With college teams heading into conference play, momentum is starting to build for Arizona center Deandre Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's draft.
Ayton already has an NBA body at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and he's a lot more agile than most young big men. Watching his recent game against Texas A&M, Ayton showed the kind of footwork and explosiveness that will impress scouts and general managers. He doesn't have the Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves of a Joel Embiid, but he's already got the basic NBA post move skill set, including a jump hook and up-and-under package. Ayton exploded for 29 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Alabama on December 9, making 12 of 18 shots.
Ayton is already a force on the defensive end with his quick leaping ability allowing him to alter shots in the paint, and he has a nice touch from the outside, hitting just under 70 percent of his free throws while also venturing out to the 3-point line to attempt a couple shots.
Where does he fit for the Bulls? Robin Lopez is under contract for another season and the Bulls also have three more guaranteed years of seldom-used Cristiano Felicio. Still, all that could change by season's end, with Lopez a potential trade candidate for a contending team looking to add another quality big man. Ayton's size and athleticism could be attractive to a Bulls’ team that's already identified three young starters going forward in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, especially since the power forward position is overloaded right now with Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic.
At this point early in the college season, Marvin Bagley and Ayton probably rank first and second on most teams’ draft boards, followed by Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and Missouri forward Michael Porter, who's out for the season because of a back injury.
Bagley is the hot name among NBA scouts, but don't be surprised if Ayton gets consideration for the No. 1 overall pick next June. The NBA might be a point guard league right now, but the influx of quality young centers like Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic suggests the big man is still a valuable commodity.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo is must-watch every night. The newest megastar of the NBA has completely taken over in his fifth NBA season. He's averaging 29.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. He literally does it all, and he's shooting 55 percent and getting to the three throw line 9.7 times per game. Oh, and he leads the league in minutes per game (37.7) and can play literally any position. He's arguably the most watchable player in the NBA who didn't go to high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. Simply put, when the Greek Freak is on your television screen you had better be watching, even if he's going to go crazy on the Bulls.
2. The Drive for Five. Don't adjust your monitor, tablet or phone. The Bulls will go for their fifth consecutive win on Friday night. That's something they didn't accomplish last season, and did it in January of the 2015-16 season (6 straight wins). And these haven't exactly been cupcakes the Bulls have knocked off. Charlotte is a team in dismay, but the Knicks, Celtics (obviously) and Jazz should all contend for playoff spots this season. So, too, should the Bucks. And in a division game anything can happen, and Bulls fans turnout should be good in Milwaukee. If the Bulls get Lauri Markkanen back it'll be one more reason they can push this unlikely win streak to five games.
3. Niko's Back! That's right. Nikola Mirotic is back with a vengeance since returning from his concussion/facial fractures. He's been a man on a mission in four games (all Bulls wins), averaging 19.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game. He hasn't recorded an assist in 102 minutes, but that just adds to the legend. Niko is looking as good as ever right now, shooting 57 percent and 52 percent from deep. Of course the Bulls aren't 4-0 simply on the back of Mirotic, but it's clear the spacing is so much better and the Bulls' offense flows more fluidly when No. 44 is on the court.