Bryce Harper On The Cover Of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

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Tom Verducci wonders what Bryce Harper has in mind for his sophomore season; Jack McCallum examines the key characters in the Lakers’ disastrous start; Lee Jenkins takes a look at Rajon Rondo on and off the court and how the Celtics’ recent success will motivate him to come back even stronger; Arizona swingman Kevin Parrom has rebounded from tragedy, injury and a shooting writes Kelli Anderson

(NEW YORK – Feb. 20, 2013) – Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who last season helped the Nats win their first NL East title in franchise history and won the NL Rookie of the Year, is on the cover of the Feb. 25, 2013 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands Wednesday. This is the second time Harper has appeared on the cover, as he was featured on the June 8, 2009 SI cover when he was a 16 year-old prodigy at Las Vegas High School.

With the success of Harper, AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and other first year stars, 2012 proved to be one of the most accomplished rookie classes in MLB history. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Tom Verducci examines what Harper has in mind for his second season and whether or not he will fall victim to the most unscientific explanation in baseball mythology for second-season flops: the sophomore jinx. Verducci writes:

“Of the 32 pitchers and 48 position players who received Rookie of the Year Award votes from 2007 to ’11, 59 had a worse ERA or OPS in the follow-up act—a 74% attrition rate.” (PAGE 46)

Harper, who set teenage major league records last year for total bases (254), extra-base hits (57) and WAR (5.0), and ranked second all time amongst teenagers in homeruns (22) and runs (98), feels any talk of a sophomore slump is “stupid”. He says: “I’m not going to put it my head. Sophomore slump? I was a sophomore in college and raked. Why can’t you rake in the big leagues?” (PAGE 49)

Verducci agrees: “It’s not difficult to imagine Harper or Trout joining Cal Ripken (1983), Ryan Howard (2007) and Dustin Pedroia (2008) in the exclusive club of players to follow their Rookie of the Year act with an MVP.” (PAGES 46-47)

Harper is used to having his doubters. He was told he shouldn’t play varsity high school baseball at age 14, but he dominated. He was advised not to take his GED at age 16, but he got a 98. Harper was warned not to play junior college ball at 16 against mature 22 year olds throwing 94 mph, but he dominated again. While strenuous offseason preparation and previous experience silencing doubters may not get in Harper’s way, Verducci wonders:

“Maybe, more than pitchers and scouts searching for a weaknesses with the fervor of geneticists, more than all the scrutiny young stars attract in the Internet age, what brings life to the idea of a sophomore jinx is the added weight of expectations. Maybe having succeeded the first time is the real curse.” (PAGE 51)

 

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CHAOS THEORY—JACK MCCALLUM ( @McCallum12)

Despite modest improvement over the last few weeks, the Lakers still sit 3 ½ games out of a postseason spot with 28 to go. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Jack McCallum examines the key characters and storylines behind the Lakers disastrous start and wonders if Mike D’Antoni can turn them around in time to sneak into the playoffs.

One of those key characters was the architect of five championships for the Lakers—Phil Jackson. Count Jackson among the doubters of this year’s Lakers team:

“The players don’t mach well with the system,” Jackson says of D’Anonti’s Lakers. “I like Mike as a coach, just not with this personnel.” (PAGE 37)

McCallum notes that some portion of the Lakers brain trust saw D’Antoni as the coach who could help restore the run-and-gun Showtime style of Magic’s Lakers—the beloved style of the late team owner Jerry Buss, who just passed away Monday. Yet, the Lakers feature older players who like to play with their backs to the basket. 39-year-old point guard Steve Nash believes the key to turning around the season is simple: more pick-and-rolls. McCallum sees this as a shot at Dwight Howard. He says:

“That message was clearly directed at one person. Howard’s inability—or unwillingness—to embrace a pick-and-roll offense has been a major subplot of the Lakers’ season.” (PAGE 38)

Then there’s the popular belief that Howard is flat out immature. McCallum says: “At times his flakiness gives the impression that he’s playing some version of a Sesame Street character—Mr. Smiley Long Legs one day, Mr. Mopey Pants another.” (PAGE 38)

In his defense, McCallum notes that Howard has clearly not recovered fully from his offseason back surgery, not to mention the torn labrum he suffered in early January. The Lakers could manage Howard’s issues if the other key post player—Pao Gasol, who is out until mid-March with his own injury—wasn’t also off to a rocky start in the new system.

And what about Kobe Bryant? He’s tried everything from leading the league in scoring the first few months to cutting down his shot attempts to even calling out Howard. One thing is for sure—Kobe and D’Antoni must find a way to get through to Howard, keep Gasol happy and get production from younger players off the bench. Kobe remains confident.

“It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs,” Bryant says. “We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonia, Denver…whoever.” (PAGE 40)

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RONDO—LEE JENKINS (@SI_LeeJenkins)

 

Rajon Rondo, the Celtics’ starting point guard who was voted in as a starter to this year’s All-Star Game, suffered a torn ACL on Jan. 27 and has since watched his team play its best basketball of the year.  In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Lee Jenkins takes a look at Boston’s floor general both on and off the court, and how the Celtics stellar play with Rondo injured will inspire him to work even harder to come back stronger.

Prior to being lost for the season, Rondo was averaging 13.7 points and a league high 11.1 assists per game. Jenkins finds that Rondo’s ability to think a few steps ahead on the court is due large in part to the fact that grew up playing Connect Four on his front porch with anyone who dared to challenge him. Back then and now, Rondo is the first to let his opponents know how well he is doing. Jenkins writes:

“Opposing point guards, weary of Rondo’s jawing and jostling, wonder if he is picking a fight with them or simply doesn’t like them.” (PAGE 58)

Rondo admits:  “I’m not a great people person…I’m not trying to make friends on the court…we can talk in the summer.” (PAGE 58)

Yet, Rondo is a hit with kids in his community. For the past six years, Rondo spends time with children at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, Mass.  What do they do when he is there? Play Connect Four.

On the court, Rondo has racked up assist averages over the past two seasons not seen since Magic Johnson and John Stockton, as well as recording the most triple-doubles as the rest of the Eastern Conference combined.

“Everybody wants to score, score, score, score…So I want to pass. I like to be different. I could never be a follower.” Says Rondo (PAGE 60).

Rondo is always thinking three moves ahead and one would think he’ll take the same approach to his ACL rehab. Says Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics General Manager: “He’s the smartest guy in the room.” (PAGE 63)

 

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THE CAT COMES BACK – KELLI ANDERSON (@KelliAndersonSI)

After losing three family members to cancer, sustaining severe nerve damage from a gunshot wound and enduring his second broken foot in his collegiate career, University of Arizona swingman Kevin Parrom knows a thing or two about challenges. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Kelli Anderson explores the impact of Parrom’s personal tragedies and how he has rebounded from them in time to complete his degree and contribute to the No. 12 Arizona Wildcats.

“Kevin’s not just the comeback player of the year, he’s the most courageous player,” says Wildcats assistant Emanuel (Book) Richardson. “What he went through would have broken a lot of players.” (PAGE 52)

With another top ten recruiting class on its way to Arizona and limited speed due to his injuries, Parrom worked tirelessly this past summer on his three-point shot and has improved from beyond the arc to 36.1%. And across the board, Parrom has put up impressive numbers as one of the top sixth men in the country, averaging 8.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 22.9 minutes.

When asked how he has dealt with so much tragedy in such a short time span, Parrom echoes his late mother’s words—“All you can do is stay strong”. (PAGE 55)

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