Bulls

Could Rodney Stuckey be a fit off the bench for the Bulls?

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Could Rodney Stuckey be a fit off the bench for the Bulls?

When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, expect the Bulls to conduct meetings with Jimmy Butler on his restricted free agency, where all the conjecture and rumors will be met with action.

But despite Butler being the first priority, they do have other needs, most notably in the backcourt and perhaps they should give Pacers combo guard Rodney Stuckey a phone call.

According to league sources, Indiana wants him back while Houston and Sacramento are expected to be in the running for Stuckey’s services, while another source said Stuckey would be interested in hearing from the Bulls this summer. The 29-year old guard averaged around 13 points and three assists in 26 minutes last year, shooting a career high 39 percent from 3-point range.

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Backup point guard Aaron Brooks was a godsend during Derrick Rose’s absences, scoring 14 points per game in 21 starts, albeit on 39 percent 3-point shooting (42 percent overall), but he’s a free agent and was largely minimized in the playoffs, playing just 11 minutes per game in 12 appearances.

While the Bulls have a habit of picking up backup point guards the last few years who’ve paid dividends like Brooks, D.J. Augustin and Nate Robinson, Stuckey represents a shift from that thinking.

A bigger guard, at 6-foot-5, he would be tougher to neutralize in the postseason than the more diminutive Augustin and Brooks while being able to play both guard spots.

Stuckey, who essentially played on a make-good veterans minimum deal in Indiana after seven up-and-down years in Detroit, was one of the more consistent Pacers as they dealt with playing the majority of the season without All-Star Paul George.

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He played more shooting guard in the past three seasons but spent the majority of his early years growing into playing the point — making him an ideal option for the Bulls as someone capable of playing starter’s minutes at either guard spot.

Rose would probably welcome playing with Stuckey, considering Stuckey scored a career-high 40 on Rose during Rose’s rookie year, when Stuckey was viewed as one of the up-and-coming young guards in the league.

Times have changed since then, and Stuckey has battled inconsistency through his career but seems to have found it as a reserve the last two years. Aside from making the playoffs with the Pistons the first two years, he hasn’t played in the second season since 2009, which is why he would consider playing in Chicago. Staying in the Midwest after playing in Detroit and Indianapolis seems to appeal to the Seattle-area native, as much as money would.

The Bulls won’t have any cap room, but they’ll be able to use the mini-midlevel exception to try to improve their roster after dealing with Butler, where he’ll likely sign a maximum contract (length to be determined).

Veteran forward Mike Dunleavy is also a top priority, so the Bulls will have to come to the table with a fair offer while attending to other business. They need a perimeter shot creator aside from Butler and Rose, as evidenced to how the Bulls offense bogged down in the playoffs more than once — and at the worst possible time against Cleveland in Game 6 of their second-round series.

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Bulls draft hat right here]

Stuckey clashed with coaches in Detroit, most notably Lawrence Frank in 2011-12 and 12-13. It stained his reputation to where he had to sign for less than his talent dictated once he hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent last July.

But he was a model citizen under Frank Vogel in Indianapolis last season and would seemingly thrive in new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg’s wide-open system. The question is, will the Bulls be interested?

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

MINNEAPOLIS — The misses have come wide, long and short for Lauri Markkanen in the last couple games, perhaps a sign he’s hit the popular but unseen “Rookie Wall.”

Since coming back from the All-Star break, Markkanen has hit the same amount of jump shots as a dead man, only scoring with two dunks and missing all seven 3-point attempts.

He’s hit the point of the season where the legs turn to spaghetti as the grind of the season catches up. Last year at Arizona, he played 37 games and then went through Summer League following the draft before playing for the Finland national team. The Bulls have been careful with his minutes, particularly early on in the season when they didn’t have the depth at power forward, but Markkanen is still adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

After seemingly peaking in January, averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting and 43 from three-point range, he’s averaged just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting and hitting just four of 27 from deep.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg tried to pump Markkanen up recently, comparing his shooting to a golfer who’s lost his stroke. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to Markkanen, who looked at his coach as if he grew a third eye.

By the time Hoiberg compared it to curling, he wound up confusing the press corps last week.

And yet, Markkanen hasn’t broken out of his slump. It’s been quite a while since Markkanen’s devastating performance on Broadway where he nailed eight 3-pointers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10 for a career-high 33 points.

“It’s been a long season, I’m not denying that,” Markkanen said Saturday night following the Bulls’ loss to the Timberwolves. “I just gotta work through it. At times I feel it. I felt good today. As the game went on, a little tired.”

Consistency has been a hallmark of Markkanen’s season to date. He scored in double figures 21 straight games before the last two, where he scored three points in the last two Bulls losses.

As a whole, he’s only scored fewer than 10 points six times. To compare, rookie of the year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell (nine) and Ben Simmons (six) are right around the same number.

Hoiberg boldly predicts Markkanen will burst out in a big way soon, but the rookie wall takes no prisoners, especially in the dog days of the season.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

His looks have been relatively clean, although one can’t discount the difference between playing alongside Cristiano Felicio compared to Robin Lopez. Lopez assisted on 39 field goals, tied with Jerian Grant for second-highest feeds behind Kris Dunn.

Both Lopez and Grant are out of the rotation, while Dunn is still getting his legs back after missing nearly a month in concussion protocol. Lopez was used in a lot of dribble handoff offense with Markkanen, while also setting solid screens to free him.

Felicio doesn’t have that level of experience in this offense, and the Bulls are also running more through Zach LaVine as a primary ballhandler.

“He’s had a lot of really good games. It’s never gonna be an 100 percent season,” LaVine said. “It’s so many games you’ll eventually run into some slumps so I just think he needs to get into a rhythm. We’ve gotta help him with that too. Help him find easier shots on the floor. He’s cool, he’s good. We tell him to shoot the ball every time.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”