Bulls

LeBron James' brilliance overpowers Denzel Valentine's career night for Bulls

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AP

LeBron James' brilliance overpowers Denzel Valentine's career night for Bulls

It look a little longer than perhaps LeBron James expected—or maybe not, given the recent woes from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But it happens in a flash—no matter if it is a fadeaway jumper, darting pass through multiple defenders or a swat into the third row for an unsuspecting Cameron Payne, who acted like he hadn’t seen James’ movies.

It took an almost Herculean effort from the game’s best player to put away a pesky Bulls team, 114-109 Saturday at the United Center. James was without several regulars, including Rodney Hood, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver—and his coach, Tyronn Lue, didn’t join the bench in the second half after getting ill.

The no-look passes, the easy drives to the basket, it’s hard to realize he’s playing in his 15th season but he’s at a level few can match, even if his team struggles to keep up.

Whatever he’s lost in athleticism, he’s gained in mastering the game and making sure it’s played at his pace.

Of course, we can quibble with his indifference to defense at times and make note of how that permeates to the rest of the team, as they let the Bulls back in way too many times.

But when you say that, it’s just as easy to see his passing makes his teams unselfish. The Cavs routinely swing the ball from a good shot to a great shot, even if it’s facilitated by James himself, as they had 25 assists on 44 field goals.

“Right now the game is effortless,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “LeBron wants to be a passer first and that’s where he was hurting us early. And then he got loose and got to the rim.”

James led them with 12 in addition to his 33 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes, and the Cavaliers needed every bit of his production as the Bulls emptied the reservoir with four of their five regular starters out.

“I just want to get healthy,” James said. “It’s unfamiliar territory for a lot of guys, going in and out the lineup and having six guys out…I think it was a good (road) trip for us.”

The Bulls were missing Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez for various reasons.

Denzel Valentine filled in admirably for a career night and luckily, didn’t throw a cringing behind-the-back pass to the expensive seats. Buoyed by a lax defense from the opposition, he led the Bulls with 34 points, seven rebounds and six assists, hitting eight of 11 from long range in 34 minutes.

If it wasn’t for a late foul on Jordan Clarkson when the Bulls improbably tied the game at 105 with 1:41 left, the Bulls would’ve made things very interesting. But he made contact with Clarkson in the corner and the Cavaliers took a four-point lead.

James got a steal on the next possession and hit a fadeaway to complete his night, his 15th triple-double of the season.

“As soon as I went in a little bit he threw it out there,” Valentine said of James. “And I went to close out and boom. It’s just a learning moment.”

Valentine has earned praise from Hoiberg for filling a leadership void while Lopez and Justin Holiday have taken a backseat due to the organization’s wishes to evaluate young players for the rest of the season.

In the meantime, Valentine hopes he’s proving to be a starter at this level, not just a plug-and-play role player.

“I believe I’m a starter in this league,” Valentine said. “I believe I can be an important piece of an NBA team. But whatever my role on the team is that they want me to do, the organization wants me to do, I’ll do. But personally, I believe I’m a starter and I can contribute in major ways. I just got to keep working and keep getting better.”

Whether he’s a fringe starter or valuable piece off the bench, Valentine has at least shown to develop a consistent jump shot—which in today’s game puts him as a fit on any team. Shooting 39 percent on the season means if the Bulls make him available this offseason, they will have callers.

“It just shows what I’m capable of,” Valentine said. “I believe in myself even when I’m out there playing bad. But I put the work in no matter what happens, if I’m playing well [or], if I’m playing bad.”

His fearlessness, along with Bobby Portis and Cameron Payne, pulled the Bulls back from the brink after the Cavaliers took a 17-point lead before halftime.

Sixteen of his points came in the third, sending the United Center into a frenzy despite the fact a loss would be more beneficial for the franchise considering the New York Knicks destroyed the Charlotte Hornets, paving the way for the Bulls to slide back into eighth in the lottery standings.

Payne did his best to undermine the tank, with a career-high 10 assists go to with 13 points on five of 11 shooting. Portis was solid with 15 points and 15 rebounds, but had a late dunk blocked by Jeff Green.

And combined with Antonio Blakeney getting his shots up anytime he touched the ball, including on fast breaks when the Bulls had multiple-man advantages, just enough was done to give the Cavs the necessary room to end their 13-day road trip on a high note.

“We’ve got a lot of guys in positions they haven’t been in all year,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Cam was unbelievable pushing the pace, especially early in the game.”

Green added 21 and Clarkson came off the bench to score 19. All can thank James for their night—along with a fan he threw his armband to afterward, who was left in tears.

And had the Bulls actually won this game, both James and the Bulls fans would’ve been in tears.

Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

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USA TODAY

Joakim Noah has a new look and it's, uh, interesting

Joakim Noah played in only seven games for the New York Knicks this season, having last appeared in action on Jan. 23. A few weeks later, Noah was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the team.

So what's the former Bull up to now?

Well, apparently he's attempting to audition for one of the latest wild life survival shows.

In honor of Earth Day, Noah showed off his new look on Instagram:

Jah bless the earth

A post shared by Joakim Noah (@stickity13) on

"God bless the Earth and the trees and the sun," he says in the video.

No. God bless you, Joakim.

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

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USA TODAY

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

Something special occurred on the campus of Oregon University in late February. The Arizona Wildcats were in town, 24 hours removed from an ESPN report that claimed head coach Sean Miller had discussed paying $100,000 to land blue-chip prospect Deandre Ayton. The report shook the college basketball world, Miller took a leave of absence from the team and the Wildcats, ranked 14th in the country, became the lead story on sports talk shows for all the wrong reasons.

And the 19-year-old Ayton found himself at the center of the turmoil. Heading into Eugene, a place the Ducks were 31-3 at over the last two seasons, the Oregon student section mercilessly heckled Ayton all night, chanting “wi-re tap” and “hun-dred thou-sand” at the freshman star. The 7-foot-1 Bahamian could have crumbled in the moment. No one would have blamed him if he had.

Instead, Ayton dominated. He took over the game for 44 minutes, resting for 66 seconds in the first half before playing the final 26:37 of the overtime thriller. His final line – 28 points, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks – somehow didn’t do the performance justice. He made 11 of 15 shots, including 17-foot jumpers, offensive rebound put-backs, low-post moves and transition dunks. In a season of extraordinary for the Pac-12’s eventual Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, that Saturday night may have been his most impressive, all things considered.

And it’s one of many reasons why, if that 5.3 percent chance becomes reality, the Bulls can’t pass on Deandre Ayton with the first pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Let’s begin with the raw stats. Ayton joined Duke’s Marvin Bagley as the only freshmen since 1993 to average 20 points, 11 rebounds and shoot 60 percent from the field. What’s more, only 10 others – regardless of year – had accomplished the feat, last done by Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in 2009. Four of those 10 were drafted first overall (Michael Olowokandi, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Griffin). So, spoiler alert, there’s precedent for a dominant big man being selected first overall. Ayton certainly could join that list, which we’ll note has a respectable success rate.

Those offensive numbers were compiled in impressive fashion. Ayton has been blessed with a remarkable skill set for a 19-year-old. Per Synergy, his 1.16 points per possession (PPP) ranked in the 98th percentile, and he did while playing out of position most of the season; Miller insisted on playing Ayton alongside 7-footer Dusan Ristic, which clogged up the offense at times. He’ll have more freedom in the NBA.

There’s no denying the 260-pound Ayton was a force around the rim, using his NBA-ready frame to overpower opposing frontcourts; he shot 76 percent from inside 5 feet (200 of 263) and ranked in the 90th percentile in post-up situations (1.05 PPP). But his game, like his frame, is NBA-ready, too. Ayton displayed an above-average jump shot, shooting 38 percent on 104 possessions; Kentucky’s Anthony Davis shot 34 percent on just 67 possessions in 2012. Ayton also spent more time as a pick-and-roll roller (14.6% of his possessions) than Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid in their respective college years.

He also expanded his game out to the 3-point line, attempting 35 triples in 35 games. That may not seem like much in “today’s game,” but consider: Joel Embiid (1-for-5), Karl-Anthony Towns (2-for-8) and Anthony Davis (3-for-20) combined for fewer made and attempted 3s than did Ayton in one year; Towns shot 42 percent from deep this past NBA season, Embiid made 66 triples with the Sixers and Davis has increased his made 3s each of his first six NBA seasons. Shooting can be taught, and Ayton is already ahead of schedule, even if he’s going to earn his money 15 feet and in. Ayton will jell in an NBA offense from Day 1. His game was made for the NBA.

That physically imposing frame made him a terror around the rim. Ayton stands 7-foot-1 and weighs 260 pounds; only six NBA players were listed at that size or taller/heavier. Ayton is as physically ready a rookie as we’ve seen in a handful of years.

It also makes some of his defensive metrics perplexing. Ayton’s block percentage, per KenPom.com, was 6.1%; Towns, Davis and Embiid all had double-digit block percentages. Ayton was also a liability defending the post, ranking in just the 34th percentile (allowing .919 PPP). And though some of these ugly numbers can be attributed to playing out of position, his motor has come into question and he looked out lost at times on that end of the floor. It’s certainly an area he’ll need to improve upon; it’s not enough to say he’ll roll out of bed and score 20 points. He’s got the easy part down, standing 7-foot-1 with a 40+-inch vertical. A strong defensive-minded coach will do Ayton wonders early in his career.

So why the Bulls? Well, as you’ll read a lot in this series, the team needs an injection of talent. Team need isn’t going to come into play much after Cristiano Felicio averaged 17.8 minutes per game. The Bulls need talent, and Ayton defines that. It also fits that Ayton would make for a near-perfect 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkanen, a fellow Wildcat. Ayton saw significant time as the “hi” man of Arizona’s hi-low sets with Ristic. With Markkanen maneuvering the perimeter, Ayton would be free to work 15 feet and in where he’s at his best. Having Robin Lopez as a mentor for a year would only improve Ayton’s game, and his pick-and-roll numbers would improve with Kris Dunn, who made even Felicio look serviceable.

Ayton is the best prospect in the class. There isn’t much else to say. As the series progresses we’ll need to make stronger arguments for prospects, but not with Ayton. He’s the best center prospect since Karl-Anthony Towns, and his offensive game is ahead of any frontcourt prospect with two eyebrows the last decade. Prospects like Ayton come along once every few years (Towns, Embiid, Davis) and he’s as close to a sure thing as there is in this draft. If, 10 years after the Lottery gods smiled down on the Bulls, lightning strikes twice, Deandre Ayton is the man to lead the Bulls back to contention in the Eastern Conference.