Bulls

Kentucky prospects' sacrifice creates NBA readiness

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Kentucky prospects' sacrifice creates NBA readiness

When Kentucky head coach John Calipari compiled a single roster consisting of nine McDonald's All-Americans and 10 NBA prospects, the foundation had been set for an historic season. The 2014-15 Wildcats won an NCAA record 38 games to begin the season, advanced to a second straight Final Four and received numerous postseason awards before bowing out to Wisconsin.

Yet for the individual and collective accolades earned, on the surface Calipari's group appeared to be the antithesis for college prospects attempting to increase their NBA stock by showcasing their talents on a nightly basis. A roster stacked with supreme collegiate talent made the Kentucky rotation 10 players deep, with no player averaging more than 26 minutes per game. While fellow five-star prospects advertised their talents as the primary scorers at other programs, the Wildcats learned sacrifice, accepted their roles and used team success to better their individual prospects.

"A lot of guys go to a school where they can be the star, where I can shoot 20 times and score 25 points a night," center Willie Cauley-Stein said at last week's NBA Draft Combine. "When you go into a program like Kentucky you know you’re not the man of the team, but you’re still doing those things that makes you powerful."

In winning those 38 straight games, the Wildcats were as balanced as any team in the country.

Eight different players led the Wildcats in scoring in those wins, with sophomore guard Aaron Harrison leading the team with just 11.0 points per game. Consensus top-two pick Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 6.5 field goal attempts per game - fourth on the team - in 21.1 minutes per game - seventh on the team - while SEC Defensive Player of the Year Cauley-Stein didn't even lead the Wildcats in rebounds or blocks per game.

[MORE: Should the Bulls consider trading Joakim Noah?]

But that culture of unselfishness also created a winning environment. Having more All-Americans than all but one NBA team (Charlotte) created competitive, high-intensity practices, many of which had NBA scouts in attendance, that Cauley-Stein said pushed everyone else to increase their level of play.

"You have to adapt to situations where this guy next to me is just as good as me. A lot of places you go, the guy next to him or the guy on the end (of the bench) is not as good as him, so you don’t have to go as hard," he said. "You get embarrassed if you don’t go as hard at Kentucky."

On a team with balanced talent levels - albeit of the elite variety - the Wildcats accepted roles. Whereas a player such as freshman Devin Booker could have led a program in scoring, he instead came off the bench as Kentucky's sharpshooter, averaging 10.0 points per game on 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc, earning the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year award.

Instead of acting as another team's foundation inside, 7-foot sophomore Dakari Johnson played a reserve role behind Cauley-Stein and Towns. The Harrison twins, sophomores Andrew and Aaron, shared backcourt duties with Tyler Ulis and Booker to create a four-headed monster that complemented a frontcourt unmatched in height by even any NBA team.

[MORE: What does the future hold for Tom Thibodeau with the Bulls?]

That sacrifice will be the key for these Wildcats at the NBA level. Though four of the seven NBA entrants coming from Kentucky's 38-1 group are projected as first round picks, they'll all begin their professional careers, in some sense, as role players. And whereas other top prospects will be required to change their mentality, transitioning from their team's top options to fitting in on an NBA roster, it's something the Wildcats have both already done and succeeded in doing.

"(NBA) teams know we can be unselfish, that we’re not selfish players," Johnson said. "They know we can sacrifice and know we’re coming in there to be eager and to learn."

Still, after a year - in some cases, two - of finding their respective niches on an All-Star lineup, the pre-draft process is finally a chance for these prospects to show off who they are individually. Booker feels he can be a ball handler at the next level, though Andrew Harrison and Ulis took those reins at Kentucky.

6-foot-10 freshman Trey Lyles was fifth on the team in field goal attempts but will "raise some eyebrows" as he shows he can be a more complete player. Cauley-Stein's defensive presence was all the up-tempo Wildcats needed to be successful, but the range and improving post game he'll show off in pre-draft workouts will prove "this dude really does have some offensive game he didn’t show."

It's not unlike Kentucky teams and players of the past. In 2012 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was selected No. 2 overall by the Hornets a year after he was fifth on the Wildcats in scoring. Eric Bledsoe didn't start a single game on the 2009-10 Wildcats, and four years later received a max contract extension from the Phoenix Suns. In 2013 Nerlens Noel was third on Kentucky in scoring and was the projected No. 1 overall pick before tearing his ACL. Two years later, after going No. 6 to the Sixers, he's quickly blossoming into one of the NBA's best young defenders.

The give-and-take required of players under Calipari was seen unanimously as a positive by the six prospects at last week's combine in Chicago - Towns did not attend.

Though their time at Kentucky didn't allow them to show off their entire skill sets, the exposure they received, the lessons they learned about sacrifice, practicing against the nation's best players daily and the understanding that the pre-draft process would give them a chance to shine made their unique situation worthwhile.

"That’s why you’ve got so many Kentucky guys in the league. They come in there and they already know the roles that you have to adapt to when you get (to the NBA)," Cauley-Stein said.

"And while you’re doing that everybody else’s light switch goes on. Like, ‘I’m not trying to get beat by him.’ Next thing you know you’ve got a whole team doing that, and that’s what made us so good."

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”