Chicago White Sox

Who is the real Aaron Simpson?

600388.png

Who is the real Aaron Simpson?

North Chicago's Aaron Simpson is a contradiction in sneakers. The 5-foot-11 senior guard averages nearly 30 points per game but insists he doesn't want to be the star of his team. He is described as a quiet and humble kid who declined to be team captain because he is "too nice a guy" and doesn't like to yell at other players.

But when the lights go on and the gym is filled with people, Simpson performs like Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. It's Showtime. Coach Gerald Coleman insists he could average 40 points per game if he didn't try to turn every drive to the hoop into a Michael Jordan poster, if he didn't judge some shots by degree of difficulty.

"The coach is right," Simpson said. "I try to make the game harder than it is. I love to put on a show in front of a big crowd. It makes me play better. I go to the basket and do an up-and-under with my left hand and sometimes it won't go in. I could average 40 points per game. But I'm having a good time this year.

"It isn't all about winning games as long as we win in March. I'm having fun right now. In March, we'll get serious. This team has more offense and is more focused that last year's team (that finished fourth in Class 3A despite a 13-16 record). We think we're good enough to win the state championship this year."

How good is Simpson? Is he only a scorer, a one-dimensional player? Will he be a good fit at his chosen school, Illinois State? Or is he capable of playing at a higher level? How much better can he be? Can he accomplish his goal of being Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2012? Is he in a class with Simeon's Jabari Parker?

"As an offensive player, on a scale of 1 to 10, he is probably a 9," said North Chicago coach Coleman. "He must get stronger on defense. He needs more body strength and needs to hit the weight room. But his offense will take care of itself at the next level.

"What people don't know about him is he would prefer to have 30 assists and 10 points per game. He is a better passer than a scorer but nobody knows it in high school. The real Simpson is seen in AAU competition...the total game, better defensive player, better assist player. But you see his offensive side in high school because he has to score for us to win."

Simpson credits former Chicago Bulls player Dickey Simpkins of the Next Level Performance training company in Lincolnshire for his development. He has been working with Simpkins since seventh grade and playing with and competing against some of the best high school players in the country on the AAU circuit.

"I went to (NLP) to learn more about the game," Simpson said. "When I went there, I only knew how to score. I didn't know anything about defense. I wanted to learn how to dribble, how to be a better person, to be a man instead of just a basketball player.

"It has been a great experience, like family forever. I have improved on my attitude with referees. I've gotten better with my decision-making on and off the court and I've become a better player on defense.

"If I could be a person that isn't on everyone's scouting report, I'd like to be a role player. I don't want to be the star of the team. I prefer to be an assist man. I like to see my teammates score. It shows it isn't all about me.

"Sure, they are recruiting me as a scorer in college. But I want to be an all-around player. I don't like to be labeled as a scorer. People think that is all I can do. I want people to say that I'm an all-around player."

Simpkins has helped to train and develop Simpson into an all-around player. He believes he could play at a higher level but insists Illinois State is a good fit and provides an excellent opportunity for Simpson "to make a name for himself in the Missouri Valley." He also believes Simpson and Jabari Parker are the two leading candidates for the Mr. Basketball prize and Simpson "is putting in a good campaign for it."

"He is definitely a high-major player," Simpkins said. "He is a scorer who can put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways. He has to score in high school. But he can do everything. He has a good feel for the game. He has a high basketball IQ. He was doing things in seventh and eighth grade that most juniors and seniors in high school couldn't do at the time.

"He has an Allen Iverson-type body structure and that type of game. He has grown into his athleticism. He can score and pass and defend. He can play point guard or shooting guard. He can play in the NCAA for any school. But ISU is a good fit for him across the board."

Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye also have been impressed with Simpson and also believe he made the right college choice.

"Simpson is a scorer first and foremost and there is no question that he can put points on the board in a hurry," they said. "He is capable of scoring in a variety of ways, whether driving to the basket, getting out on the break or shooting from behind the three-point line. He also has great speed from baseline to baseline and we like the fact that he is a tough and competitive and has a winning edge.

"If Simpson had the playmaking skills to match his scoring ability, he would be a high major player. Nevertheless, he is perfectly suited for the Missouri Valley and has the potential to provide Illinois State with the same offensive punch that (former Phillips star) Osiris Eldridge did."

Simpkins and Coleman advised Simpson not to get caught up in big-name college programs or high-profile coaches or Dick Vitale-type hype, to pick a school where he can make a name for himself and achieve his dreams. When Simpson chose ISU, everyone felt he had made the right decision.

"Kids understand that if you are good enough, it doesn't matter where you play, mid-major or major or NAIA, you will be seen wherever you play if you have the ability to play," Simpkins said.

"When he came to us in seventh grade, everybody connected with AAU wanted him to play for them. But he understood and bought into what we taught him and he benefited from our mentoring and believed we had his best interest in mind. He was loyal to our program all the time."

Simpson is loyal to Coleman and the North Chicago program, too. As a sophomore he wore No. 23, Michael Jordan's number. But he broke a finger and was devastated when he couldn't help his brother Michael and his team qualify for the state finals. His brother wore No. 1. Now Aaron does.

"This is all for Michael," Aaron said. "Everything I do is for him."

North Chicago is 6-1 going into its game against Culver (Ind.) Military Academy in the opening round of the State Farm Classic in Bloomington on Dec. 27. The Warhawks, whose only loss was to highly rated Warren on a last-second shot, are the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Along the way, he could surpass Josh Allen as North Chicago's all-time leading scorer.

Even though he is averaging nearly 30 points per game, Simpson knows he can't win a state title all by himself. This year, he has plenty of help.
Eight other players returned from last year's Final Four squad. According to Coleman, they are quicker and closer and more athletic than a year ago.

Other major contributors are 6-foot-2 senior Marszhon Bryant (13 ppg, 10 rpg), an outstanding rebounder and defender who had 20 points and 16 rebounds against Lakes in a recent game; 6-foot-4 sophomore Amos Mays (15 ppg), a transfer from Zion-Benton; and 6-foot-5 sophomore Kurt Hall (6 ppg, 7 rpg).

"We were 0-5 at this time last year; now we're 6-1," Coleman said. "We are very talented. We think we can win Class 3A this year. But we need Simpson to be our leader. This team will go as far as he plays. He has to take every game as though he is going to the next level.

"He is too nice a guy. He doesn't like to be in the limelight but he wants to put on a show. He is the only player I have had in six years that I allow to have fun on the floor. He gets away with things this year that I normally wouldn't let him get away with. But my job is to prepare him mentally to handle coaches at the Division I level and we've done that."

"I want to put up a performance for fans and win a game," Simpson summed up. "We want to go Downstate again this year. But we don't want to go for a vacation, which is what people thought we did last year when we lost, that we didn't go to take care of business. This year, we'll be all business."

Lucas Giolito puts together another strong outing in White Sox loss to Astros

Lucas Giolito puts together another strong outing in White Sox loss to Astros

HOUSTON — He didn’t have his best stuff against baseball’s top offense on Tuesday night, but Lucas Giolito had his changeup.

The young White Sox pitcher showed once again that when he has confidence in an offspeed pitch he’s able to overcome situations where his fastball might not be as good as he’d prefer. Trust in the changeup and a good command of the fastball were more than enough to put together another strong performance.

While Giolito took the decision in a 3-1 White Sox loss to the Houston Astros, he once again earned plaudits for his pitching.

“He was really good,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “His changeup's very good. He obviously can spin a couple different breaking balls. It looks like a heavy fastball. So, a really impressive young starter to be able to navigate the lineup in different ways and get guys out in different ways and really compete.”

Perhaps no one hitter better demonstrated Giolito’s ability to compete than his sixth-inning showdown with Astros No. 5 hitter Marwin Gonzalez. Having just issued his first walk down 2-1 with two outs and a man on second, Giolito threw both his two- and four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball during a lengthy at-bat. With the count full, Gonzalez fouled off six consecutive fastballs before Giolito threw a changeup in the dirt for the whiff on the 12th pitch of the at-bat.

It was one of 18 changeups Giolito threw, with 11 going for strikes.

“The changeup was a good pitch for me aside from a few I left up in the zone,” Giolito said. “I had a lot of confidence in it and that was probably the offspeed pitch I was most comfortable going to in situations.”

Given his fastball velo was an average of 92.2 mph, confidence and comfort were critical. Houston entered the game with a team slash line of .282/.345/.479 and averaging 5.47 runs per contest. The American League West champions offer few easy outs and were clearly the sternest test to date for Giolito, who has never pitched more innings in a season than his current 167 between Triple-A Charlotte and the majors.

Even though the velo isn’t where he’s wanted it in the past two outings, Giolito has pitched well enough. Giolito produced his fourth quality start in six outings in the big leagues as he limited the Astros to two earned runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.

“Felt pretty good about it,” Giolito said. “It was one of those days where I didn’t have my best stuff working. Had a lot of trouble getting the ball to the extension side. That’s something to work on this week going into the next start. But I felt good about how I pitched tonight for sure.”

The White Sox feel pretty good about the production they’ve received from Giolito, who struggled with consistency earlier this season at Triple-A and dropped down in the prospect rankings as a result. The right-hander said he’s pleased with how he’s learned to be more composed on the mound this season. He’s also clearly gained confidence and trust in his stuff.

“Based on everything we saw, the skill set that he would be able to manage his ability on the mound to attack the strike zone,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s throwing his breaking ball more effectively now, the changeup as well.”

“All in all he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s kept hitters off balance. His ball has some life. He has angle. We’re happy with how he’s continued to develop.”

Giolito’s offense didn’t do what it needed to earn him a victory despite another big night from Yoan Moncada. Moncada went 3-for-4 with three singles and shortstop Tim Anderson extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a ninth-inning single.

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

joe_maddon_cubs.jpg
USA TODAY

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Joe Maddon looked back on the perfect baseball storm that hit the Tampa Bay Rays and played all the greatest hits for local reporters, waxing poetic about the banners hanging inside Tropicana Field, stumping for a new stadium on the other side of the Gandy Bridge, telling Don Zimmer stories, namedropping Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and riffing on sabermetrics and information buckets.

But the moment of clarity came in the middle of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon sitting up on stage in what felt like the locker room at an old CYO gym: “We only got really good because the players got really good.”

There’s no doubt the Cubs have the talent to go along with all the other big-market advantages the Rays could only dream about as the have-nots in the American League East. Now it looks like the defending champs have finally got rid of the World Series hangover, playing with the urgency and pitch-to-pitch focus that had been lacking at times and will be needed again in October.    

Maddon essentially admitted it after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, watching his team beat Chris Archer and work together on a one-hitter that extended the winning streak to seven games and kept the Milwaukee Brewers 3.5 games back in the National League Central.

“You’re really seeing them try to execute in moments,” Maddon said. “When they come back and they don’t get it done, it’s not like they’re angry. But you can just see they’re disappointed in themselves.

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now.”

Six days after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter (Brad Miller) drove a ball over the center-field wall. Maddon then went to the relievers he will trust in October – Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis – with the All-Star closer striking out the side in the ninth inning and remaining perfect in save opportunities (32-for-32) as a Cub.       

“We want to go out there and prove every day that we’re the best team in baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, the designated hitter who launched Archer’s 96-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for his 28th home run in the second inning. “The way our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time, and we just got to keep this same pace that we’re going at.

“Don’t worry about things around us. Just keep our heads down, keep worrying about the game and go from there.”     

In what’s been a season-long victory lap, Maddon couldn’t help looking back when the sound system started playing The Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations” echoed throughout the domed stadium, a tribute running on the video board and a crowd of 25,046 giving him a standing ovation.

“It was cool,” Maddon said. “I forgot about the bird, the cockatoo, I can’t remember the name. Really a cool bird. I told (my wife) Jaye I wanted one of those for a while. But then again, she gets stuck taking care of them.

“I was just thinking about all the things we did. You forget sometimes that snake. I think her name was Francine, like a 19-year-old, 20-footer. And then the penguin on my chair. You forget all the goofy stuff you did. But you can see how much fun everybody had.

“I appreciated it. They showed all my pertinent highlights. There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”

But within the last week, you can see the Cubs getting more serious, concentrating on their at-bats and nailing their pitches. There is internal competition for roster spots and playing time in the postseason, when Maddon becomes ruthless and doesn’t care at all about making friends. This just might be another perfect storm.

Montgomery – who notched the final out in the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 – put it this way: “I feel ready for anything after how this year’s gone.”