Bulls

NBA Draft: Hollis-Jefferson wants defensive chess match at next level

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NBA Draft: Hollis-Jefferson wants defensive chess match at next level

Wing defenders have never been as important as they are in today's NBA.

With LeBron James playing at an unprecedented level at the position and the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George and Jimmy Butler all entering the primes of their careers, obtaining a lockdown perimeter defender has become both a priority and necessity.

A handful of teams have already found that player; Kawhi Leonard, Tony Allen and Butler top the short list of the league's best defenders, earning All-NBA Defensive Team honors this past season. Trevor Ariza, Klay Thompson and DeMarre Carroll aren't far behind, while Draymond Green and James, though more accurately power forwards as far as defensive schemes are concerned, are widely considered two of the game's best defenders who are more than capable of defending small forwards.

As offenses continue to churn out points at a record rate - half the teams in the NBA averaged more than 100 points per game this year - defense can't be ignored. Golden State led the league in defensive efficiency, while Cleveland entered the NBA Finals having allowed a playoff-best 45.1 percent effective field goal defense. Bulls fans know all too well what a difference having that shutdown defender can do for a team, having watched Luol Deng and now Butler go toe-to-toe with LeBron James.

It's the reason why a player like Arizona sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite his offensive deficiencies, is a first-round lock and why he believes he can make a major impact at the next level.

"Immediately I know I can come in and play defense. If coach needs me to, I know I can defend a team’s best player, a team’s second best player, and so on," he said at last month's NBA Draft Combine. "I can bring that impact, I can bring energy."

A five-star recruit from Chester, Pa., Hollis-Jefferson made his mark defensively at Arizona. In helping the Wildcats to a pair of Elite Eights and Pac-12 regular-season titles, Jefferson ranked in the top-5 in Pac 12 defensive rating both seasons and compiled 72 blocks and 72 steals in 76 career games. As a sophomore he ranked in the conference's top-10 in numerous defensive categories, including steals, blocks, defensive rebounds and Defensive Win Shares.

[NBA MOCK DRAFT: Bulls unlikely to find immediate help at No. 22]

The 6-foot-7 wing is helped out immensely by his 7-foot-2 wingspan, chiseled 211-pound frame and a lightning quick first step to stay in front of opposing players. At the combine Hollis-Jefferson recorded a lane agility time of 10.51 seconds, fastest among small forwards and third fastest for all players, behind only SG Devin Booker (10.22) and PG Keifer Sykes (10.50). His 3/4 sprint at the Combine (3.12) was second fastest among all players.

And as if his measurables alone weren't enough to make him an elite defender, Hollis-Jefferson is regarded as one of the hardest workers with one of the highest motors in the class. With a deep frontcourt surrounding him Hollis-Jefferson made the most of his 29 minutes per game, hounding opposing players and coming up with high-energy plays to swing momentum.

"I feel like if a team needs me to do something, I’m the guy that’ll do it, whether it’s dive on the floor for loose balls, get a stop, get a fast-break layup," he said. "I think I’m that dude that’ll come in and be able to make the energy and made the spark the team needs."

[NBA DRAFT PROFILE: Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson]

His laid-back attitude has made him a favorite among his teammates, and he has no off-the-court issues. So why is the class's top perimeter defender not a lock for the lottery?

He only connected on eight 3-pointers in two seasons, making just 20.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He also doesn't create much offense, with the majority of his scoring coming on the break or via the 2.1 offensive rebounds per game he averaged. He didn't create much for others, either, and had as many turnovers (59) as he did assists in his sophomore season. There's certainly room for him to grow on that end of the floor, seeing as he won't turn 21 for another six months, and he gave the usual prospect response that he's working on his weaknesses in the pre-draft process. But in the short-term he'll be penciled in as a defensive stopper and not much else.

Still, that's an important role. Potential destinations for the sophomore wing include Atlanta at No. 15, Toronto at No. 20, Dallas at No. 21 or Chicago at No. 22, all playoff teams from a year ago and three of which will have to go through LeBron James to reach the promised land. In the West it'll be a similar path, just with Leonard or Durant in place of James.

That's not to say Hollis-Jefferson will be thrown into the fire immediately, going from guarding Pac-12 wings one night to NBA All-Stars and MVPs the next. But it's what his calling card is going to be at the next level, and he feels as though he's already got the mental edge to succeed.

"Right now I would say I’m a couple steps ahead of my generation (defensively)," he said with a smile, noting he could one day be considered a "defensive genius."

"I would say I’m playing chess out there and a lot of guys are playing checkers."

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

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.