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NBA Draft: Love of the game pushes Willie Cauley-Stein

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NBA Draft: Love of the game pushes Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein received pre-draft questions he expected he would from NBA front offices. Except one.

The 7-foot center was asked about the tattoos sprawled across his arms, chest and neck. He was asked why, as a sophomore, he dyed his hair bleach blonde. Teams inquired as to the type of person he would be in an NBA locker room, or if he had problems with certain people in an attempt to reveal the type of person they'd be investing millions of dollars in should they select him in next week's NBA Draft.

Cauley-Stein answered those questions, admitting some of his earlier life choices - like the hair - were made because he was "young and dumb."

But one question caught the Kentucky center, expected to be drafted in the top-10, by surprise: What would you be doing if you weren't playing basketball?

"I don't know," Cauley-Stein deadpanned, recalling his answer to NBA teams. "I would never think about not hooping. I'm always thinking about doing something with hoops or what I can work on today that's going to make me better for tomorrow."

Cauley-Stein spoke from experience, not just giving a cliched answer to prove his love of the game. As a sophomore he had suffered a broken foot in late March, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as his Wildcats completed an NCAA Tournament run to reach the National Championship, ultimately falling to Shabazz Napier and Connecticut. That time on the sideline - 21 weeks, to be exact - was all he needed to prove he needed basketball in his life.

"I got to feel what it would be like if I didn't play," he said at last month's NBA Draft Combine. "And I can't imagine not playing."

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The good news for "WCS" is that he won't have to worry about not playing for quite some time. The 2015 consensus first team All-American was a rare breed for John Calipari, staying three seasons in Lexington after an inconsistent freshman campaign and the ankle injury in 2014. But that additional year - in Kentucky's case, two years - allowed him to sculpt his game, become a leader for a freshman-laden roster and, without knowing it, improving his draft stock.

He averaged 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 25.9 minutes per game, anchoring the country's best defense alongside expected No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and expected lottery pick Trey Lyles in the frontcourt. He was named both the SEC and National Defensive Player of the Year despite not leading his team in either blocks or rebounds, a statement to his worth on team defense. Cauley-Stein forced passes due to his length and quickness on pick-and-rolls - he averaged 1.2 steals per game - kept teams from paint touches with his interior defense and complemented the rest of the Wildcats. Those were lessons he learned staying three years.

Whereas some of his younger teammates are considered more of unknowns due to their one year of collegiate experience, Cauley-Stein has 105 games, nearly 2,600 minutes and eight NCAA Tournament games to his highlight reel.

"To show that maturity level I didn't have last year if I was to enter the draft, now I'm one of the older dudes in the draft and I get it," he said. "I understand everything. I understand the game, I understand the process, I understand what it takes to be an elite player."

It's what he's hoping to prove at the next level. Already proven as arguably the best defensive player in his class, playing at Kentucky forced him into a niche where he wasn't asked to do as much because of the talent surrounding him. And though that may be the case on whichever team selects him, Cauley-Stein believes his game can and will expand.

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He's drawn plenty of comparisons to Tyson Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year and NBA champion in 2011. Chandler has made a career of anchoring defenses in New Orleans, New York and Dallas and playing around the rim on offense. Cauley-Stein may even have more lateral quickness than Chandler, playing a lot like the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan. Even if Cauley-Stein never develops an offensive game - he shot 59 percent in three seasons, yet on just 5.6 field goal attempts per game - his defensive worth will be enough to justify his selection, potentially as early as Orlando at No. 5.

It's something he understands, too. Though he'd like to show off a midrange game he says he's working on and an expanded post game, he's more focused on continuing to sculpt his dominant defensive presence that is going to carry him next season and beyond.

"Get really good at the stuff I'm actually good at already. Get better on defense, be a dominant defensive force" he said, "and then over time, over the next three to four years, be a player that you can throw the ball to and make some magic happen."

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.