There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete.
Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?
Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center.
Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss.
Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:
More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal.
Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers.
Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues.
In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild.
As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal.
The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California.
LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be.
But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks.
"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.
"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."
LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk.
LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime.
"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."
The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks.
Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player.
Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.