AUBURN HILLS, Mich. As the regular season winds down, its getting closer to the time when NBA writers are tabbed to select season-ending league awards. While I wont share which honors Ive been selected to vote on, it just so happened that one strong candidate for the Most Improved Player Award was in action against the Bulls Sunday night. He didnt have his best performance -- 13 points and eight rebounds, in comparison to his season averages of 15.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game, up from his rookie-year averages of 9.4 and 7.5 in the same categories -- but second-year Detroit big man Greg Monroe, as usual, was solid.In the interest of full disclosure, I lived in New Orleans during Monroes senior year of high school and watched him play in person, then followed him during his two seasons with the Georgetown Hoyas, a program Ive always rooted for. I caught up with the versatile, fundamentally-sound lefty prior to the Bulls overtime win to discuss his development.Just continuing to work on my post game, trying to get better. Work on my jump shot a whole lot. I wanted to be stronger, he told me about his offseason goals before the season. Knocking down that jump shot just opened up my game a little bit. It opens up anybodys game when you can make a jump shot, so I just try to focus on being consistent with that.Monroe acknowledged that after a decent rookie campaign, he knew opponents would focus on his dominant left hand, but even with increased defensive attention, he felt hed be able to exploit double teams with his passing ability. Ive definitely gotten better with my right hand, a lot more confident, he explained to me. Ive always had good vision. Ive always looked for my teammates. My main focus is to make the right play, whether its scoring or passing.Not that Monroes game Sunday will dissuade me or others from considering him as a viable candidate for the award, but there are certainly others worthy of consideration, from more-established players like the Lakers Andrew Bynum to more under-the-radar types, such as Milwaukees Ersan Ilyasova. Anyway, theres plenty of other stuff going on throughout the league and certainly with the Bulls, so on to this weeks mailbag.Where does this year's Bench Mob rank in terms of the best bench in NBA history? -- Tyler C.Tyler, as far as NBA history goes, wed be getting a little ahead of ourselves by comparing the Bulls to all-time benches. For instance, thinking of the Bulls opponent Sunday, both the Bad Boy Pistons teams and the 2004 Detroit title winner were extremely deep. If the Bulls win a championship, then the Bench Mob could reach similar status, as history is often kinder to squads that win it all. This season alone, however, Id certainly put the Bulls reserves among the top benches in the league, alongside the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers, though the latter hasnt been as potent since a lineup shake-up. Regardless, when we look back years later, the completeness of the Bench Mob and the way they seemingly never fail to rise to the occasion will be remembered fondly.What is the Bulls record for matinee games this season? It seems like they don't play as well during the day. -- Scott S.Scott, the Bulls are a woeful 2-6 in matinee games this season, with the two victories being the season-opening Christmas Day win over the Lakers and a home triumph over the Hawks. Youre right in saying they havent dealt with early starts very well this season, something Thibs discussed after last Sundays loss at New York (he joked -- at least I think he was joking; there was an awkward silence among the assembled media afterwards -- about wishing the Bulls had more matinee games at home), calling it a big concern, and putting some of the onus on himself for not having the team fully prepared. I wont downplay it and call it a coincidence, but I do think that if theyre faced with the prospect of an early start in the postseason, theyll be ready to play, especially with Thibs gently reminding them how they fared in the regular season.In your opinion, how has the lockout affected this season? Other than the number of games, of course.-- Neil A.Neil, thats an easy one: Injuries. From Derrick and Rip missing so many games for the Bulls to durable players like Dwight Howard-- say what you want about the All-Star center, but hes rarely injured and his current back problems appear to be serious-- being sidelined, its clear that the compressed schedule and shortened training camp have taken a toll on the leagues workforce. Sure, I could point to sloppy play early in the season, but for the most part, thats rectified itself as the season has gone on. But for players who came into the season out of shape or have played heavy minutes, its obvious the work stoppage has been a major factor. I havent studied the numbers-- the Bulls have enough going on to look at the league as a whole-- but even the number of freak injuries seems higher this season, something evidenced by the Bulls litany of various ailments. Other than injuries and the schedule itself, as time has gone on, its been more or less a normal NBA campaign.Just realized that Charlotte hasjust sevenwins this season, is there any hope for them? -- Joey N.Joey, good question. Even if the Bobcats land the No. 1 pick -- no guarantee, as Bulls fans are aware that the top pick doesnt always go to the worst team. Some observers, such as Charles Barkley, have suggested that with the Nets moving to Brooklyn, missing out on the aforementioned Howard this season and likely to lose Deron Williams, the draft lottery will be rigged for them to get the top choice -- Im not sure Chicago native Anthony Davis, assuming the Kentucky freshman declares for the draft, will guarantee them an instant turnaround. They do have a few pieces, namely swingman Gerald Henderson, point guard D.J. Augustin, center Byron Mullens and rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, but in general, the Michael Jordan-owned franchise has an underwhelming collection of talent. That said, they do have plenty of cap space for free agents, but with speculation that there will be a coaching change, Jordans reputation as a penny-pincher, dwindling crowds and that less-than-attractive talent base, its unlikely that marquee players will look to relocate to Charlotte. That said, theyre capable of turning things around in the long-term future, but it wont be easy.Keep the questions -- whether theyre about the Bulls, the rest of the NBA, other levels of basketball or life in general -- coming. Youll get a much better explanation, though not as instant, than you would via Twitter with only 140 characters. You can submit a question by commenting on this article below or by clicking here.
It'd be a stretch to say that any rookie is having a better or more impactful season than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The Sixers are 9-7, and Simmons looks like a 10-year veteran with his decision making, athleticism and all-around feel for the game. He's the frontrunner for MVP, but there are two other rookies vying to catch Simmons and win that title. And they'll face each other tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
Lonzo Ball was the second pick in June's NBA Draft, and fellow Pac-12 freshman standout Lauri Markkanen went five picks later to the Bulls, who had traded up as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Both players were drafted to rebuilding franchises - the Lakers still working out the kinks in the post-Kobe era, and the Bulls beginning their rebuild after dealing Butler - and were expected to make immediate impacts on their franchises.
Ball's was more pronounced, as the Lakers dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Nets on draft night to free up space at the point for their prized No. 2 pick. Markkanen's came more abruptly, as the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic's fight put Mirotic in the hospital and Portis on paid leave. However they got there, both players have been impressive in their early NBA careers.
Starting with Markkanen, the Bulls knew the 7-foot stretch forward was a perfect build for the modern NBA. He set freshman 3-point and rebounding records that, since 1992, only some guy named Kevin Durant had reached. After a successful summer in Eurobasket he was set for a large role with the Bulls, and he's succeeded in just about every aspect. His 15.6 points per game are third only to Simmons and the other Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, and his 8.1 rebounds are second to Simmons. And his 2.6 made 3-pointers per game are most among rookies, and well past No. 2 on the list (Utah's Donovan Mitchell, 1.9 per game).
In fact, Markkanen would become the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 3-pointers per game. The 2.5 3-pointers would break a rookie record currently held by Damian Lillard (2.3 per game). The closest a rookie has ever come to reaching those marks was Stephen Curry, who averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie. Allen Iverson also met the 4/2 threshold, but that's a far cry from Markkanen's 8/2.5 mark. Paul Pierce's rookie season saw him average 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers.
But that's not all. If he kept those averages up he would be just the fifth player EVER to accomplish those thresholds. The others are James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Antonie Walker, who naturally did it twice.
So, yeah, Markkanen is having quite a rookie year.
So, too, is Ball. While he's had some real issues with efficiency, slashing .313/.228/.462 and has committed 2.6 turnovers per game, his counting stats have been outstanding. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and that puts him in equally impressive company.
Simmons has reached those numbers this season, too, averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists. You may have heard of the other two players, named Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.
The two future Hall of Famers averaged these numbers:
Robertson: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (missing averaging a triple-double for the season by 20 assists)
Johnson: 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists
Ball is also averaging 0.9 blocks, and no other rookie guard has ever accomplished that. It might not always look pretty for Markkanen and Ball as they feel their way out in the NBA, but just remember watching these two that they're in the midst of making history in the new era of the NBA.
Lauri Markkanen continues to impress.
The 20-year-old rookie had a career-high 26 points in the Bulls' 113-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night. He also picked up 13 rebounds.
After the game, in which the Bulls fell to 3-11 on the season, coach Fred Hoiberg had high praise for the Finnish.
"I thought Lauri was phenomenal," Hoiberg said. "But when he is open, we gotta get him the ball. When he's got it rolling like he did tonight, guys were switching and we had him a couple of times with the point guard buried in his back and we didn't get him the ball."
Watch what Hoiberg had to say about the Bulls' tight loss in the video above.