Bulls

Son of Bulls' assistant Brunson already making noise

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Son of Bulls' assistant Brunson already making noise

Like many freshmen starting on varsity, Stevenson High School point guard Jalen Brunson has created a buzz. Unlike most, however, one-third of the Bulls' potential roster attended his game Tuesday night.

The presence of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans in the stands may have partially diverted the focus of the crowd's attention, but by the end of the contest, all eyes were trained on the contest itself. Unheralded Stevenson knocked off the the preseason No. 2 team in the state, conference rival Warren, 44-43, in what was the still-young Illinois high school basketball season's biggest upset thus far.

While senior sharpshooter Michael Fleming -- an elite student in the classroom, reportedly considering attending academically-oriented Colgate -- was Stevenson's high scorer and made what would eventually be the game-winning shot, the Bulls players present to see "Little Rick," as well as the rest of the audience, came away extremely impressed with Brunson. One former Bull, Dickey Simpkins, was also in attendance and as his AAU coach, offered a unique perspective on the budding star.

"I really didn't have any expectations for Stevenson's ability to make that a close game or win it, but I did know that Jalen was going to be fine out there because of his poise and composure. Obviously he knows a lot of those guys because he plays in our program and he sees those guys all the time, and the fact that Jalen has worked out with those guys -- he plays up in our program -- I knew his confidence level and his poise would kick in," said Simpkins, who also coaches Division I-bound Warren seniors Darius Paul (the 6-foot-8 younger brother of Illinois guard Brandon Paul is headed for Western Michigan) and Nathan Boothe (the younger brother of Stanford women's player Sarah Boothe is a 6-foot-9 center who will attend Toledo next fall) in his NLP (Next Level Performance) program. "You're not going to rattle Jalen and that's pretty impressive for a kid as a freshman playing against the No. 2 team in the state, a team that lost in the state championship last year. Playing against them as a freshman in this early part of the season and him being as poised as he was, I pretty much expected that he was going to play at that level."

Brunson scored 14 points on the evening, an impressive total for a freshman. However, the way he played was more impactful than anything recorded in the final statistics. The 5-foot-11 southpaw ran his team flawlessly, played extremely unselfishly, picked his spots to score -- showcasing a savvy mid-range game, a deft shooting touch and range on his jumper -- and displayed some eye-popping dribble moves to excite the crowd.

More significantly, as Simpkins emphasized, he seemed unnaturally calm throughout the whole contest. It was a bit like watching a flashback.

"He does a little bit of everything that his dad did," said Simpkins, whose NBA career overlapped with Jalen's father's, Rick, now a Bulls assistant coach. "He resembles his dad to the fullest -- the left hand, the great control of the game, the craftiness and the skill set to be able to shoot the mid-range, being able to see the court and deliver it, distribute the ball -- he plays just like his dad."

For even the most ardent NBA fans, that might not seem like glowing praise initially, as the elder Brunson was considered the prototypical journeyman throughout his nine-team, eight-year career, which included two stints with the Bulls and crossing paths with head coach Tom Thibodeau in New York and Houston. But Brunson garnered tremendous respect among his peers for his determination and ability to adapt and knowledge of the game. Something developed in an accomplished amateur career that included being the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game (with Chris Webber, the college teammate of another Jalen, Jalen Rose) before playing for Hall of Fame coach John Chaney at Temple University with two fellow future longtime pros, Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, now a Philadelphia 76ers assistant.

"I'll just tell you this," said the usually loquacious Brunson. "I'm trying to teach him how to be self-motivated and work hard."

While he's refreshingly modest about his son's potential, it's obvious that Jalen has a bright future. It's too early to predict the future, but Simpkins is cautiously optimistic about his prospects.

"I think Jalen's got a lot of upside because I can imagine him getting a little bit taller. He's got good body structure, where if he continues to develop natural strength and then if he starts to to do physical strength training, he's going to become stronger. As he gets older, his athleticism should keep improving and he should develop more quickness, so I see a lot of upside for him once those things start kicking in and add to his ability, knowing the game, his basketball I.Q., feel for the game and his skill set, he has a tremendous quickness," opined Simpkins. "I think Jalen is going to be a really sought-after player for his class when he gets ready to graduate. I kind of look at Jalen right now like the kid at North Carolina sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, a preseason All-American, according to several media outlets. He's a young version of Marshall. I think Jalen can be like him, but even better because I think Jalen can really shoot the ball better than he can. But I visualize Jalen being that kind of player and every Division I coach wanting a player like that."

Still, the Brunson -- whose mother played volleyball at Temple, where she met Rick, her eventual husband -- is likely to stay grounded, as he gets basketball advice not only from former pros like his father and Simpkins, but from current players, such as Noah. The elder Brunson appreciates the wisdom passed down from Noah -- the son of a former professional athlete himself -- and cites one piece of knowledge as "the best advice" anyone has given Jalen: "Humble yourself or the game will humble you."

"I think that he has a chance to be a hell of a player, but when you're in ninth grade and you're getting a lot of attention, I always tell young players that it really doesn't mean anything. It's all about your character at the end of the day, how hard you're willing to work because you see it all the time," said Noah, who wasn't considered an elite-level prospect coming out of high school. "Guys start off top players in the country from a young age, get all this attention and they're not focused on getting better. If your mindset is about getting better, then it's hard to make it at this level."

Brunson is a long way from the professional ranks -- let alone college, as he'll matriculate to college in the fall of 2015 -- but with the extended network of legitimate advisers surrounding him, good genes and precocious ability, he's in excellent hands, especially if it's assumed that his father's determination was inherited. For now, however, the next four years of basketball at Stevenson should see plenty of special moments like the one witnessed Tuesday night.

A history of LeBron James' scoring prowess against the Bulls

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USA TODAY

A history of LeBron James' scoring prowess against the Bulls

Yes, we know: LeBron James is a crybaby, he’ll never be Michael Jordan, he’s 3-5 in the NBA Finals and you hate him. All of that is true as long as you believe it, no matter how silly it sounds. Got that out of your system? Great. Because King James is about to become the 7th player in NBA history to reach 30,000 career points. He’s seven away, and seeing as he’s scored in double figures in 836 straight games, we’re fairly confident he’ll reach it tonight against the Spurs.

And wouldn’t you know it? James has done his most scoring damage against the Chicago Bulls. In fact, of his 29,993 points, 1,534 have come against the Bulls. That’s one more than he’s scored against the Bucks (1,533), and just ahead of the damage he’s done against the Pacers (1,452), Hawks (1,431) and Celtics (1,411).

And you’re right: James has played the Bulls 54 times, the same number of times he’s played the Bucks, the most of any opponent. But that scoring average of 28.4 points per game against the Bulls is fourth most against any opponent. Only the Sonics/Thunder (28.5), Jazz (29.4) and Celtics (29.4) have been hurt worse on a per-game average than the Bulls.

That being said, the likes of Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler have held James relatively in check when it comes to scoring explosions. James’ career-high against the Bulls is 41 points (done twice), and only the Rockets, Cavaliers and Clippers have held James below that figure.

Here’s a few tidbits about James against the Bulls:

  • James’ best shooting season against the Bulls came in 2012-13, his MVP season with the Heat. James shot 63.8 percent from the field in four games. His worst shooting performance was 8-for-14 (57.1%).
  • James’ highest scoring season (average) was in 2007-08, when he averaged 35.7 points in four contests. His worst point total was 33, joining other game totals of 34, 37 and 39 points. Ironically he went 1-3 against the Bulls that season. The following year he won his first MVP.
  • James has never relied on his 3-point shot, especially against the Bulls. In fact, the most 3-pointers he’s ever made in a season against the Bulls is the current year (8-for-15) and he still has a game left against Chicago in March. This current season is also the best James has shot from the charity stripe against the Bulls, going 15-for-17 (88 percent).
  • James’ worst scoring season against the Bulls was in 2013-14, his final season in Miami. James scored 17, 21 and 17 points in three games, an average of 18.3 points. That year was the last time James has averaged 27 points per game in a season.
  • But that year wasn’t the worst shooting season James had. That would have been his rookie season, when James shot 38 percent in four games against the Bulls. James shot 41.7 percent from the field that season, the only time in his career he’s ever made less than 47 percent of his shots.

And here are the biggest highlights in James’ scoring career against the Bulls during his 15 regular seasons. Again, this includes nothing from the postseason, where James has also done plenty of damage.

Dec. 20, 2003: James wasted no time putting it on the Bulls. In his debut against Chicago, he scored 32 points on 11 of 22 shooting. Though he missed all five of his 3-point attempts he went 10-for-12 from the free throw line and scored the Cavaliers’ last 14 points in the final 5:07. The Cavs dominated the fourth quarter in a 95-87 win. Ironically James didn’t top 18 points in his other three meetings against the Bulls.

March 5, 2006: James finished off a dominant season against the Bulls in which he averaged 34.8 points. It was one of just two seasons in which he scored 30 or more points in each meeting against the Bulls. On this night he brushed aside a small first half by scoring 27 of his 37 points in the second half. In fact, he scored more than half of Cleveland’s 51 points after halftime as the Cavs outscored the Bulls by 21 points.

Nov. 5, 2008: It’s remarkable to think that James only topped 40 points against the Bulls in two of his 54 meetings, and they both came in the same season. Early in the year he was a force at home, scoring 41 points on 57 percent shooting and making 15 of 16 from the free throw line. He scored 41 while failing to make a 3-pointer (0-for-2) as the Cavs led the entire way. James led the game in scoring in both the first (10), second (8) and third quarters (14), and capped it off with nine in the final frame.

Jan. 2, 2009: A few months later James had his lowest scoring game against the Bulls. He managed just 16 points in 37 minutes, though he took only eight shots and deferred to his teammates. The Cavs shot 51 percent as a team and James had 11 assists.

March 14, 2012: James’ best regular-season scoring performance with the Heat against the Bulls came in January 2012. He scored 35 points in 41 minutes, shooting 12-for-23 and getting to the free throw line 15 times. His most memorable play came late in the first quarter when James took an alley-oop from Dwayne Wade and jumped over John Lucas III for a dunk. James scored nine points in a back-and-forth fourth quarter that saw the Heat prevail, 97-93.

Oct. 31, 2014: James made his triumphant return to the Cavaliers in 2014, but the Bulls remembered him as just as good as he was in a Heat uniform. James scored 36 points in the overtime win, saving his best for the final period: he scored eight points, including the first six that pushed the Cavaliers out to a lead they didn’t surrender.

April 9, 2016: If we’re talking scoring, James’ best true shooting performance came on this day. He was as efficient as ever, scoring 33 points on 13-for-17 shooting, making 4 of 5 3-pointers and hitting 3 of 4 freebies. The 33 points on 17 shots gave him a true shooting percentage of 88.0, the best of his career against the Bulls. Chicago, however, won the game and kept its slim playoff hopes alive. The Cavaliers clinched home court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs two days later against the Hawks.

Dec. 21, 2017: James’ most recent game against the Bulls that pushed his total ahead of the Bucks by a lone point. He scored eight points in the final 140 seconds to seal the win for the Cavaliers, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 12-for-23 shooting. He also made all eight free throw attempts and hit a pair of triples. James’ next shot at improving on his Bulls total is on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.