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June 14, 2014

Vacationing columnist reacts to a week of news




FT. MYERS BEACH, Fla. - Man, that byline feels good.

Yes, I'm writing most of this on a humid Saturday morning, coffee to the side of my laptop, overlooking the rolling waves roll in off the Gulf of Mexico.

I usually don't do vacation well. I love my work, so it never feels like work. But I've tried to keep my laptop time and smartphone time to a minimum. That makes my always-understanding wife - this is our three-year anniversary vacation after all - happy.

But she didn't give me the disapproving eyes when she came out onto the balcony of our rented condo this morning and saw me typing away in a fervish.

I have thoughts, honey! And I must get them down. The people must know them! (Like they care that much, guy.)

This is the slow time of year for Illinois sports, but some things happened or are happening in the world of sports.


Jalen Brunson visited the Illinois campus, huh? That's a good thing. Take it for what it's worth but we had a Michigan recruiting guru on our radio show two weeks ago to talk about Ty Isaac and he said Illinois is doing really well with Jalen Brunson and would probably have Champaign as a more likely destination for the five-star point guard than Ann Arbor. Isaac for Brunson? I think many Illini fans would take that trade.


Illinois had two more visitors: top 2016 in-state prospect Nick Rackocevic and 2015 Massachusetts center Josh Sharma. Much of the media and fan focus is on Groce's pursuit of a point guard. It should be. It's the most important position in his scheme, maybe the most important in college basketball and the one position he has not been able to fill in his two-plus years at Illinois.

Groce sure has been going after the big guns at the lead guard position (Demetrius Jackson, Tyler Ennis, Quentin Snider and now Brunson and four-star Texas burner Jawun Evans). But he's also set his sights high on some big-time bigs.

In 2014, he landed four-star Memphis native Leron Black and just missed out on five-star forward Cliff Alexander. In the 2015 class, he's in deep with at least three five-star post players (Carlton Bragg and Texas natives Doral Moore and Elijah Thomas). Sharma, No. 62 in Rivals' 2015 rankings, is yet another out-of-state post target for Groce and company. None seem like players Illinois had a chance at landing pre-Groce. Speaking of not getting, doesn't it seem like fewer and fewer in-state prospects are "ABI" (anywhere but Illinois)? Some thought Alexander was picking the Illini minutes before his hat trick for Kansas. Most think Illinois finished second behind Kentucky for Charles Matthews. Brunson appears to think highly of what Groce's staff is selling. Sure, Illinois has to land one of the state's truly elite prospects (Rackocevic might not be an elite player nationally but by all accounts is by far the best player in the state in 2016) before getting too excited, but it seems like Illinois is now in the fight for most of these guys from the beginning.


Leron Black didn't make Team USA's under-18 team. The Illini coaches probably would've loved to have had one of their own represented on a national team. It would've been great experience for Black and great publicity for the Illini program. But I'm sure the staff is also glad to have Black on campus so he can compete with teammates and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. With Darius Paul gone, Black will be counted on early and often.


Flynn Nagel to Duke hurts. Now, Duke isn't the football joke it was even just two years ago. David Cutcliffe happened: two straight bowls, including a 10-win season last year. That's a fun offense at a great university at a unique part of the country. But Nagel, a 5-foot-11 slot receiver type, seemed like a perfect fit for the Illini and Bill Cubit's offense. He's also the kind of player, a legit three-star prospect that some think could blossom into a four-star type impact player, Illinois is trying to lock up in the state. This isn't a crushing blow for the Illini. They should be able to find receivers (JCGridiron.com's Brad Hoiseth reports that JUCO wide receiver Raphael Barr could commit on a visit Monday), and the Illini already have depth at the position. But coupled with Ty Isaac's choice of Michigan, it dampens some of the recruiting momentum the staff built recently.


Three of the five Illini who competed in the U.S. Open - tied for second-most among college programs - have played at the U of I over the past four years. #MikeSmall


I'm not a soccer guy, but on Friday I watched Chile beat Australia. I have no ties to either country. But, hey, it's the Cup. I can make a month's investment every four years to the world's most popular sport … and one of its coolest sporting spectacles.


I've visited three MLB ballparks so far this season and have plans to visit three more, but I'm confident Tropicana Field will be the worst. My seats next to the Ray pool were pretty interesting, but that held my attention for about 10 minutes during Wednesday's Cardinals-Rays game.

Like many ballparks built in the late 1980s and 1990s, Tropicana is just sterile. Unlike U.S. Cellular Field, the tenants haven't fixed that problem. I expected the stadium to have few Rays fans (thought there sure was a lot of red). But it just had no other charms outside of the Ray pool. If you sit in right field, you had to strain your head to see the replay of Parkland product Kevin Kiermaier's web gem.

If you go onto the concourse, you can't see the game (which also really bugs me about Wrigley). My wife did like the corn dog. I liked the half Cuban sandwich. Oh and the free trolley to downtown St. Petersburg was nice. But when I went to U.S. Cellular Field and Busch Stadium, I had a baseball experience. Tropicana doesn't offer that. Maybe that's part of being in a dome. All I can say is, I'm definitely more excited about my upcoming trips to Citizens Bank Ballpark, Nationals Park and Great American Ballpark.


The Spurs are a great basketball team. If they wrap up the NBA Finals on Sunday night, much of the media focus will be on what happened to the Heat (calling Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?) and what happens to Miami next (Melo, please go to Oak Street Beach, not South Beach - more on that later). But boy, do the Spurs play pretty basketball. I'm a big Eric Spoelstra fan, but Greg Popovich proved why he's one of the best ever and the Spurs proved that depth and execution matter. Tim Duncan's one of the best ever. Tony Parker's one of the best point guards of a point-guard heavy era. That George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard deal was a steal. The Spurs are basically the Patriots. Always in contention, anchored by a great coach and one of the best professionals of all time and a rotating cast that buys into the system.


LeBron James is the best in the game. Dislike him if you hate that the Heat win a lot. Have anger over quitting on Cleveland, thinking that "The Decision" broadcast was a good idea or that "not one, not two, not three, not four…" was a smart thing to say. But I never hated the actual decision. LeBron knows his legacy is about winning titles. He's played for four in four years in Miami. He competed for one in seven years at Cleveland because that floundering organization (as we continue to see now) thought Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varajeo was a "championship core." I don't like people who say what LeBron is doing is somehow less impressive because the Heat were manufactured artificially as opposed to grown organically at some NBA farm. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't stay in Milwaukee. Wilt Chamberlain didn't stay in Philadelphia. Neither did Charles Barkley. Shaq didn't stay in Orlando, either. Go to a place you can win. LeBron did that, and he's won. He hasn't won all four. He certainly hasn't won six (neither did Magic or Bird). And more so than any other player, LeBron seemingly can't win either way. He's chasing a ghost in No. 23. Which is an unfair comparison to him. He's a different kind of player. I don't know if LeBron will ever be the best ever. But I know he's worked his butt off to be the best of his generation, and I for one, enjoy watching greatness as it's happening.


Two more weeks until we really start to see the biggest Bulls offseason in four years start to come to fruition. The hype and eventual letdowns of the past two big offseasons (2000 and 2010) have tempered my expectations, but I'm still hopeful. With an injured, expensive star and too few offensive weapons, the Bulls are in basketball purgatory right now (not good enough to compete for a title and too good to gain a top draft pick). What they need is another star to push them past the Pacers and maybe even the increasingly vulnerable Heat.


Here would be my preferred outcomes for the Bulls:

1) LeBron James opts out and signs with the Bulls. Wake up, Count Chocula!

2) Sign Carmelo Anthony. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski - is there anyone better at his craft - reports that Anthony is leaning toward leaving New York. I think this is a star who is ready to pass up money for a chance to win. I think he doesn't want to be added to the list of best players not to win a championship.

I think he'll leave New York and millions of dollars for the chance to contend for a title. I think. The Miami rumors aside, I think Chicago makes the most sense for him to do that. The Lakers aren't a Melo away from knocking off the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers or Rockets. Houston actually makes more sense than LA but Chicago probably provides a better path, better coach and better defensive help. I've never understood the Carmelo hatred either. He is one of the NBA's top five scorers (if not, top three) and he does it very efficiently, and don't the Bulls need that? He hasn't won much in the playoffs, but when your best teammate ever was probably an old Chauncey Billups, how much winning can you do? No, he doesn't defend, but the Bulls could surround him with guys who do: Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler. Plus, they wouldn't have to give up much to clear cap space for him, maybe Taj Gibson.

Though if Anthony decides to take a sizeable pay cut, the Bulls could get away with just giving up draft picks or a few role players. The Bulls need a scorer. Carmelo's one of the best out there and you wouldn't have to part with many of your assets to get him. Are the Bulls a championship team with Melo? Maybe not. But they're in the discussion.

3) Trade for Kevin Love. I just don't see this happening. One, Love has California written all over him. Two, I'm not sure how much better the Bulls are by trading, say, Gibson, both 2014 first-round draft picks, future picks and the rights to Nikola Mirotic for Love. And if I'm the Timberwolves, that package - a bunch of role players - is not nearly enough for one of the NBA's top post players. Don't get me wrong, I'd do it. A trio of Noah, Love and Rose would be loads of fun, but I think it steal leaves Rose without that other shot creator and would be searching for it with limited future assets (traded picks and no cap room).

4) Sign Nikola Mirotic, use draft picks. I think this is what's going to happen. The Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer (though paying him $16 million to play for someone else seems so wrong), sign European star Nikola Mirotic to be the stretch four and an additional scorer and use picks No. 16 and No. 19. But I expect the Bulls to only use one pick in order to keep their financial flexibility leading into the Melo negotiations. That's why I loved hearing the report that the Bulls are talking about trading up into the lottery to get my favorite two prospects: Michigan State's Gary Harris and Michigan's Nik Stauskas. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows my affinity for Stauskas. I repeatedly tweeted, "Stauskas to the Bulls, please" after every big shot or play he made during the season. I do not think he's a star, but I think he's exactly what the Bulls need: an elite shooter who can create his own shot and create for others. Stop the Kyle Korver comparisons or any other lazy white guy comparison please. He reminds me of Klay Thompson and, bear with me, shades of Jamal Crawford. Yeah, I like Stauskas. But I also really like Gary Harris. He's short (6-foot-3) for a two-guard but his long arms (6-foot-6 wingspan) will allow him to be an elite-level defender. He can also shoot the rock, though not as well as Stauskas. Also, will he be able to finish at the rim in the NBA? He needs to add strength but would be a great option for the Bulls, who likely won't have a chance to draft him at No. 16.

5) Sign Lance Stephenson. Maybe he's a bit crazy, but the guy can play. I don't think he's your perfect No. 2 scorer, but he would add another double-digit scorer to a deep group. He'd add yet another elite defender to Tom Thibodeau's squad while also giving them another ball-handling option. Maybe, they'd even get a crazy-guy discount after his eventful Eastern Conference Finals. You'd also add a key player from one of your biggest competitor's rosters. But Hornets owner Michael Jordan should be all over this. Charlotte, a playoff team this year, would certainly be even more interesting with a splash of Stephenson.


Back to the NBA Draft, I've shown a little Big Ten bias in recent years. Last year, I loved Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke. I would've taken them No. 1 and No. 2. Maybe it's because I watch them more than others, but in last year's weak class, I knew what I'd get out of them. They finished second and third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Michael Carter-Williams. Of course, last year I didn't like Tim Hardaway Jr. and he now looks like a legit pro after finishing fifth in ROY voting. This year, I love Stauskas. I really like Harris, and I think MSU teammate Adreian Payne will be a 10-year pro if he stays healthy. But one of my favorite prospects outside of the top-three (Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins) is Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh. I've said all year that someone would get lucky between picks 5-8 by nabbing Vonleh. He may not last that long anymore, and it wouldn't surprise me. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward just does everything well and nothing unwell. He was one of the country's best rebounders last season, one of the Big Ten's best defenders (he has a 7-foot-4 wingspan), a great array of post moves and a dangerous outside jumper. How Indiana didn't get more out of him and that team last year is beyond me. He has a lot of Chris Bosh to his game - only stronger - and that's a good thing. If you made draft tiers, Parker, Wiggins and Embiid surely are in the top tier, but I don't think Vonleh is that far off.



Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU


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