Jerian Grant could be the Bulls' next 'veteran' gem


Jerian Grant could be the Bulls' next 'veteran' gem

Since Gar Forman was named general manager following the 2008-09 season, the Bulls' front office has pillaged the NBA Draft. While perennial bottom feeders searched for their next super star in the lottery, Forman, John Paxson and the Bulls simply waited their turn to scoop up prospects with collegiate production, NBA-ready frames and the mental make-up to deal with playing under perfectionist Tom Thibodeau.

The numbers tell the story. Since 2009, 110 of the 180 first-round draft picks have been underclassmen (or the international equivalent), including 23 of the first 30 picks last June. But Forman and the Bulls haven't contributed much to that 61 percent figure.

In the current regime's tenure (six drafts), they've selected and kept seven first-rounders. Four of those draft picks were upperclassmen - Taj Gibson (24-year-old junior, 2009), Jimmy Butler (2011), Tony Snell (junior, 2013) and Doug McDermott (senior, 2014) - while just three were underclassmen - James Johnson (sophomore, 2009), Nikola Mirotic (20 years old, 2011) and Marquis Teague (freshman, 2012). One could even consider Mirotic an "upperclassman" considering the Bulls knew he wouldn't arrive in Chicago until he had years of professional experience in Spain under his belt.

It's no secret, either, that of those seven picks the Bulls' two biggest draft busts were the underclassmen, with Johnson lasting less than two years in Chicago before bouncing around the NBA, finding balance in Memphis and Toronto, and Teague out of the NBA just three years after leading Kentucky to a 40-1 national championship season.

[MORE: NBA Draft Profile: Notre Dame G Jerian Grant]

With the verdict still out on McDermott - the rookie missed six weeks after knee surgery in mid-November and never found a spot in the rotation - Forman and the Bulls have gone 3-for-3 on their "veteran" selections. Gibson has carved out a role as one of the top sixth men in the league, Butler improved each year and earned his first All-Star nod in February, and Snell showed significant improvement in his outside shot in Year 2 (32.0% as a rookie to 37.1% as a sophomore on 19 more attempts) and could see an expanded role next season if Mike Dunleavy (UFA) doesn't return.

The Bulls will again be afforded that same luxury of selecting outside the lottery this year, after teams have selected the fresh, young talent - 11 of the first 12 picks in Ed Issacson's mock draft are freshmen - they hope will turn around their franchise's fortunes. And as has been the case in years' past, there's plenty of "veteran" talent to be had around pick No. 22, where the Bulls will select in June.

One of those names that figures to come up in pre-draft discussions is Notre Dame senior guard Jerian Grant. The fifth-year senior saw his draft stock rise this past season when he was named a consensus All-American, leading the Irish to an ACC Tournament championship and an Elite Eight berth, with his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Kentucky almost sending the Irish into the history books and onto the Final Four.

Grant averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists in his final season in South Bend, taking the reins of a Notre Dame team that began the year outside the top 25 and finished ranked No. 5.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Will Frank Kaminsky turn college success into NBA greatness?]

He'll be 23 years old by the time the NBA season begins, ancient by draft standards compared to the likes of fellow 19-year-old point guards D'Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Tyus Jones, all of whom are projected to be selected before Grant hears his name called.

Grant admits his age may be a "concern" for some teams. He also admits there's upside in a player like him.

"Me being this old means that I’m more ready right now," he said at the NBA Draft Combine. "At the same time I can get a lot better. The way I work I know I’m going to get a lot better, but at 22 I think I’ll be able to come in and help a team when they need me right now."

That certainly fits the bill in Chicago. The Bulls' ongoing carousel behind Derrick Rose - C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks - has provided temporary stopgaps but nothing of real substance or foundation. Kirk Hinrich will be 35 next season and is coming off the worst statistical season of his career (1.0 Win Shares in 66 games) and, after the Teague failure, the Bulls are still looking for a permanent solution behind Rose.

Grant continued his onslaught at the rim, connecting on better than 57 percent of his two-pointers last season. He saw a significant regression from beyond the 3-point line (40.8% to 31.6% this season) but chalked that up having the ball in his hands more and teams keying in on him defensively following the graduation of senior Eric Atkins in 2013-14. He's confident his shot will come around to form when he's no longer the main option in an offense at the next level.

"I know I’m probably not going to be a guy who has the ball in his hands as much as I did this year at Notre Dame, but just being able to play off the ball a little bit more and be able to knock down shots is going to be big," he said.

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He'll make his contributions in the NBA as a versatile scorer and playmaker - he watches film of James Harden and Damian Lillard - and will be able to do it from Day 1. Whereas his younger counterparts may need time to acclimate, Grant has 120 collegiate games to his resume and step into a secondary role right away.

The Bulls will have competition to obtain Grant's services, as Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Houston, Washington and Dallas all need point-guard help. But if he's on the board at No. 22, Grant could provide help to the Bulls immediately while also watching him grow like the upperclassmen they've already succeeded in drafting.

"I work harder that anyone in this draft so I know I’m going to continue to get better," he said, "and me being old, I think I’m ready to go right now. I’m ready to help a team right now, but a few years down the road I think I’ll be even better to help a team."

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music


John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.


It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch


It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.