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NBA preseason primer: Breakout candidates

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NBA preseason primer: Breakout candidates

Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players are poised for breakout campaigns after showing flashes of it last season.

Vincent Goodwill: Breakout players are usually hard to project, especially if they’re not on winning teams but I have two, albeit at different levels of their development, Victor Oladipo (Orlando Magic) and Zach LaVine (Minnesota Timberwolves).

Starting with Oladipo, spending more time at shooting guard with the drafting of Elfrid Payton opened the door for him to attack more off the ball while still being able to create. After the All-Star break, Oladipo performed at nearly a 20-5-5 clip, shaking off a sluggish November-December where he looked out of sorts. Now he could be ready to truly elevate, especially since his long-range shooting has become respectable (34 percent from 3-point range last season).

His athleticism is well-documented, as evidenced by showing during the dunk contest at All-Star weekend last season. His offensive rating jumped from 94 points per 100 possessions to 101 points last season, but his defense dropped a bit too, perhaps from going against bigger shooting guards (or concentrating too much on offense).

The natural progression, one would think, would be scoring near 20 points a game while still getting to the glass and shooting near 45 percent. Playing for the slow-building Magic certainly puts a damper on his personal accomplishments, but if they are to climb from the Eastern Conference cellar, Oladipo’s play will be a huge reason why.

Mark Strotman: Oladipo's situation certainly follows the trend of last year's top two breakout players. Both Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green saw increased roles - Butler became the go-to guy as Derrick Rose was worked back slowly from his knee injury du jour, and Green entered the starting lineup when David Lee went down in preseason - and had the right supporting cast around him. I can't get enough of Orlando's young core; their five leading scorers last season are 24 or younger. Twenty-four! Somewhere Sam Hinkie just soiled himself.

In that same light, I love what the Timberwolves are putting together. You mentioned LaVine, and he'll team up with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio to form another excellent young core. But the guy I'm looking at to really break through this season is Gorgui Dieng.

He may not make a jump like Butler or Green did, making an All-Star team and All-NBA squad. But I loved what Dieng did after the All-Star break in 2015, averaging 10.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 20 games. He shot 55 percent in those games - up more than 6 percentage points pre-ASB -  before a concussion cost him the Timberwolves' final nine games. His arrow is pointing up, and unless Towns entirely steals the frontcourt spotlight in Year 1 (a possibility) Dieng is going to have an excellent third NBA season.

Are you nervous at all that Rubio is going to hurt LaVine's growth in Year 2? The Timberwolves paid him last year and he appears ready for camp after a 22-game campaign in 2015. His salary isn't all that trade-able, and I'm not convinced LaVine can play off the ball full-time just yet.

VG: As for Hinkie soiling his pants, man can someone take his job? He’s an embarrassment to the sport, but I digress.  And so much of breakout players stepping up is birthed by maturity combined with opportunity, such as the case with Butler last season. Would Butler have thrived if Luol Deng were still with the Bulls? Or heck, would he have seen an opportunity to step up if Derrick Rose didn’t have such an unreliable history of availability?

As for LaVine, I’m not so impressed by his athleticism as I was by his last month of the season, when he started playing 30 minutes a game. Putting up 21 points, nearly seven assists and six rebounds in April could be written off as a late-season anomaly, but in 40 games as a starter he averaged 14 points and five assists on a young team with loads of talent and loads of time to figure it out.

Playing with Rubio will only enhance the unselfish nature, considering there won’t be many players that adept at creating their own offense naturally. The ball movement will be plentiful, even if the young and tender Wolves won’t win many games.

The lone argument against LaVine is on his own roster: that otherworldly Andrew Wiggins, who’s probably the one sure-fire franchise player out of these last two drafts. Wiggins plays better at shooting guard in terms of shot opportunities and efficiency than he does at small forward, and what’s good for Wiggins is good for the franchise (especially as that was figured out after the All-Star break).

But if they can find a way for both young wings to play together without draining the other, LaVine could be a true diamond from the 2014 late lottery.

MS: It's also worth noting with Butler that Chicago was about to break the bank for Carmelo Anthony. Imagine a black hole in Anthony taking shots away from Butler AND no Pau Gasol? Gar Forman owes Phil Jackson dinner sometime in the near future. I chose Dieng as a guy who I believe can make a significant jump - but not necessarily stardom - next season. That's not the case for my feelings on Bradley Beal, who I believe makes that All-Star-jump we saw from Jimmy Butler a year ago in his fourth season.

Beal's already ahead of where Butler was in Year 3 because of that aforementioned opportunity - Beal has started from Day 1 in Washington - but he hasn't really taken that final step. He certainly looks to be trending toward it in last season's playoffs, when he averaged 23.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in two series against the Raptors and Hawks. But he looked solid in the 2014 playoffs, too, and didn't really transfer it to the 2015 regular season - he's certainly been good, just not great.

But that fourth year, a contract year, could be it. John Wall is a year older and the Wizards refuse to really do anything behind Beal that would take many minutes away from him. That scary leg injury that's popped up each year of his career (Beal has missed 54 games in three seasons) is always going to be a concern, but if he can play 70+ games I've got that feeling we're going to see a more matured, polished player who fights for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Everything's there for him.

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.”