, not only in Illinois but perhaps in the entire nation, the memo apparently wasn't distributed to Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, who ranks No. 8 nationally in the class of 2014.

Alexander, according to recruiting analyst Chris Bossi of Rivals.com, was the overall MVP of the recent Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, California. "All weekend long, you could count on Cliff Alexander to be in the paint, mixing it up," Bossi said.

"(Alexander) is a strong kid and he doesn't mind playing a power game. Where other big guys are in a hurry to step out and show their faceup game, Alexander is near the rim, bullying other big men and playing power basketball.

"(Alexander) runs the floor looking for fastbreak dunk opportunities. He's a controlling rebounder and he has great length. His body is one that will easily carry more strength and as he matures and fills out, Alexander will be even more powerful in the lane."

Alexander lists Michigan State, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Georgetown and Marquette among the many major Division I programs that are recruiting him. He'll continue to play with Team Rose in July.

What else are the Schmidt brothers looking for this summer?

"The biggest story locally is the every increasing emphasis on underclassmen and colleges trying to extend scholarship offers to underclassmen and getting earlier and quicker commitments from the classes of 2014 and 2015," they said. "That's mainly because of the enormous talent base in Chicago, so many talented young players. Chicago is perceived as a hotbed. More and more college coaches are jumping into the mix, even more aggressively than before."

The Schmidt brothers list several local players "who are on the fringe of being able to jump to the next level in terms of enhancing their stock, a handful who are capable of going from being a mid-major prospect to the next tier as a high major recruit."

The list is headed by Morgan Park guard Kyle Davis, who has attracted interest from Northwestern, USC, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and LSU; Proviso East guard Paris Lee; Simeon's 6-foot-5 Kendall Pollard; Mundelein's 6-foot-6 Sean O'Brien; and Bolingbrook's 6-foot-7 Ben Moore.

Also 6-foot-7 Malek Harris of Sandburg, who could emerge as one of the leading prospects in the class of 2014. He had a great spring. "Very athletic with a long wing span, strong finisher and good mid-range scoring ability," said Roy Schmidt. Harris already has offers from DePaul, Iowa and Miami (Ohio) and is drawing heavy interest from Indiana and others.

Looking for some unheralded players who could make a big splash this summer? The Schmidt brothers describe Riverside-Brookfield's 6-foot-7 Miki Ljuboja from the class of 2013 as "a hidden gem." Also Mundelein guard Robert Knar, who is committed to Northern Iowa, and 6-foot-7 Alec Peters of Downstate Washington, who is characterized as the best pure shooter in the class of 2013 among wing forwards.

The places to be this summer, the must-see events, are the Peach Jam, Las Vegas and the Super Showcase and AAU Nationals in Orlando on July 18-21 and July 25-31 respectively.

"But we don't see a signature event in the first few weeks of the July evaluation period," Roy and Harv Schmidt summed up. "You're going to see more and more watered down events in July, especially in the first two weeks of the evaluation period, because of the way everything is structured.

"The three actual evaluation periods in July are scheduled in a short time period, set up for four days, Thursday through Sunday. As a result, more promoters will want a piece of the pie. More events will be crammed into short time periods. It will be a matter of quantity over quality. There will be a lot of teams and players at those events but not an overwhelming amount of talent."

NBA offseason gone wild as league executives go into overdrive to compete with Golden State

NBA offseason gone wild as league executives go into overdrive to compete with Golden State

NBA free agency doesn't officially begin until 11 p.m. Chicago time on Friday, but league executives have already gone into overdrive in their race to create the next super-team to compete with the Golden State Warriors.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey hinted he had a big move up his sleeve last week, suggesting the Warriors "aren't unbeatable." Well, Morey unveiled that big move on Wednesday, rounding up a bunch of non-guaranteed contracts from all over the league to help him acquire Clippers' All-Star point guard Chris Paul before free agency even begins.

Paul met with Clippers officials on Tuesday, and basically told Doc Rivers he was going to sign with Houston as a free agent, so if the Clippers wanted to get anything for him, they better work out a trade right away. The return L.A. got in the 7-for-1 deal was hardly overwhelming, headlined by Chicago native Patrick Beverley and super-sub Lou Williams, and it showed once again how league executives are powerless if a star player decides he wants a chance of scenery.

Paul and James Harden wanted to play together, and Morey and his staff came up with a creative way to get it done. And, by all reports, Morey isn't done yet. The Rockets are hoping to swing a deal for either Paul George or Carmelo Anthony as a third star in the frontcourt, giving them a shooter's chance against the champion Warriors.

George is one of the biggest chess pieces being moved around boards in executive offices all around the league. Ever since George informed Pacers management he isn't interested in re-signing with the team, GM Kevin Pritchard has been searching for the best possible deal.

The Cavaliers would love to add George as the new third star on their super-team with LeBron and Kyrie Irving and send Kevin Love to the Pacers or to a third team that would provide Indiana with young players and/or draft picks.

Boston is hoping to trade some of Danny Ainge's treasure-trove of draft picks to bring George in, but only after they make a free agent run at Utah All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward, who played his college ball for Celtics coach Brad Stevens at Butler. Remember, making a trade for George carries a lot of risk, since he's eligible to become a free agent next summer and could wind up being a one-year rental.

George has told anyone who will listen he plans to sign on with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, but will new Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson get antsy with all the trade interest in George and try to bring him in now? Is it worth it for Magic to give up young players like Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson if he can just wait a year and sign George without giving up any assets?

We're already hearing reports of George trying to recruit Warriors sharp-shooter Klay Thompson to join him on the Lakers when Klay becomes a free agent in 2019. And, speculation continues about LeBron heading west to join the Lakers if the Cavs come up short of a championship again next season.

So many questions as we approach the start of free agency. Where will Derrick Rose end up after a fourth knee surgery? Will the Clippers be interested in bringing Rose in to play with Blake Griffin and keep Lob City going? And what about veterans like Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, George Hill, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague? What kind of market will they find with fewer teams having the kind of cap space we saw last summer?

And, where will Carmelo Anthony wind up now that Phil Jackson is out as Knicks President? Jackson might be the greatest coach in NBA history after winning 11 championships with the Bulls and Lakers, but it was clear the Zen Master was overmatched as a front office executive. Phil didn't want to travel to scout top college prospects, didn't stay on top of day to day roster moves around the league, and insisted on saddling his coaches with running an offense that didn't translate in today's game.

Maybe now Jeff Hornacek will be able to run his up-tempo offense that had some success in Phoenix instead of Phil's beloved triangle. But don't count on Anthony being a part of next season's Knicks team. Reports out of New York suggest the organization is still intent on dealing Melo, problem is that nasty no-trade clause that Phil gave Anthony on top of a $127 million contract back in 2014.

In the coming weeks, you can count on hearing all kinds of Anthony-related rumors. Maybe a trade to Houston, Boston or even Philadelphia. And, if Melo is able to convince the Knicks to buy out the remainder of his contract, look for him to join forces with LeBron in Cleveland for a shot at that elusive championship ring.

The Knicks may have rid themselves of Phil’s front office mismanagement, but their roster is still a mess with no easy solutions in sight.

The great thing for NBA fans is the buzz created by all the speculation. NBA offseasons are the most impactful of any sport since the acquisition of a star player can cause a major shift in any team's fortunes. Unfortunately here in Chicago, don't expect any free agent buzz this year, unless you're excited about the possibility of a Dwyane Wade buyout.

Bulls Executive VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear the Bulls are going in a new direction and will be patient and disciplined in their rebuild. That means no spending on veterans this summer as the front office keeps its power dry for some time in the future when the Bulls are closer to being a playoff contender again.

Player development will be the focus of the next couple seasons as Fred Hoiberg and his staff try to find out exactly what they have in young players like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne, Paul Zipser, Jerian Grant, Cris Felicio and Niko Mirotic.

Ideally, the Bulls will lose enough games next season to put themselves into position to land a top-3 pick in next year's top-heavy draft. Paxson talked about building a contending team through the draft, and that will require a lot of patience from everyone involved. Adding a Michael Porter, Jr. or Luka Doncic to a young backcourt of Dunn and Zach LaVine and a promising "stretch 4" in Markkanen could be the foundation of the next Bulls playoff team.

So, while the league's top teams engage in a massive arms race to try to close the gap on the Warriors over the next few weeks, all will be quiet in the city of Chicago. The buzzword for Bulls fans for the foreseeable future is PATIENCE.

No, Albert Almora Jr. didn’t subtly give the middle finger to President Donald Trump during Cubs’ White House visit

No, Albert Almora Jr. didn’t subtly give the middle finger to President Donald Trump during Cubs’ White House visit

WASHINGTON – Albert Almora Jr. didn’t use Wednesday’s Oval Office photo op as a subtle form of political protest, but it did sort of look like the Cubs outfielder gave President Donald Trump the middle finger, at least from that angle in an image that went viral on Twitter.    

“There was two fingers! Look closely, there was two fingers!” a veteran player yelled across the room as reporters gathered around Almora’s locker inside the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park. 

“Guys were giving me a hard time about it,” Almora said, “but I pointed out the second finger. We’re all good.”

In another White House visit that didn’t look nearly as unofficial or informal as the Cubs said it would be, one snapshot became Almora with part of his left hand in his pocket. Almora stood near Kris Bryant – who held a 45 Wrigley Field scoreboard panel – and Trump at his desk with the World Series trophy.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate,” Almora said with a laugh. “I’m getting ready to take a picture and I’m posing there. But you guys know that I would never do that to the president of the United States. 

“I respect everybody. It is what it is. We laugh about it now, but there’s definitely two fingers out there.”

Almora is 23 years old, confident and focused, rarely straying off message during his interactions with reporters. He grew up in a Cuban-American family in South Florida and traveled with the team in January for the final official event in the Obama White House.   

“Hey, man, it’s not every day you get to meet the president of the United States,” Almora said. “To meet two in one calendar year, for me, is a special feeling.”