Bulls

Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

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Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

Tuesday, October 6th

OK, I know it's only two meaningless preseason games, but you can't help but be encouraged by what we've seen so far from Bulls rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson. NBA observers shrugged when the Bulls grabbed the two power forwards in Round 1 of the draft back in June, with some of the so-called experts saying the team made a big mistake not taking Pittsburgh big man DeJuan Blair. Blair looked good in summer league play with San Antonio, and there's no question he has some scoring ability in the low post. But like so many other teams, the Bulls were scared off by his lack of height and medical reports on his surgically repaired knees.

But back to Johnson and Gibson. Bulls GM Gar Forman told us back on draft night that the Bulls had Johnson ranked as the fifth-best player on their draft board and they were thrilled to get him with the 16th pick overall. He has good quickness and ball-handling ability for a big man, and decent shooting range out to the three-point line. But during the summer, Johnson didn't exactly burn up inferior competition in Las Vegas. He was carrying too much weight at around 265 pounds and didn't look nearly quick enough to play small forward in the NBA. Obviously, Johnson got the message. The former kick-boxing champion worked hard to get his weight down to around 250, and he looks noticeably slimmer and quicker so far in the preseason. Playing against the likes of Utah's Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, Johnson found a way to put up 18 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. He also made the big plays down the stretch, including the game winning jumper at the buzzer. Vinny Del Negro plans to give Johnson playing time at both forward positions and he looks like the kind of player who can grow into a scoring role off the bench.

As for Gibson, a lot of mock drafts had him falling into the second round, but here at Beyond the Arc, we were campaigning for the Bulls to select the hard-working big man out of USC with that 22nd overall pick they got in the Thabo Sefolosha trade. I really liked Gibson's relentless work on the boards at USC playing for Tim Floyd, and he also showed a nice shooting touch and the ability to be a shot blocker at the NBA level. The only real knock on Gibson was that he was too thin, at 225 pounds. But the Bulls have a terrific weight-training staff led by Erik Helland, and they'll work hard with Gibson to help him build the strength he'll need to survive in the NBA, much like they did with Horace Grant before the Bulls' first three-peat. Gibson started the game against Utah with Tyrus Thomas out because of injury, and put up 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, including an emphatic rejection of Millsap. He was even better in the preseason opener against Indiana, leading the Bulls with 19 points off the bench, while adding nine rebounds. Entering training camp, it looked like Gibson might have a tough time finding minutes behind Joakim Noah, Brad Miller, Thomas and Johnson, but he was the first big man off the bench against Indiana and has impressed the coaching staff with his hustle and determination on the boards.

Things could change once the regular season begins, as the Bulls face the likes of San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland in the early going, but the early returns suggest Johnson and Gibson will work their way into Vinny's rotation and maybe contribute more as rookies than anyone around the NBA expected.

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

The statue doesn’t sit out front of the United Center anymore, but the statute remains the same for any player good enough to be on the marquee for the Chicago Bulls.

Zach LaVine, while awed by the specter of Michael Jordan, isn’t spooked by chasing a ghost. Weeks away from a debut as a Bull—returning from ACL surgery—LaVine is aware of the standard set by the man who called himself “Black Jesus”.

“Black Jesus played here for so long. I’m not putting myself in that category,” LaVine said, unaware Jordan gave himself that nickname as a young player in Chicago. “He lived up to it. They (fans) want to get back to that pinnacle.”

He hears the hopes and wishes of fans when he walks off the United Center floor two hours before every home game after getting shots up as part of his rehab. LaVine knows what’s expected from him—what’s more, he expects that from himself.

He’s a two-time slam dunk champion, certainly, but the Seattle area native wants to be known as a complete player, someone a franchise can build around.

And if it’s Black Jesus’ franchise, so be it.

“You try not to let it mess with you,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’m strong minded, I’m confident in myself. Everybody is gonna have their own opinions. All that matters is how you feel about yourself.”

Not that he’s not holding himself to the standard set by the standard bearer himself, but he’s aware the responsibility that comes with playing at Jordan’s position for a franchise still largely synonymous with Jordan—even though this spring will mark 20 years since Jordan actually wore Bulls red.

“No one’s trying to compare you to him, that’s out there,” LaVine said. “You’re just trying to be the best you, coming into this situation. You have the opportunity to be the face of the franchise. To be that guy. You want to embrace that. You want everybody to know you’re prepared and capable of doing that.”

Simply being identified as a player a franchise will commit to building around as opposed to the third wheel, as he was believed to be in Minnesota behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, is warming for him.

Derrick Rose believed he was up for the challenge until his body betrayed him. Jimmy Butler wanted it, but the Bulls thought otherwise leading to the chain of events that brought LaVine to Chicago.

In the first season of a full-fledged rebuild, LaVine knows the prevailing belief is that the next franchise carrier is more likely in the coming draft than on the Bulls roster.

“People gonna put a name on everything. I’m gonna hoop, do what I do,” LaVine said. “I know I’m talented, I think the Bulls organization knows I’m talented. Whatever we do with the pick or free agency, that’s their side of basketball operations. I’m gonna do what I do. I put in the work.”

He’ll return to full contact practice next week and if one had to guess, finally be introduced as an active player in the middle of December once he works the kinks out and gains confidence in taking real contact.

But then again, confidence has never been a problem for LaVine. Whether it was instilled in him by a vocal father who had him chart every shot he took as a high schooler or simply innate, LaVine isn’t shying away from the challenge.

“He had a plan, for sure,” LaVine said of his father, Paul, who once played linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “I have binders of shots. I was doing workouts the day before games. I was doing professional workouts before (college). I embraced being a hard worker.”

Whether it’s the rehab or a road that’s had plenty of twists and turns for him to be 22, he’s experienced enough not to be naïve but young enough to have admirable wide-eyed optimism.

“You put in that much hard work, it can’t fail. It can’t.”

The Bulls first quarter was historically terrible

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USA TODAY

The Bulls first quarter was historically terrible

Rebuilds can be ugly, but the first quarter of Wednesday's Bulls-Thunder game was downright disgusting. 

The Bulls scored single digits(!) in the historically awful opening 12 minutes. Here's a closer look at the numbers: 

7 - Amount of points scored. That's the worst opening quarter in franchise history and just one point better than the worst overall quarter. 

8 - Number of turnovers, which included three shot clock violations. 

13 - The Bulls shot 13 percent from the field. Woof. 

2 - Consecutive games Fred Hoiberg's squad has trailed by 20 after the first. 

3 - Carmelo Anthony outscored the Bulls by three points in the opening quarter (10-7). 

It's safe to assume that the lineup of Jerian Grant, Kris Dunn, Quincy Pondexter, Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez was not ready to play.