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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. Pace and Space

The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.

Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.

That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.

2. The Holiday Season

You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.

And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.

Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.

3. Looking for progress

Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.

Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.

Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.

Bulls thankful Kris Dunn's injury wasn't worse; Zach LaVine cleared for extended minutes

Bulls thankful Kris Dunn's injury wasn't worse; Zach LaVine cleared for extended minutes

The fall was nasty and the concussion was substantial for Kris Dunn. But at second blush the Bulls are thankful it wasn’t worse.

Given the way his body jerked after Dunn released himself from the rim, the Bulls are glad he didn’t suffer a neck injury in addition to the concussion and dislocated front teeth.

“It could have been a major, major injury,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously, it is a significant one with the concussion. You can't take these things lightly, but with the way that he fell and hit head first, we're really thankful that he'll be back hopefully before too long. But obviously we'll take things very cautiously, a cautious approach with this because of how significant concussions are. But hopefully we'll get him back soon.”

Dunn has braces on the front teeth to stabilize them, and Hoiberg said he’ll see the doctor every day over the next several days, per the league's concussion protocol. There’s a chance Dunn could join the Bulls on the three-game road trip, but he’ll miss at least Saturday’s game in Atlanta. The Bulls travel to New Orleans on Monday and Philadelphia on Wednesday.

It’s the second freak injury Dunn has suffered this season, in addition to dislocating his finger in the preseason. He struggled with it initially upon returning but recently had shown no signs of issues with it.

Dealing with a concussion and also a mouth injury makes things more complicated as far as his playing style. He plays aggressive and fast, bordering on recklessness occasionally.

Hoiberg doesn’t believe that will change when Dunn returns.

“I don't think it's going to change the way Kris plays,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously it was very unfortunate in the timing because he had a couple of really good plays there to get things really turned in our favor and get the momentum going down the stretch and they get a called timeout and get a layup out of it right away. Then we still had our chances late in that game. Kris was responsible as anybody for getting that game to striking distance. Unfortunately, we just couldn't make the plays we needed to to get the win.”

The more conservative style of Jerian Grant will take over in Dunn’s absence. Grant has been steady as a backup, averaging 7.6 points and 4.6 assists. Unlike Dunn, though, Grant hasn’t had issues with turnovers, at a four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio this year.

Teams will dare Grant to beat them from the outside, as he’s missed 15 of his 16 3-point attempts this month.

“I've been here before, so I'm prepared. I've started a lot of games so far in my career, so I'm ready for it,” Grant said. “The last time I started, we got a win. I did what I had to do so I'm prepared to do whatever we need to do to get a win.”

Where Grant will receive relief is from Zach LaVine getting clearance for more minutes, as he’ll play in the fourth quarters and will have his minute-restriction increased to 24 minutes.

LaVine will likely play some point guard during stretches, and is shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range in the small sample size of three games and 19.7 minutes.

“We're not going to overextend him right now because he's still obviously very early in the process as far as getting back on the floor and getting in game shape,” Hoiberg said. “We don't want to get him fatigued out there so we'll keep his rotation stretches short. But wee will hopefully have him available some in the fourth quarter to give us what Kris does down the stretch, who's been as good as anybody on our team as far as helping out close games.”

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