Bulls

For the first time Jahlil Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong

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For the first time Jahlil Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong

Jahlil Okafor is in unfamiliar territory.

He received his first scholarship in 8th grade. The top high school prospect in the country had his choice of colleges after winning a state championship and Mr. Basketball in Illinois as a senior. He was named an All-American before ever playing a game at Duke. And after he arrived in Durham, all he did was win 35 games and a national championship for the Blue Devils. He was touted as the best low-post prospect in nearly two decades, a can't-miss prospect destined for the same greatness he had exuded at each of his stops along the way.

For the first 18 years of his life everyone wanted Okafor. He was on top.

Until Thursday night.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Bobby Portis a 'unanimous selection' for Bulls' front office]

Okafor watched from the NBA Draft's green room in New York City as the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on him for the versatile, New-age forward Karl-Anthony Towns. And after a month of speculation that the Lakers would select him, Okafor was forced to wait five more minutes as Los Angeles swung for the fences in selecting combo guard D'Angelo Russell.

It's not often the third overall pick -- tank-master Sam Hinkie and the Sixers selected Okafor -- is considered to have slid, but for a player who has spent his entire life at the top of his sport, Thursday night was a major disappointment for the Chicago native.

He said all the right things speaking with the media late Thursday night -- "I can't be disappointed, I'm in the NBA living my dream" -- but this isn't the result he wanted. He could have been paired up with budding star Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota. He could have been the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles while playing for one of the league's most stories franchises. Instead, he joins a Sixers franchise already flush with interior talent -- Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, lottery picks the last two seasons -- and not focused on winning anytime soon.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Check out every pick of the 2015 NBA Draft]

Perhaps it was because Okafor had been at the top of his class for years, or because his absurdly polished offensive game forced critics to nitpick other areas of his game that aren't as NBA-ready, but in the final weeks leading up to the draft it seemed as though no player was more scrutinized than he.

Suddenly Okafor's conditioning was an issue. His defensive struggles appeared amplified because of Towns' star potential on that end of the floor. The Warriors' championship run engineered by small ball meant a back-to-the-basket scoring big like Okafor was a dying breed. He shot just 51 percent from the free throw line, another apparent red flag as the Hack-a-Shaq defensive strategy made its return in this year's playoffs.

"It's easy to shoot at somebody when they're at the top of the hill," Okafor said when asked about his critics. "I've been at the top pretty much all throughout high school, all throughout college. So I'm expecting it."

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

For the first time in his basketball career Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong. The good news is he's still an ultra-talented 19-year-old confident. His abilities and being given the reigns to a Sixers team that will give him more freedom than Minnesota or Los Angeles would have. There's positives here. He would have played second fiddle to Wiggins up north, or deferred to Bryant and a potential big-time free agent on the West Coast. Instead, Okafor will attempt to be the foundation of Hinkie's rebuilding project while proving his deficiencies, unfairly magnified or not, don't come close to outweighing his scoring prowess inside.

This is Okafor's situation now. It's not what he expected, and probably not what he wanted. But just as he's done at every level, he'll take his sky-high expectations (and unfamiliar criticism) in stride and make the most of his new opportunity to get back to the top.

"I'll just go in and work as hard as I can," he said. "I'm very excited."

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

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AP

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.