In case you’ve forgotten, the Bulls paid a stiff price to acquire NCAA scoring champion Doug McDermott back on draft night 2014. They had to send their 16th and 19th picks in round one, along with a second-round pick in order to move up to No. 11 and select McDermott. The Bulls were also saddled with the unwanted contract of NBA journeyman Anthony Randolph in the deal, and it cost them two more second-round picks to unload Randolph on Orlando. That’s a total of five draft picks invested in McDermott.
As we all know, McDermott’s rookie season was one to forget. He began the year receiving limited minutes on a veteran Bulls’ team, then fell out of the rotation before a knee injury in December sidelined him for more than a month. When he returned, Niko Mirotic was firmly established as Tom Thibodeau’s shooting forward off the bench, and McDermott watched the rest of the season from the sideline.
The 2015-16 campaign began with high hopes. Fellow Ames, Iowa high school star Fred Hoiberg had replaced Thibodeau as head coach with a new offense that emphasized pace and 3-point shooting. McDermott got off to a solid start, but then fell into a shooting slump that lasted into the new year. Finally, after a heart-to-heart conversation with Hoiberg, McDermott stopped second-guessing his shot selection and became the scoring force the Bulls thought they were getting in that draft.
Granted, it’s been a small sample size, but McDermott looks like a player with a bright NBA future. The 6-foot-8 forward is once again showing the creative scoring touch that helped make him the National College Player of the Year at Creighton. McDermott is known for his 3-point shooting, but he also is adept at knocking down floaters and getting to the free-throw line off aggressive backdoor cuts to the basket. He recently put together a stretch of three straight games of scoring 20 points or more, showing the confidence the Bulls coaching staff and front office had been waiting to see. We’ve all heard the comparisons to former Bulls’ reserve Kyle Korver, but McDermott is a better athlete who can score in more ways than Korver, who is strictly a 3-point specialist.
So, what is McDermott’s role going forward? Will he eventually move into a starting spot at small forward? Well, a lot of that will depend on what the Bulls are able to do in free agency and the draft over the next two summers. If they are able to sign a wing player like Nic Batum, Arron Afflalo or Kent Bazemore when the 2016 free agent market opens in July, McDermott will remain in a reserve role.
But, if the Bulls decide to pursue centers and a point guard alternative to Derrick Rose with their cap room, McDermott could emerge as the starting small forward of the future, perhaps as soon as next season depending on what the front office decides to do with veteran Mike Dunleavy.
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Going forward, the players most likely to remain on a changing roster include Jimmy Butler, Bobby Portis, Niko Mirotic and McDermott, with Taj Gibson and E’Twaun Moore also possibilities if they’re willing to accept team-friendly deals. Any decision on Rose will probably wait until the summer of 2017, when about a third of the league’s point guards will join Derrick on the free agent market.
With so few “core” players in place, the front office couldn’t afford another first-round bust. That’s why the emergence of McDermott over the last few weeks might turn out to be one of the most important developments of the season.
Lottery prospects struggle in NCAA tournament
Judging by what we’ve seen in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the 2016 Draft could be one of the weakest in years, especially at the top. Projected lottery picks Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb of Cal, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Utah big man Jakob Poeltl all struggled in the national spotlight, looking far from NBA ready. We know the Draft has been more about potential than proven performance for more than a decade, but scouts and general managers will have to be wary about investing high picks on players who might take a couple years to become rotation contributors. Even Big Ten Player of the Year Denzel Valentine underperformed in the Spartans’ shocking first-round loss to Middle Tennessee, and Valentine is already considered a mid-first round prospect because of a lack of NBA-level athleticism.
Given the success of Knicks’ first-round pick Kristaps Porzingis this season, more teams may look overseas for lottery prospects, with 7-foot teenager Dragan Bender already expected to go in the Top 5. The No. 1 overall pick figures to be 6-foot-10 forward Ben Simmons, a multi-skilled player who couldn’t even get his LSU team to the Big Dance. Duke’s Brandon Ingram is expected to go No. 2, with some scouts comparing him to Kevin Durant. Maybe someday that lofty comparison will be justified, but at this point, the 6-foot-9, 190-pound Ingram is painfully thin and might have trouble getting his shot off against more physical NBA players.
Providence point guard Kris Dunn looks like one of the most NBA-ready prospects at 6-foot-4 with the ability to create his own shot and set up teammates, and Dunn should be selected in the Top 10, along with Oklahoma shot-maker Buddy Hield, who figures to be a good fit in a league that relies on productive 3-point shooting more than ever before.
Around the Assocation
For weeks, I’ve been telling you about what is shaping up as one of the most active summers of player movement around the league. Most of that has to do with a salary cap that’s expected to jump from around $70 million to close to $92 million. And, since there aren’t enough big-name free agents to command all that new money, a number of teams will be offering to absorb the contracts of stars who are unhappy in their current situations.
That’s where Carmelo Anthony comes in. Anthony told reporters in New York on Friday he couldn’t commit to being back with the Knicks next season, saying it depends on the moves Phil Jackson is able to make in the free agent market. "It's in their court. The ball is in their court," Anthony said. "They have an opportunity, we have an opportunity to do something this off-season. We gotta do something. It's there."
The Knicks are projected to have at least $18 million in cap room, but then so will just about every other team in the league. Anthony would like to see his team sign a high quality point guard like Mike Conley or Rajon Rondo, but Jackson doesn't think that position carries as much importance in the triangle offense.
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Anthony had steadfastly insisted he wouldn’t wave his no-trade clause after re-signing with the Knicks in 2014, but after two more losing seasons he might change that stance. Who knows, maybe Melo winds up going to Cleveland to play with his buddy LeBron James in a trade involving Kevin Love? If the Cavs don’t make it back to the Finals, you can almost count on Love being traded somewhere.
- Or maybe Anthony winds up in Los Angeles playing with another member of the infamous Beijing Olympics “brotherhood”, Chris Paul. With the Clippers apparently destined to a second round elimination in the playoffs, look for coach/head of basketball operations Doc Rivers to explore trade possibilities for star forward Blake Griffin, who’s missed the bulk of this season because of injuries, and still must serve a four-game suspension for his fight with a team employee back in January. Griffin has a world of talent, but hasn’t been able to get the Clippers to the conference finals. Rivers has discussed trading Griffin for Anthony before, so that discussion is likely to be revisited this summer.
- Boogie Cousins and the Sacramento Kings traveling sideshow makes their annual Chicago visit on Monday. Cousins could be another star player on the move this summer after finally alienating one of his staunchest supporters, GM Vlade Divac, with his boorish on-court behavior and repeated criticism of head coach George Karl. Divac was upset that Cousins put the blame for his recent one game suspension on Karl alone, and is rapidly running out of patience with his petulant star. Karl won’t be back next season, but that won’t solve all of the Kings’ issues with Cousins, who’s never experienced a 30-win season in his six years as a pro. Look for the usual suspects to line up in trade discussions, led by the Lakers and Celtics, but I wouldn’t expect the Bulls to be serious bidders for Cousins. They simply don’t have the structure in place to deal with an immature player who’s fought with just about every coach he’s ever played for on the NBA level.
- Former Chicago area high school star Dwyane Wade became the 41st NBA player to reach the 20,000-point plateau for his career on Saturday in Miami. Wade reached the milestone in the Heat’s blowout win over LeBron James and the Cavs. James is now 0-3 at American Airlines Arena since turning his back on Miami back in 2014. And, you can bet the Cavs want no part of Miami in the playoffs. Miami is 8-3 since beating out Cleveland for the services of veteran free agent Joe Johnson, and former Bull Luol Deng is thriving at the small forward position with Hassan Whiteside putting up big numbers coming off the bench. The Heat is still hopeful Chris Bosh will be able to return for the playoffs, which could make them the top challenger to Cleveland for the Eastern conference title.
- The New Orleans Pelicans announced that they are officially shutting down star big man Anthony Davis for the rest of the season. Davis is battling knee and shoulder injuries, and with the Pelicans out of playoff contention, there really isn’t a pressing need for him to play through pain over the final month. The Chicago native is averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds in 61 games this season, but didn’t take the next step in his career after leading New Orleans to a surprising playoff berth a year ago. Another injury-plagued season also cost Davis millions of dollars since he would have been eligible to receive 30 percent of the Pelicans’ salary cap in his new extension under the so-called “Derrick Rose Rule” if he had made any of the three All-NBA teams. Still, Davis will be just fine after agreeing to the largest contract extension in league history last summer.
- Matt Barnes was at it again, trying to get into the Bucks’ locker room to fight John Henson after both players were ejected in the closing seconds of Milwaukee’s win last week. Barnes received a one game suspension from the league while Henson and teammate Greivis Vazquez drew fines. Barnes has played pretty well for the injury-decimated Grizzlies, but you have to wonder about his future in the league after all his disciplinary issues, highlighted by the offseason fight with then Knicks coach Derek Fisher.
- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to go with a small-ball lineup against Golden State on Saturday, which meant a healthy Tim Duncan came off the bench for only the third time in his Hall of Fame career. Duncan wound up playing only eight minutes, since the Warriors didn’t have either of their top two centers, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli because of injuries. The strategy worked since San Antonio won the game, extending their homecourt winning streak to 44 games, but it will be interesting to see if the Spurs try to match Golden State’s smaller lineups in a best-of-seven playoff series.
- Duncan’s former teammate, Golden State coach Steve Kerr had the line of the night, telling reporters about Duncan’s limited playing time, “Tim is 62 now. ... He needs his rest.”
Warriors' pursuit of 72 wins
Speaking of that loss to San Antonio, the Warriors are still one game ahead of the 1995-96 Bulls record pace at 62-7. Golden State will have to go 11-2 over their remaining games to break the record, but even though they still have two games remaining against San Antonio, I believe they’ve come too far to take their foot off the gas now. I still have the Warriors odds at 60 percent to get to 73 wins.
Quotes of the Week
I told you earlier about Wade surpassing the 20,000-point plateau last weekend in Miami. An emotional Wade told reporters afterwards, "I've been through a lot of adversity. I've had a lot of injuries in my career that a lot of people would never have come back from — and I have, and I continue to keep going, 13 years later. And I thank my teammates, the ones that are here and the ones that aren't here, because to get 20,000-plus points you've got to shoot a lot of shots."
And finally, this from the enigmatic Dwight Howard, who seems destined to be remembered as a player who never lived up to his enormous potential or “Superman” nickname. Howard’s latest mini-controversy involves using a spray substance to give him a better grip on the basketball, which is against league rules.
Howard told the Houston Chronicle after the game: "I don’t know why people are making a big deal out of it. I do it every game. It’s not a big deal. I ain’t tripping.”
No, Dwight, and you probably won’t have to worry about those championship rings sticking to your fingers, either.