Bulls

Still point guard of the future? Fred Hoiberg confident in Cameron Payne

Still point guard of the future? Fred Hoiberg confident in Cameron Payne

LAS VEGAS -- Since trading Derrick Rose, the Bulls’ relationship with the point guard spot has been “complicated”, if it were a Facebook status.

So while it’s not surprising to see the franchise’s evaluation of Cameron Payne fall flat to this point, one wonders how much progress should be expected given they still have Jerian Grant and acquired Kris Dunn on draft night.

Payne and Dunn played together in the backcourt in the Bulls’ Summer League opener Saturday and although the Bulls went to a two-point guard front, they looked disorganized and out of sorts for most of the game.

Not the best sign considering Payne was called the “point guard of the future” when he was acquired from Oklahoma City as the Bulls dumped Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott.

Considering the Bulls renounced the rights of Joffrey Lauvergne, making him an unrestricted free agent, Payne is the lone body remaining from the deal. And although the setting of Summer League is hardly the best ground to show what a player will do when the games really matter, going two for nine and missing all five 3-point attempts won’t do much to inspire confidence in Payne from the outside.

“I would agree with that. We watched a lot of clips on that this morning with Cam. He walked into a very difficult situation (in February),” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said following Sunday morning’s practice at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center

Hoiberg said Payne was a positive in the playoff prep for Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, where he played the role of Thomas for the scout team. Considering the way Thomas played in the series after Rajon Rondo was hurt, perhaps it was more the defense that was easily manipulated compared to the actual performance.

But the Bulls have confidence in Payne and will continue to express it outwardly, as evidenced by Payne being more on the ball than Dunn in the opener. Dunn expects to play more point guard Monday afternoon, though.

“Cam is a good basketball player. He’s a competitive kid,” Hoiberg said. “He was really disappointed last night. It’s all about bouncing back, watching film, getting better from it. Hopefully he finishes summer league strong.”

More than the statistics, it didn’t appear Payne had a strong feel for the game and its rhythm, requirement number one at that position. At times he rushes the offense while looking for his shot and even more, his cadence often gives away when he’ll forsake the offense to look for his own shot.

And considering the lack of positive experiences Payne has had since being acquired, one has to wonder about his confidence level being affected before it can actually be built.

“We talked a lot about going out there and just making the right basketball play, making simple plays,” Hoiberg said. “We had a lot of examples in our three-day minicamp that we had of making solid plays. When Dallas went on a run last night, it looked like it became my-turn basketball. We just came down and jacked up bad shots.”

On the criticism Payne has received, Hoiberg keeps pumping Payne up: “You can’t let negative comments affect the way you play. Hopefully he’ll be better tomorrow and throughout these last four or five games,” he said.

Payne has spent most of the offseason in Chicago, a must after Bulls VP John Paxson said Payne needs to work on his body and conditioning before next season

“Yeah, I feel like I began to improve. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I mean it’s a process,” Payne said. “I’ve been feeling pretty good. I’ve been in Chicago. That’s been my summer. Just trying to get bigger, stronger. Pick my conditioning up, improve my stamina on the court.’’

Stating pointedly that there’s no time for summer vacation, Payne hopes this experience is a building block for himself personally as he hopes to rewrite a narrative that hasn’t gone his way thus far.

“I mean of course. I mean Summer League is definitely a big task for us,” Payne said.  “We’ve got to build a good chemistry and it starts here. That’s going to translate into the regular season.”

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”