Bulls

Bulls could finally go back to the point guard well with Tyler Ulis

Bulls could finally go back to the point guard well with Tyler Ulis

Four years ago the Bulls selected Kentucky's Marquis Teague, in part, as a security blanket for the rehabilitating Derrick Rose, who would wind up missing the entire season after ACL surgery.

At the time general manager Gar Forman admitted Teague filled a need - C.J. Watson and John Lucas III were free agents - but that the Bulls were also happy with the value he brought back with the 29th pick.

The 19-year-old Teague had just helped lead a Wildcats team to a national title alongside Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the top two picks in that 2012 draft. The former five-star high school recruit had excellent speed, length and passing acumen. His inconsistent jumper - he shot just 41 percent from the field at Kentucky - and decision making meant he would be a project at the next level, but one with potential. That offseason the Bulls signed Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich to ease the transition.

The results were disastrous. Teague's shot never improved, he looked lost defensively and his work ethic was questioned. The Bulls cut their losses midway through his second year, dumping his salary to Brooklyn in exchange for Toko Shengalia, while playing out the season with D.J. Augustin and Hinrich - Rose suffered a torn meniscus in November; cutting bait on point guard depth showed just how far Teague had fallen.

The Bulls kept the diminutive point guard carousel turning in 2014, swapping out Augustin with Aaron Brooks. They also added E'Twaun Moore as a combo guard behind both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Both Brooks and Moore remained in Chicago in 2015 but will hit free agency on July 1. Where Brooks struggled mightily, barely eclipsing 40 percent from the field, Moore blossomed under Fred Hoiberg, averaging 7.5 points on 48.1 percent shooting. The Bulls would like to retain the latter, but Moore may look for a bigger role elsewhere this summer.

As successful as the Bulls have been at finding point guard talent on the waiver wire - Robinson, Augustin, Brooks (two years ago) and Moore (last year) all were serviceable reserves who performed well when injuries struck - it's a position they've barely touched since drafting Rose, and avoided entirely since the Teague disaster. And now with free agency just a year away for Rose, the future of the position is in question.

Since the Bulls used the first overall pick on Rose in 2008, they've drafted a point guard with just one of their 10 selections. Only four other teams have drafted just one point guard in that span: Toronto, which traded for two-time All-Star Kyle Lowry in 2012; Charlotte, which drafted point guard Kemba Walker in 2011; and Cleveland, which took Kyrie Irving first overall in 2011 and also found their backup in Matthew Dellavedova as an undrafted free agent in 2013.

Some of the reasoning behind the Bulls' lack of attention to the position in drafts is, well, positioning. It wasn't a need after Rose exploded onto the scene as the Rookie of the Year and won MVP two seasons later. A year after selecting Teague the Bulls watched Dennis Schroder and Shane Larkin go two and three picks before their No. 20 slot, where they opted for Tony Snell. In 2014, three point guards (Exum, Smart, Payton) went in the top-10, and the Bulls had their sights set on Doug McDermott when they traded up to No. 11. And last year Duke's Tyus Jones could have been an option, but SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis fell into their laps at No. 22.

In less than two weeks the Bulls will again have a decision to make, this time at No. 14, the highest they've been slotted to select since they drafted Rose with the first pick in 2008.

And unless another no-brainer talent unexpectedly falls - Marquette's Henry Ellenson or Kentucky's Jamal Murray - the Bulls could find both a short-term and long-term answer in another young Kentucky point guard.

Tyler Ulis returned to the Wildcats expecting to shoulder more of a leadership role. That's what happens on John Calipari-led teams: stay more than a year and you're suddenly a veteran in a locker room full of high school talent.

Ulis, a five-star prospect at Chicago's Marian Catholic, watched as six of his teammates - including three fellow freshmen - were selected in last June's NBA Draft. After playing behind the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, Ulis got his shot in the spotlight in 2015-16. He led a Kentucky team with yet another top-ranked recruiting class to a 27-9 record and an SEC Tournament title.

Ulis proved more than capable of an increased role, averaging 17.3 points and 7.0 assists in nearly 37 minutes per game. The littlest guy on the floor most nights was also the best defender, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 1.5 steals per game. He became just the second player in SEC history to earn Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors. The other? Anthony Davis.

"That second year I had to do way more than I did my freshman year," Ulis said at last month's combine. "I learned a lot about myself. Learned how to be a leader on and off the court and I feel like it helped me through this process."

There are questions about how Ulis' size will translate at the next level. He measured in at 5-foot-10 with shoes and weighed only 149 pounds, the smallest player by more than 14 pounds. He had the combine's shortest wingspan, hand length and width, and standing reach. While his height won't change, Ulis spoke at the combine about how working with a nutritionist during the pre-draft process will help him put back on the 10 pounds he lost during the basketball season.

He'll figure out his weight. The height is another issue.

But the rise of Boston's Isaiah Thomas, who at 5-foot-9 became the NBA's shortest All-Star last season, has given players like Ulis hope of not only staying in the NBA, but thriving in it.

Even Chris Paul, Ulis' favorite player and someone he models his game after, is only 6 feet tall.

"It's very inspirational," Ulis said of Thomas' All-Star campaign. "What he's doing at the next level is crazy, it's unbelievable. Nobody thought he would do it. He was the 60th pick in the draft and he talks about how he proved people wrong. He acknowledges it, and I feel like it's a great thing for me to see."

The Bulls should have an opportunity to select Ulis, who's slotted to go anywhere from the late lottery to the late 20s.

While he still needs to add weight to his frame before he's ready to defend at the next level, his basketball IQ, ability to thrive in transition and outside shot all go hand-in-hand with Fred Hoiberg's offensive philosophies. His assist-to-turnover ratio was sixth best in the country and he shot a respectable 44 percent, including 49 percent from inside the arc. His skill set would be a perfect fit for a Bulls offense that ranked 25th in efficiency last season.

Gar Forman and John Paxson will have their pick of point guards at No. 14, unlike in years' past. Names like Demetrius Jackson, Wade Baldwin IV and Dejounte Murray all should be available at the end of the lottery. Only Kris Dunn will be gone by No. 14, and even he is a player the Bulls reportedly have interest in.

Ulis couldn't be more different than Teague, both in stature, skill set and poise. And yet he's similar in that he gives the Bulls another chance to get their hands on a point guard with potential as a future building block. It'd be premature to dub Ulis the heir apparent to Rose, whose future with the Bulls is still in question. Rose notwithstanding, Ulis could give the Bulls, at the very least, an efficient guard on the second unit with room to grow. In a best-case scenario he becomes the point guard of the future, the latest in a line of Calipari guards to do so.

"I've always believed in myself, had confidence in my game. I'm just going to keep playing through," he said. "At my size I have to come out with a chip on my shoulder, play hard, work harder than everybody and just try to prove them wrong."

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

2-23_butler_hurt_espn.jpg
ESPN

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

The NBA may have lost another top superstar due to injury.

On Friday, Jimmy Butler appeared to have suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee. He left the game against the Houston Rockets unable to put any pressure on his right leg and needed assistance getting back to the locker room. 

Here's a video of the incident:

Coach Tom Thibodeau said that Butler will have an MRI when the team returns to Minnesota on Saturday.

Butler drew a lot of headlines last weekend after not playing in the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Entering Friday, Butler led the league with 37.3 minutes played per game.

The Bulls also take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.