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NBA Buzz: Future pros, potential Bulls to watch in NCAA Tournament

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NBA Buzz: Future pros, potential Bulls to watch in NCAA Tournament

With the NCAA Tournament starting this week, NBA fans get a unique opportunity to watch some of the league’s future stars compete in high-pressure situations. Over the next several weeks, we’ll see high profile players succeed and fail in the national television spotlight, and we’ll also see a number of guys improve their draft stock with unexpectedly strong performances.

Forget about the presumptive No. 1 pick, LSU forward Ben Simmons. His team failed to qualify for the Big Dance. Early in the season, we heard the 6-foot-10 Australian compared to all-time greats like Magic Johnson and LeBron James. Now, it’s become apparent his game is more like Lamar Odom’s…..a tall, versatile athlete who would much rather pass than shoot. Problem is, Simmons was surrounded by inferior talent at LSU, and the Tigers desperately needed him to be more aggressive on the offensive end. Simmons also showed a tendency to coast in games, and pout when things weren’t going his way. He’s still an intriguing prospect, but might not be the once-in-a-decade talent we heard about back in November.

Still, NBA scouts and general managers will flock to NCAA Tournament games looking for prospects who can be difference-makers for their teams next season. Duke forward Brandon Ingram could wind up passing Simmons as the number one pick in June. The 6-foot-9 Ingram has excellent range on his jump shot, and his athleticism and lanky frame have some scouts making comparisons to multiple NBA scoring champ, Kevin Durant.

Providence guard Kris Dunn is also a favorite among NBA execs. At 6-foot-4, Dunn has the size teams like in a point guard and he’s capable of creating his own offense when the shot clock is winding down. Dunn figures to be the first point guard taken in June.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg uses foul language, 'Animal House' to challenge Bulls]

California is a must-watch team for NBA teams during the tournament. The Golden Bears have two players who should go in the lottery, wingman Jaylen Brown and power forward Ivan Rabb. Brown is a 6-foot-7 athlete with excellent driving ability and creative finishes at the rim, while Rabb reminds scouts of a young Chris Bosh with his 6-foot-10 frame and lefty shooting stroke. Cal could have a third first round prospect in senior guard Tyrone Wallace.

Another Pac 12 big man capturing the attention of NBA talent evaluators in Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. The 7-foot native of Austria has excellent footwork in the low post, and has dramatically improved his shooting touch since his freshman year when he made only 44 percent of his attempts from the free throw line. Poeltl would be a great addition for the Bulls, who might be in desperate need of a low post scorer if Pau Gasol leaves in free agency. But the Utah star figures to be taken somewhere in the top 10.

So, which players might be in the 12-17 range where the Bulls are likely to select in Round 1? There should be a couple decent big man prospects in UNLV 7-foot freshman Stephen Zimmerman, Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, son of Hall of Famer Arvidas Sabonis. All would fall in the project category.

There will also be some guards that could intrigue the Bulls at the mid-point of Round 1, including Big Ten Player of the Year Denzel Valentine of Michigan State, Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson, Florida State’s Malik Beasley and Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin.

So, when you’re watching the tournament over the next few weeks, don’t just live and die with your bracket. You call roll up your sleeves and do some preliminary scouting on which players might become future stars in the NBA.

 

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

  • Another drama-filled week for LeBron James and the Cavs. They started things off by losing at home to a Memphis team that was playing without injured starters Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes, and had only 7 healthy players.

James told reporters afterwards, "I can sit up here and say that we're a team that's ready to start the playoffs tomorrow, but we're not. "We're still learning. We still have things that happen on the court that just, that shouldn't happen.

"We gave up a lot of pick-sixes," James said. "In NFL terms, that means it's straight to the house. To have 25 turnovers for 30 points -- I don't care who you're playing, it could be my son's little league team -- you're going to lose when you give up that many turnovers just from carelessness."

Even though Cleveland has led the Eastern Conference all season, it's pretty obvious the Cavs aren't playing the kind of dominant basketball everyone expected. Kevin Love added this after the loss to Memphis, "We just could have done a better job of respecting the game. That was a real bad loss for us. ... Turnovers were terrible. That was what I mean, respecting the game."

James also had to deal with more speculation about his future in Cleveland, with the one and only Stephen A. Smith saying James' inner circle is letting it be known James isn't going to be trapped with the Cavs if he feels the organization is taking advantage of him, and doesn't do everything in its power to put together a championship caliber team. Clearly, there's a lot of frustration right now with the team not playing up to its potential, but after everything James said in his "coming home" essay in Sports Illustrated two summers ago, it's hard to imagine him not finishing his career in a Cavs' uniform.

  • And with that in mind, James went all out in trying to recruit Joe Johnson to join the team for the stretch run, telling Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com that he offered to move to power forward so Johnson could have a starting position at small forward. "All I care about is winning. That's all that matters to me. "A piece like Joe, you know what it does to your team and if he was concerned about playing time or concerned about starting, then I'll sacrifice. I'll sacrifice to get a guy like that to help us try to win a championship."

Johnson wound up choosing Miami after negotiating his contract buyout in Brooklyn, where he became an immediate starter at small forward with Luol Deng moving to the four spot. Don't know if it was the lure of South Beach or the promise of a future contract, but with Johnson and Dwyane Wade joining forces in Miami, and the possibility of Chris Bosh returning for the playoffs, we could be in for an interesting series if the Heat and Cavs wind up playing in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

  • Speaking of Bosh, he released a statement last Thursday saying he's not dealing with an active blood clot issue and hopes to return for the stretch run. "[I have been] taking every necessary step to make sure I am healthy for myself, my family and my team. I have been working out, training with the team, watching film of the games, walking through plays, and have attended home games despite not being visible to the public. I will continue to support my teammates in every way possible. I remain positive that I will be able to return this season. I truly appreciate everyone's concern and support."
  • In case you forgot, 2016 is an Olympic year, with Team USA once again the prohibitive favorite for the basketball tournament in Brazil this summer. USA Basketball Director Jerry Colangelo plans to select the 12-man roster sometime in late June, saving star players from the potential embarrassment of being cut. Colangelo explained it this way in a report by ESPN's Mark Stein last week. "If we brought 'em all to camp and then we decided which 12, that would be really difficult, because we'd have to deal with them one-on-one. We said we would do the following: We would look at this season and the outcome of their seasons, their health status, their state of mind, whatever, and come to a conclusion on the 12." "No one gets cut; people are selected."

Jimmy Butler is a longshot candidate for one of the roster spots, while Derrick Rose removed his name from consideration last summer. Both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are in line to become the first U.S. basketball players to compete in 4 Olympic games. Anthony has already said he'd like to play in Rio, while James has yet to make a final commitment.

  • Hardly surprising news out of Sacramento, where the Kings suspended All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins one game for conduct detrimental to the team. Cousins yelled at head coach George Karl throughout a timeout period during the Kings' second half collapse against the Cavs last Wednesday. Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo and assistant coach Corliss Williamson eventually had to step in as peacemakers.

The Kings' playoff hopes have all but disappeared after a brutal 2 week stretch, which also means the Bulls' hopes of getting Sacramento's 1st round pick this summer (top 10 protected) are all but gone. Long-term, it seems very unlikely the 64 year old Karl will be back next season, and it's possible general manager Vlade Divac will re-open trade discussions about Cousins with so many star players expected to be available this off-season.

  • The Bulls aren't the only team dealing with injury issues late in the season. The Memphis Grizzlies lost their top two point guards. Mike Conley is expected to miss three to four weeks because of Achilles tendinitis, while back-up Mario Chalmers ruptured his Achilles in a game last week, and the Grizzlies wound up cutting the free agent to be to clear a needed roster spot. Milwaukee lost starting guard O.J. Mayo for the season with a broken ankle he suffered in a household accident, Boston starting small forward Jae Crowder will miss a couple weeks because of an ankle injury and Chicago native Jahlil Okafor’s rookie season in Philadelphia is over following minor surgery to repair a slight tear of the meniscus in his right knee.

WARRIORS PURSUIT OF 72 WINS

It’s looking like Golden State can’t wait for the playoffs to get here. The Warriors fell behind by 10 points to lowly Phoenix early in the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena on Saturday with Steph Curry battling foul trouble. But Curry came back to shoot Golden State back in front, keeping the Warriors one game in front of the 1995-’96 Bulls’ record 72-win pace. Steve Kerr’s guys still have three games left against the Spurs, starting this Saturday in San Antonio. Still, I can’t see this team losing four more regular season games unless Curry goes down with an injury. I’m keeping their chances of breaking the Bulls’ record at 60 percent.

STATS OF THE WEEK

The Bulls snapped a 16-game streak of allowing 100 or more points against the Bucks on Monday. It was the first time holding an opponent under 100 points since Jan. 28 at the Lakers.

Pau Gasol (12 Pts, 17 Reb, 13 Ast, 5 Blk) became the only player in NBA from 1983-84 to finish with at least 12 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists & five blocks in a game.

The last nine Bulls triple doubles have been by players 6-foot-11 or taller (last two by Gasol; seven before that by Joakim Noah).

It is Gasol's 9th career triple-double (10th including playoffs). It is his career 4th triple double with at least 12/12/12.

Three Bulls starters recorded seven or more assists. Gasol (13), Rose (7) & Moore (7). It's the first time three Bulls starters each reached seven or more assists in a game since April 15, 2003 (Jamal Crawford 8, Jalen Rose 7, Jay Williams 7)

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Jimmy Butler summary of games missed:

2012-13: Zero games missed

2013-14: 15 games missed (toe, 11; ankle, 1; thigh bruise, 1; ribs, 2)

2014-15: 17 games missed (elbow, 11; thumb, 2; bereavement, 1; illness, 1; shoulder, 1; calf, 1)

2015-16: 15 games missed (15, left knee)

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

A fan in Boston was heckling Memphis forward Matt Barnes last week, referencing his infamous summer fight with then Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher over Fisher dating Barnes’ ex-wife. The fan yelled out, ”Hey Barnes, how’s Derek Fisher?”…… and instead of ignoring it, Barnes quickly replied, “He got his a-- whupped, that’s how!”

And finally, one more gem from LeBron in describing why he was willing to change positions to get Joe Johnson to sign with the Cavs: "Man listen, I'll do anything to win. I'll kidnap my momma to win."

Maybe getting a little more production from Kevin Love is a better place to start.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”