Monday, April 21, 2014

Q & A with the Milwaukee Buck’s Giannis Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee Bucks first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 19 years old, but he scored over 500 points in his rookie season in the NBA. His role increased as the Bucks faded out of contention, and Bucks fans relish Antetokounmpo as a big part of the foundation going forward.

Making the unusual move from Athens, Greece to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it’s been a busy first year in the United States for Antetokounmpo.
John Vittas got a chance to speak with him before Milwaukee’s game against the Washington Wizards on April 12.

John Vittas: What was your first year like overall? At first, what did you like about the United States, what was different and how have you gotten more comfortable?

Giannis Antetokounmpo: When I came to the United States, it was a new experience for me, being in such a big country with a new culture, a different culture from Greece. Thank God I have good teammates and good coaches to help me to adjust to the United States and the new culture.

JV: Had you been to the United States at all before the draft or the NBA experience? What was your first time here and what was that like?

GA: No, I had never been here before. The first time I came to the United States was on the draft night. The second time was when I came to live here.

JV: Has your family been able to come over often? What is it like trying to keep up with them?

GA: My family lives with me in Milwaukee. They live with me and they’re having fun and they’re enjoying it.

JV: Well it’s good that they’re around. What’s Milwaukee like compared to Athens. Obviously it’s very different. What surprised you about that part of the country as opposed to your home.

GA: Athens is a big city, it has a lot of things to do, and the weather is different. But Milwaukee is a nice city. It’s a good city for us because you don’t have a lot of things to do and you can just focus on basketball. And the weather is one thing that surprised me.

JV: How did you learn English?

GA: By watching movies from the time that I came here. My teammates talking all the time and my coaches, I’ve tried to pick up some things.

JV: I read that you like Kevin Durant. What is it about his game that you like?

GA: He is a very good player, he’s one of the best players in the league. I just like the way he plays. He’s not the strongest player in the league, but he knows how to score buckets and I like watching his clips.

Don't Laugh: Why the Mets will Make the Playoffs in 2015

by John Vittas

           Try to hold in your laughter. The Mets are going to make the playoffs in 2015. Yes, I said it. Bear with me here, and you might just be convinced. From September collapses, to disgraceful contracts, to Family Guy punch lines, the Mets have been the laughingstock in a city that only tolerates winners.

            But anyone who has followed the team the past two years will tell you that there are reasons for optimism. To buy into this new-found hope, you have to understand what went wrong. And a lot went wrong.

            It all began with a change of culture in 2007. After coming within an inning of a World Series berth in 2006, the Mets choked away the season on the final day in consecutive years in 07 and 08. The perception changed. They went from a promising new team to choke artists of the highest order. Then came the bad contracts: Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, Jason Bay, Frank Francisco. The horrid deals completely hamstrung the front office for half a decade, as did Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme.  

Prospects like Brandon Nimmo have Mets fans optimistic
With no money, disappointing prospects and a lineup of misfits, fans stopped showing up. After drawing four million fans during their last winning season of 2008, just 2.1 million brave souls showed up in 2013.

So why am I suggesting that this pathetic bunch will finally turn it around? There are short-term signs and long-term signs. The short terms signs come from this year’s team. Dillon Gee and Jon Niese have again established themselves as effective, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and young gun Jenrry Mejia has been unhittable at times. But perhaps the most exciting player so far has been Juan Lagares. With an impressive mix of size and speed, Lagares has hit with power to all fields and has established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Lagares finished fifth in the majors in defensive WAR in 2013 and put up one of the 70 best defensive seasons in the history of baseball, according to that statistic.

Another short-term sign came during the team’s 14-2 loss to the Angels last Sunday. In the midst of an embarrassing loss, first-year umpire Toby Basner called rookie catcher Travis d’Arnaud out on strikes in the seventh inning of a blowout. But the Mets didn’t roll their eyes at a bad call. The three longest tenured Mets, David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Terry Collins berated Basner. Basner ejected Wright and Murphy and a long shouting match ensued.

While many may interpret this as frustrations boiling over, I argue that it shows that this team does something that the previous Mets teams didn’t: show they care. Wright and Murphy are the leaders of the team, they’re two of the few winning players the Mets have. But for the previous four years, they’ve been silent. They showed up, got their hits and went home. To see them both erupt over a call that had nothing to do with their at bat says a lot. After all, it was Travis d’Arnaud who got punched out, not them. But clearly Wright and Murphy believe in the prospects like d’Arnaud and will defend them, even in a meaningless at bat.

“We have each others backs for sure,” Wright said after the game. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. Just in general, we need to have each other’s backs. And we do.”

  It’s a start. In order for the boys from Flushing to return to relevance, they’ll need both a change in mindset and an arrival of talent. Well the arrival of talent appears to be on its way, which is why there is reason for optimism.

Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard. Got that? Go back and read it again. Those three young arms are the foundation, the reason the Mets could become perennial contenders. Long-term success in Major League Baseball requires consistent starting pitching, and those three can provide it. All three have fastballs in the upper-90s and knee-buckling breaking balls. And 2015 is the year they will finally be united. With those three at the top of the rotation, competition bears itself out at the bottom. Mejia, Colon, Gee, Niese, Jacob DeGrom and Rafael Montero will all battle for rotation spots next year, and surely the two best from that group will be above average fourth and fifth starters. 

So there’s young, controllable strong starting pitching and a few veteran positions players in Wright, Murphy and Curtis Granderson to hold their hands and show them the way. The last step of the process is to win back the fans’ faith, get them to show up, make money and buy the remaining pieces necessary.

Picture this. The old Mets front office was like an innocent child in search of cookies. They got confident after successful signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. That combined with the success of 2006, and the Mets thought they could attack the cookie jar with reckless indulgence. They signed Oliver Perez and Jason Bay, which represents the classic “mommy caught you red-handed” moment. So she puts you in timeout, aka the Mets had to swallow their checkbook for five years. Lesson learned, the next time you approach the cookie jar, you do so with caution. You trade an aging knuckleballer for a couple prospects, you sign a chubby sinker-baller for only $10 million a year. OK, so the analogy ends there, but the point is, the Mets and GM Sandy Alderson won’t splurge like Omar Minaya did. Everything is systematic and calculated. Alderson’s strategy allows for financial flexibility down the road. It allows for the team to make multiple mid-level signings each offseason, rather than tie up payroll in guys like Oliver Perez.

Therefore, when the team does start to compete again, and their income starts to head back north, Alderson will have the ability to address the holes that remain via free agency or by trading part of his plethora of arms. 

That’s the formula. That’s what makes 2014 and 2015 different from 2010 and 2011, for example. The Mets finally have assets, they have the best farm system in baseball, and they have the right approach. In other words, Alderson is too wise to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wizards Clinch First Winning Season Since 2007-08 With Win Over Bucks

by John Vittas

Originally Published for Terp Report (April 12, 2014)

John Wall has never played on a winning NBA team, until now. Wall’s Wizards picked up win number 42 with a 104-91 victory over the Bucks on Saturday night at the Verizon Center, and clinched their first winning season since 2007-08.

“I’ve been here since 2010 when the tough times came and we won twenty-some games two years in a row,” Wall said. “It was tough. The organization did a great job of picking people and going out to get veteran guys and I think all the young guys did a good job of developing.”

This is only the sixth time the franchise has made the playoffs in the past 26 years.

“It’s important for our players number one, but for the town too,” Washington head coach Randy Wittman said. “This is a town that hasn’t seen that in a while and they’ve shown great support through some down times.”

Saturday’s 13-point win came against a Milwaukee team that played Washington tough despite sporting the worst record in the NBA. All three of their previous matchups were decided by eight points or less.

Bradley Beal did not play in the first two clashes and proved to be the difference Saturday. Beal scored a game-high 26 points on 12-for-22 shooting, and added three rebounds and five assists.

“Bradley was just being himself, making shots,” Al Harrington said. “That’s what he needs to do as our starting two-guard. He was aggressive and able to get it done for us.”

Milwaukee made their first four shots of the third quarter to take their first lead of the night. But Beal traded baskets with the Bucks, canning all four jumpers he took in the first five minutes of the second half.

“I was just shooting the ball with confidence, taking advantage of what the defense was giving me and how they were playing me,” Bradley Beal said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me and I was able to knock down a couple.”

Beal’s sharp shooting ignited the decisive 20-7 Wizards run, and they never led by less than 11 after that spurt.

“How we played in the third quarter, that’s how we have to play for 48 minutes,” Wall said. “We got them out of their rhythm.”

Washington got strong contributions from their veteran role players. Martell Webster, Al Harrington, Drew Gooden and Andre Miller all played 13 minutes or more off the bench. Each has at least eight years of NBA experience.

“I thought our bench was solid for us again, which is going to be important,” Wittman said. “It’s important to have contributions from everybody and the last two nights I felt they really stepped up.”

The Wizards will need strong contributions from those veterans no matter who they play in the postseason, with Chicago and Toronto the most likely opponents. Wittman said he wasn’t concerned with matchups, and dismissed any thought of trying to avoid a series with the Pacers or Heat.

“Whoever we’re going to play, it’s going to be a tough matchup. I don’t care who we play,” Wittman said. “We’ve beaten anybody that we’re going to have to face. I’m not worried about that.”

The Wizards are scheduled to end their home regular season on Monday night at 7 p.m. against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

“Everybody’s putting on their better outfits, getting their car cleaned that day,” Al Harrington said about playing the Heat. “You just try and give it your all. That’s what Miami brings out in all the other teams.”

Makeup to the Max: Maryland Freshman Mike Shawaryn is Made of Moxy and Ready to Turn the Program Around

by John Vittas

Originally Published for Terp Report (April 10, 2014)

It was only his fourth career start, but Maryland freshman Mike Shawaryn was already at the top of the college baseball world. Just minutes removed from stifling and defeating the nation’s number two team, Shawaryn looked through the Florida sunshine into the left field bleachers to find his parents, who had made the trip down to Tallahassee to witness their son’s crowning achievement. As you would expect, the Shawaryn contingent was all smiles, as was their budding superstar.

But as is the case in baseball, there are up and there are downs. The last two weeks for Shawaryn fall into the down category. After beginning his college career with five straight wins, including three against ranked opponents, Shawaryn has hit the proverbial wall.

The lineups of Clemson and Wake Forest dispatched Shawaryn early each of the past two weekends, roughing him up for nine runs in seven and two-thirds innings. While the stout ACC batting orders may have gotten to Shawaryn between the lines, his mental clarity remains in tact.

The day after, you look back at it and realize it’s a real learning experience,” Shawaryn said. “I didn’t know I was going to have this much success this early and this is the first time I’ve really struggled at the college level. You have to make adjustments now, so that later in the season you don’t let those mistakes happen again.”

If the first five starts by the 19-year-old impressed you, it might be his response to the two most adverse that amaze onlookers.

“You have to be the same guy every day. Whatever happens on the field, leave it on the field. Especially as a pitcher, you’re the focal point of the whole game. If you get down or have bad body language, everyone is going to see that. Getting down on yourself is not going to help you get the next pitch over.”

While Shawaryn’s ability to manage failure may appear refined, he hasn’t had to do it very often. He won four Non-Public A state titles during his time at Gloucester Catholic in New Jersey, while also adding multiple All-American accolades and an American Legion World Series title to his resume. Perfect Game USA ranked him the No. 4 prospect in the state.

“He’s strong mentally,” sophomore catcher Kevin Martir said. “He’s the kind of kid who wants the ball. He’s the kind of kid who gets outs.”

He has really good makeup, he doesn’t get messed up mentally,” Maryland head coach John Szefc said. “He can reset himself and get back in the zone quick. He’s pitched in big situations before he got here, he has a good feel for pitching in pressure situations and he’s the kind of kid who welcomes the pressure.”

Shawaryn’s drive to win has become infectious, as he, along with a group of accomplished freshman and sophomores have changed the mindset of a team that hasn’t had a winning record in the ACC since 1981.

The patriarch of that Shawaryn contingent, Michael Sr., played football at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and always guided his son towards sports. The younger Shawaryn credits his family’s sports background for the winning mentality that has accompanied him to College Park.

“It helps you with determination and work ethic,” Shawaryn said. “When I was younger, I would just play all the sports. I think the biggest thing it really helped is my competitiveness and drive. And that is still instilled in me today, just the drive to get it done and get the W.”

Shawaryn’s blasé gait may disguise that drive, as he strolls around practice like any other pitcher, laid back and unassuming. But when it comes time to work, Shawaryn's coolness is replaced with a palpable pinpoint focus. He doesn’t mess around.

“As a person, you can just tell he was someone who takes care of business, worked hard and was always on task,” Terps’ senior ace Jake Stinnett said. “That was the first thing I noticed about him. He wanted to know exactly what he was doing that day, exactly what the practice plan was. He was here to work hard and really make an impact.”

That’s exactly what he’s done. While ripping off those five wins, Shawaryn posted a streak of 18 consecutive scoreless innings. Spanning almost three full starts, it was snapped in the eighth inning of that seminal victory in Tallahassee. 

However, Shawaryn limited No. 2 Florida State to just that one run, thanks to a timely 5-2-3 double play that helped the freshman escape a bases loaded, late-inning jam.

It was at that point that Shawaryn let loose, jumping, yelling, fist pumping and glove-slapping his way to the dugout.

“I’m composed in between the lines, but after I step off the mound on those big types of plays, you can let a little emotion go,” Shawaryn said after the game. “It was a big play so I let loose a little bit there.”

It’s that same excitability and intensity that catches on with Shawaryn’s teammates and make his attitude contagious.

“Shawaryn is a funny kid,” Martir said. “He’s always having fun, he’s always smiling. He always puts a smile on everyone’s face.”

The mental balance that Shawaryn displays is what all baseball players yearn for. The ability to maintain the obsession to win while remaining even-keeled and positive sets him apart. The perfectionistic, competitive, never-satisfied mentality overrides everything, while Shawaryn puts careful thought into every decision he makes.  

That includes the biggest decision he’s ever had to make, turning down professional money and other scholarships to come to Maryland.

“He was a tough nut to crack for a while,” coach Szefc said about the recruiting process. “He had a previous relationship with [pitching coach] Jim Belanger when he was at Monmouth. That’s what got us in the door with him. I think he was attracted to the business school here. He’s a really, really good student.”

Nothing seems more appropriate for Shawaryn than a degree in business. He has two valuable assets in his right arm and advanced mind, and it shouldn’t be hard to attract investors. Drafted in the 32nd round of the 2013 Major League Draft, Shawaryn turned down a contract offer from the Kansas City Royals.

“The reason I came back was just because I wanted 3-4 years with Coach Bellanger,” Shawaryn said. “He does a really good job with the pitching staff and really helping you develop. I thought that would be really helpful taking my game to the next level. He does a good job of editing footage and showing you what you did wrong.”

There will be plenty of footage to dissect from Shawaryn’s Clemson and Wake Forest starts, but after all, that’s why he is here.

“I think I’m just maturing with the game,” Shawaryn said. “I’m still young and there’s a lot more I need to know.”

Not eligible to be drafted again until 2016, Shawaryn has plenty of time to watch film with Coach Bellanger, and plenty of time to help turn the program around in the mean time.

“We want to come and play. We come out here and give our all,” Shawaryn said. “We’re all here to do something special and create a special program.”

Armed with that mantra, the Terrapins are off to a historically good start in 2014, and have a very real chance to break the school record in wins and snap a number of dubious losing streaks.

Senior Jake Stinnett and Shawaryn have proved to be a lethal 1-2 punch in the ACC. The senior Stinnett has been through it all: from being benched as a position player, to now earning first round grades as one of the best pro prospects in the country. They say it takes one to know one, and Stinnett sees potential in Shawaryn.

“It’s going to be a great year for him. I would not be surprised to see him be an All-ACC type of guy,” Stinnett said about Shawaryn. “He can do whatever he wants to do.”