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NBA preseason primer: Rookie of the Year candidates

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NBA preseason primer: Rookie of the Year 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 have the best chance to earn Rookie of the Year honors for the upcoming season.

Mark Strotman: Last year's rookie class was an absolute mess. Tabbed by many as the best incoming crop of players since 1996 - hell, they got the '96 SLAM cover treatment - they were decimated by injury. Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle all suffered season-ending injuries (the latter two didn't play a single game) while Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel (2013 Draft) and Nikola Mirotic salvaged an otherwise poor showing from the rooks - I'd also toss Elfrid Payton in there.

2015 appears to be a rookie class where opportunity will be ample. And no one will be thrown into the fire as quickly or given a larger role than Chicago native Jahlil Okafor. With Embiid on the pine for a second straight year, Okafor will be tasked with improving a Sixers offense that had an abysmal 93.0 offensive rating last year, far and away worst in the league. We've debated on Okafor's ceiling in the league, but there's no argument against him being ready to contribute from Day 1 offensively. His low-post game is as NBA-ready as we've seen in years, and I could see him having similar numbers as DeMarcus Cousins' rookie year (14.1 points on 43 percent shooting) with an uptick in his shooting percentage. Some of his glaring defensive deficiencies will be covered by Noel's prowess, which will only help Okafor's case. The fact that he'll be rolled out there at center every night as the main option for Brett Brown makes him the easy favorite to bring home Rookie of the Year honors.

Vincent Goodwill: Not to think this would have a Chicago bent to it, but Okafor is tagged with the stink of playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, the worst professional franchise in sports (no exaggeration).  So either he’ll get hurt or play well enough to get traded for future draft picks.

[MORE: MVP candidates for upcoming season]

As for another candidate, consider this: Since Derrick Rose’s rookie year (2008-09), five of the seven Rookie of the Year award winners have been point guards or in Tyreke Evans’ case in 2010, a lead guard.

Andrew Wiggins and Blake Griffin are the anomaly’s, and rightfully so. But Lakers rookie guard D’Angelo Russell, the player chosen ahead of Okafor, appears to have “star” written all over him.

He’ll have to share a backcourt with the retiring (?) Kobe Bryant while Jordan Clarkston won’t just cede into the background. Sharing the ball with the ball-dominant Bryant isn’t the easiest task in the world, ask Steve Nash.

But if Bryant accepts a lesser role and allows Russell to flourish, he could be special. He has exceptional court vision and his jump shot is set up by a handle that will embarrass more than a few defenders.

And, let’s be honest. The Lakers will stink. Julius Randle and a few other pieces are just learning at this level. So he’ll have plenty of freedom to play through mistakes and since there aren’t championship expectations, he can play loose.

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He’s been compared to Jason Kidd coming out of college and although the production can’t be predicted yet, his handle and jumper are worlds ahead of Kidd’s at this formative stage.

MS: And it makes sense that point guards have hogged Rookie of the Year honors lately; teams in need of a floor general put him to use right away. There's two wings and two frontcourt positions, but just one point guard. If your team is lacking at the spot, prepare to go against live fire from Day 1.

It's the same reason I really believe Emmanuel Mudiay is in a great position. We discussed it a little with our potential breakout players, but a lot of the time Rookie of the Year comes down to guys who simply got the minutes to log volume numbers. Well, with Ty Lawson off to Houston the depth chart in Denver is Mudiay, Jameer Nelson and Erick Green. Seriously.

We don't know as much about Mudiay and how his game will translate after a year in China, but we do know he's lightning quick in transition - good for the Western Conference - is an excellent passer - good for Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari - and a stout defender at 6-foot-5, which will come in handy against the lethal West point guard class.

There are concerns about his jump shot and whether he'll hit the ground running at 19 years old, but with a rock-solid head coach in Michael Malone, a decent supporting cast and a distinct role as the future of the Nuggets, I wouldn't be surprised if Mudiay puts together a Rookie of the Year campaign averaging 30+ minutes a night.

[ALSO: Potential new playoff teams this year include....Jazz?]

VG: Mudiay comes with the Larry Brown stamp of approval, considering he was slated to play for the Hall of Fame coach before going to play in China for a year. If you don’t go to college, it’s like you don’t exist for a segment of fans, i.e. Brandon Jennings. But Mudiay would’ve turned the college world on its ear last season and he happens to be drafted by the Nuggets, another team with low expectations, setting up an easy situation to excel.

But when I think about a player who did attend college and turned it on its ear, I’m thinking of the guy who inexplicably slipped in the draft, Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow. Winslow was lost in the Duke shuffle last season, the ensemble cast that won the national championship. His stats didn’t overwhelm many but his play certainly did, which is why it was so shocking to see him drop to 10th in the draft.

He won’t be starting, considering Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are the starting swingmen for the Heat. But when you talk skill level and pro readiness, he’s at the top of the list. Winslow plays with a control and a maturity to his game that’s beyond his years. He won’t overwhelm you athletically, which could be a big impediment in the college-to-pro transition. But his ball handling skills and ability to get to the lane with his perimeter footwork will translate well. And if Miami has any injury issues, he’ll step right in, and will have major minutes anyways.

He won’t have the best stats but if the Heat rise back near the top of the East after missing the playoffs last year and Winslow is a big part of it, he’ll receive a groundswell of support for the award—and could wind up as the best non-big in the draft regardless.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

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.”