Bulls

Chicago native Jahlil Okafor impressive on the floor, adjusting off it

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Chicago native Jahlil Okafor impressive on the floor, adjusting off it

If there’s one bonafide pro on the pitiful roster of the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, the third pick in last June’s draft.

For a half, Okafor played beyond his years, giving fits to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah with his vast array of moves on the block and a better-than-average handle that allows him to navigate the paint and mid-range area with ease.

Gasol was complaining about a traveling violation on the rookie when Okafor drove baseline for a dunk, being left flat-footed as Okafor scored two of his 20 first-half points.

Noah got a taste of Okafor’s quickness, watching a couple step-back jumpers and quick moves for polished hook shots.

“First of all, they’re two of the better big men in the league,” Okafor said. “I was able to get a little bit of a feel on how (Gasol) plays. He’s a hall of famer and I can learn a lot from playing against him. I’ve already learned a lot just watching him as I grow up.”

[MORE: Tony Snell ignites Bulls second-half run against woeful 76ers]

A grown-man move from a player who’s nowhere near close to realizing his potential, but also dealing with the pitfalls of adulthood for the first time as he returned home to play his hometown team for the first time.

“Emotions? Excited to play here, I have a lot of family here,” Okafor said. “My high school coach and some teammates (are here).”

Okafor spent part of the day at Quest Multisport on the west side with kids from Jensen Academy, the school his aunt teaches at. He brought along a barber with him so some of the students could get free haircuts and brought along some party favors for the holidays.

“It’s an event for the kids,” Okafor said. “My aunt’s a principal at a CPS school here. Just doing something for them, we had a good time. Gave them a couple Christmas gifts for them, they sang me happy birthday, pretty much it.”

The Whitney Young graduate and one-time attendee of Duke University is dealing with losing en masse for the first time in his life. Scoring 22 points doesn’t have the same affect on a game that it usually does, and being a target off the floor has led to some skirmishes—highly scrutinized fights in the streets and incidents in nightclubs.

Since the 76ers have done this advanced version of tanking for seasons at a time, it begs the question of whether the youngest team on the league should employ veterans to help out players like Okafor, who are adjusting to the fame, attention and endless losing for the first time.

“It’s been fine. I have a lot of help, people who’ve been helping me out,” Okafor said. “Some older guys I’ve talked to around the NBA. It’s different, for sure, basketball being my main focus but having some free time as well.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But for a man on the eve of his 20th birthday, he seemed to parrot the beliefs of a general manager now under fire for his tactics when asked if a veteran should be in the locker room as opposed to him having to reach out to vets across the league for guidance.

“No, I have everything I need,” Okafor said. “If I need help, I can just ask somebody, my coach or my GM, I have a lot of help here. Putting an older guy here in this locker room wouldn’t affect anything. I have everything I need.”

The 76ers have brought in respected executive Jerry Colangelo to hopefully turn the tide of the fruitless strategy started by Sam Hinkie, as the league actually facilitated the process of Colangelo, a Chicago native and Executive Director of USA Basketball, coming onboard.

Many believe Okafor’s incidents were a huge tipping point in the league stepping in to stop the embarrassment for the proud franchise. Okafor’s development on the court just as well as off it will be in the public eye for the near future, and it’s clear he’s trying to manage his circumstances.

“I’m living my dream, it’s been a lot of fun,” Okafor said. “I don’t look at it as starting off my season with a lot of losses, it’s my rookie campaign and I’m working on improving. Coach talks about good days adding up and that’s what I’m doing.”

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

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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.