Bulls

Terps' Dez Wells looking to do 'something special' in NBA

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Terps' Dez Wells looking to do 'something special' in NBA

Dez Wells might not be at the top of many draft boards, but he's still looking to make an impact in the NBA.

Wells just wrapped a sensational senior season at Maryland, earning First Team All-Big Ten honors after serving as the most valuable player on a Terps team that finished second in the Big Ten and made the program's first NCAA tournament in five years.

Though Wells might not elicit "oohs" and "ahs" with his size, his measurements or his projectability, there's something to be said for coming through in the clutch. Look back at the do-it-all player who put the Terps on his back time after time after time during last season. Maryland was one of the best teams in the country for much of the year, and it had Wells' big performances in the biggest moments to thank for that.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: NBA Draft Profile: Maryland G Dez Wells]

Dec. 30. After missing seven non-conference games with a hand injury, Wells was playing in just his second game back: Maryland's Big Ten opener at Michigan State. That's no easy opponent — the Spartans, you might recall, went to the Final Four — in no easy venue. But it was Wells' star that shone brightest that day. He knocked down a huge 3-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime. He knocked down a pair of foul shots to tie the game again and send things into a second overtime. He hit a go-ahead free throw and delivered a dagger of a fastbreak dunk to send the Terps to an incredible win in the program's Big Ten debut.

“You have to give Dez Wells credit,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after that game. “He missed a month. I don't know what he did, but it was a hand injury. You have to give him a lot of credit. I love guys that are warriors. He's diving on the floor with a broken wrist. A broken wrist on his right hand, and he makes the big 3. My hat goes off to him. I was really impressed by how hard he played, how much he played, and he's got some dog in him. That's as good a compliment as I can give a guy.”

Jan. 25. Wells scored 17 points against Northwestern, but it was how that game finished that tells you what you need to know about Wells. The Wildcats had a 14-point second-half lead, a lead still at 11 with a little more than four minutes to play. Wells figured huge in a remarkable Terps comeback, scoring eight of his team's final 18 points. Wells made the play of the game, too, following up Melo Trimble's failed game-winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer with an offensive rebound and putback to give the Terps an improbable comeback win before the horn sounded.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Can Hawkeyes' Aaron White translate his game to the next level?]

Feb. 24. Wells saved his best performance for Maryland's biggest win of the season, a takedown of fifth-ranked Wisconsin in College Park. Wells scored 26 points, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out four assists and did just about everything to power the Terps to an incredible win over the Badgers, who ended up reaching the national title game and figure to see a pair of players picked in the top half of the draft's first round. Wells broke a 47-all second-half tie with four straight free throws and a big-time dunk and helped secure the upset with a big block. Wells showed what type of play he can turn in not only when he's firing on all cylinders but when he's playing with ultimate intensity.

"I think I can come in and provide great energy, be a great defender and be somebody that's a great team player who can be an efficient scorer and can just be one of those guys that has a lot of grit and plays hard nosed each and every game," Wells said at the NBA Draft Combine when asked what he can bring to an NBA team.

When next season rolls around, Wells won't be there to once again lead the Terps to the top of the college basketball mountain. His eligibility has been exhausted. Many believe the Terps will get there without him, though, as Wells' co-stars Trimble and Jake Layman have pledged their returns for another season and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon and five-star recruit Diamond Stone have joined the ranks.

But Wells still has sage advice for his now former teammates.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Will Frank Kaminsky turn college success into NBA greatness?]

"They have to get their chemistry right first before they can consider themselves a top team," Wells said. "That's just all potential, what they think they can do. So once they come in and build a relationship with each other, go through the grinf with each other ... then I think that they'll be special."

Wells did more than enough to establish himself as one of the Big Ten's best last season. That, of course, doesn't mean he gets his ticket to the NBA punched. Many think he won't hear his name called on draft night.

But that's not stopping him from doing what he did during his senior season: giving it his all. Wells is out to prove that he belongs at the next level. He did a good deal of that in a Terps uniform. Now he's out to do some more.

"I just have to go out there and compete each and every day while I'm here and at all of the workouts," Wells said. "I think I have a great chance of doing something special."

 

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

MINNEAPOLIS — The misses have come wide, long and short for Lauri Markkanen in the last couple games, perhaps a sign he’s hit the popular but unseen “Rookie Wall.”

Since coming back from the All-Star break, Markkanen has hit the same amount of jump shots as a dead man, only scoring with two dunks and missing all seven 3-point attempts.

He’s hit the point of the season where the legs turn to spaghetti as the grind of the season catches up. Last year at Arizona, he played 37 games and then went through Summer League following the draft before playing for the Finland national team. The Bulls have been careful with his minutes, particularly early on in the season when they didn’t have the depth at power forward, but Markkanen is still adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

After seemingly peaking in January, averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting and 43 from three-point range, he’s averaged just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting and hitting just four of 27 from deep.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg tried to pump Markkanen up recently, comparing his shooting to a golfer who’s lost his stroke. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to Markkanen, who looked at his coach as if he grew a third eye.

By the time Hoiberg compared it to curling, he wound up confusing the press corps last week.

And yet, Markkanen hasn’t broken out of his slump. It’s been quite a while since Markkanen’s devastating performance on Broadway where he nailed eight 3-pointers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10 for a career-high 33 points.

“It’s been a long season, I’m not denying that,” Markkanen said Saturday night following the Bulls’ loss to the Timberwolves. “I just gotta work through it. At times I feel it. I felt good today. As the game went on, a little tired.”

Consistency has been a hallmark of Markkanen’s season to date. He scored in double figures 21 straight games before the last two, where he scored three points in the last two Bulls losses.

As a whole, he’s only scored fewer than 10 points six times. To compare, rookie of the year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell (nine) and Ben Simmons (six) are right around the same number.

Hoiberg boldly predicts Markkanen will burst out in a big way soon, but the rookie wall takes no prisoners, especially in the dog days of the season.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

His looks have been relatively clean, although one can’t discount the difference between playing alongside Cristiano Felicio compared to Robin Lopez. Lopez assisted on 39 field goals, tied with Jerian Grant for second-highest feeds behind Kris Dunn.

Both Lopez and Grant are out of the rotation, while Dunn is still getting his legs back after missing nearly a month in concussion protocol. Lopez was used in a lot of dribble handoff offense with Markkanen, while also setting solid screens to free him.

Felicio doesn’t have that level of experience in this offense, and the Bulls are also running more through Zach LaVine as a primary ballhandler.

“He’s had a lot of really good games. It’s never gonna be an 100 percent season,” LaVine said. “It’s so many games you’ll eventually run into some slumps so I just think he needs to get into a rhythm. We’ve gotta help him with that too. Help him find easier shots on the floor. He’s cool, he’s good. We tell him to shoot the ball every time.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”