Cristiano Felicio

Five takeaways from the Bulls' preseason comeback win over the Pelicans

Five takeaways from the Bulls' preseason comeback win over the Pelicans

The Bulls started slow but finished red-hot in their 113-109 victory over the Pelicans. It was an impressive way to open the preseason the slate on what expects to be a rebuilding year for a team littered with youth.

The Bulls will be right back at it tomorrow night against the Mavericks on NBC Sports Chicago, but before we get to that here are five takeaways from game No. 1.

1. The defense is going to struggle

This probably isn’t a news flash for anyone, but the Bulls defense is going to be very poor in 2017-18. The Pelicans scored 46 points on 70 percent shooting in the first quarter, getting every outside look they wanted and getting to the hole at will to draw fouls. True, the Pellies only shot 47 percent from the game and committed 16 turnovers, but there wasn't a lot to like on that end of the floor.

Of those few positives were Justin Holiday on the perimeter, Nikola Mirotic on the low block throwing his new body around, and Jerian Grant. Losing an All-NBA defender in Jimmy Butler was bound to hurt the Bulls' defense (that finished sixth in efficiency a year ago) but it might be worse than initially thought. Some of it is a product of putting more shooters on the floor; some of it is just not enough athleticism.

2. The Bulls are going to shoot a lot of 3-pointers

Preseason basketball is always a little more scattered than what regular season offensive sets look like. That being said, it’s clear the Bulls want to shoot 3-pointers early and often. With the Three Alphas and their ugly percentages gone, Fred Hoiberg can put lineups on the floor with four 3-point shooters. The Bulls shot a whopping 35 3-pointers in the win, with nine different players hoisting triples; to put that in perspective, last year they attempted 22.3 3-pointers per game.

They made 16 of those, which is certainly a positive sign, and got promising performances from deep from Denzel Valentine (4-for-7), Nikola Mirotic (3-for-8), Paul Zipser (2-for-3) and Jerian Grant (2-for-2). They did all that without Lauri Markkanen (and Zach LaVine), meaning even more 3-pointers could be on the way once he, and even Quincy Pondexter, returns.

3. Jerian Grant looks more comfortable than Kris Dunn

Jerian Grant said during the first week of training camp he was excited to have his first legitimate chance at earning a starting spot in the NBA. The deck is stacked against him given that his competition, Kris Dunn, was part of the Jimmy Butler trade that the Bulls need to have something to show for. But through one week (and now one game) it’s apparent Grant has the upper hand.

Grant finished with 11 points and nine assists, hit a pair of 3-pointers, grabbed a steal and finished an outstanding three-point play in the third quarter. He was a team-best +15 and had just one turnover in 20 minutes. Dunn, on the other hand, made a few careless turnovers (three in 22 minutes) and struggled defensively until late in the game in essentially mop-up time. His basketball savvy is apparent, and he has the size to compete, but he still hasn’t put it all together. He had 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting thanks to a late surge, and he added three assists. Dunn will start Wednesday against the Mavericks, but for now Grant looks like the answer at the point.

4. Justin Holiday is going to have take on a larger role than expected

At least until Zach LaVine returns, the best wing on the Bulls roster is Justin Holiday. Paul Zipser is going to contribute, and Antonio Blakeney has some solid potential. But it's Holiday that gives the Bulls their best two-way wing in a league where that's essential, tanking rebuilding or not. Holiday looked the part in his first game back with the Bulls, scoring 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting, grabbing a game-high three steals and contributing elsewhere with three rebounds and four assists. Holiday is just a career 40 percent shooter, and he's averaging less than a free throw per game 203 career appearances. If he can improve on some of that efficiency in a larger role, it'd go a long way for the Bulls. Someone has to score, and someone has to guard the NBA's top wings. Holiday could do both.

5. Cris Felicio looks like he has improved once again

When's the last time you watched Cris Felicio play and he didn't look better than the previous outing? Good luck trying to figure that one out. Big Cris, fresh off signing a four-year, $32 million deal, scored a team-high 15 poiints, grabbed five rebounds and handed out two assists. He was 6-fot-8 from the field and made all three free throws. He cleaned up the glass, showed soft hands on pick and rolls and even knocked down a 15-footer late in a close game. His pick-and-roll defense was solid and he did as a good a job as could have been expected against a talented Pelicans frontcourt.

Robin Lopez still has the reins on the starting job, but it's probably in the Bulls' favor to find as many minutes for Felicio as possible. This may be getting a little too excited, but the Bulls may have found something for the future in Big Cris.

Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

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Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

1. All the new faces: The Bulls have 12 players in training camp who were not on the team a year ago. The headliners are there in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Nikola Mirotic, but with what should be one of the youngest rosters in the league there are plenty of roster spots up for grabs. Former five-star recruit Diamond Stone, Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney and athletic combo guard David Nwaba are a few names to watch as preseason begins and decisions are made.

2. The return on Jimmy: The Bulls’ rebuild will be clearer after next year’s draft, but fans will always go back to the one trade that sent them into this phase. Trading a top-15 talent in Jimmy Butler must yield a return, and though Zach LaVine won’t play until the leaves change colors the progress of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen will loom large. Dunn has a pretty clear path to the starting point guard position, while Markkanen could fight for minutes in a sixth man role behind newly paid Nikola Mirotic.

3. Big payday for Big Cris: The Bulls’ first move in free agency this summer was handing Cris Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal.  He’s just 25 years old and has shown steady improvement in each of his first two seasons. At the very least he’s a formidable backup moving forward in the rebuild. But if the Bulls move on from Robin Lopez (potentially sooner than later) it would thrust Felicio into a starting role. If he continues to progress he could be the center of the future. How he fits into Fred Hoiberg’s style is another question, but the Bulls continue to like what they see from him.

4. Feel-good story in Quincy Pondexter: The Bulls traded for Pondexter earlier this month, and it’s going to be difficult not to root for this guy. Multiple knee surgeries cost Pondexter each of the last two seasons. He now appears to be healthy and should see game action in the preseason. When healthy he was a formidable wing, averaging 5.3 points on 42 percent shooting and 2.0 rebounds in 279 career games for New Orleans and Memphis. He’s not going to make fans forget about Jimmy Butler, but it would be a great story if he can make the team and, more importantly, stay healthy.

5. Welcome back, Rajon! The Bulls are going to see more than a few old faces from last year’s team, and they’ll get one on Opening (preseason) Night. After the Bulls bought him out over the summer, Rajon Rondo signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Pelicans. Rondo was a superb teammate and excellent mentor to some of the young Bulls he’ll face on Tuesday, so it’ll be fun to watch him interact with some of those players, including Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cris Felicio.

Bulls will take things slowly with Lauri Markkanen's back spasms

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Bulls will take things slowly with Lauri Markkanen's back spasms

The Bulls have already said they will be patient with their draft-night acquisition, but that fact was already known with Zach LaVine and his return from an ACL injury.

It sounds like they will use the same caution with their first-round draft pick Lauri Markkanen, who left Friday morning’s practice with back spasms. From the sounds of things, the busy schedule Markkanen has undergone this summer has taken a bit of a toll and the Bulls aren’t going to rush him to get back on the floor.

“He had some tightness in his lower back. He responded very well to the treatments, felt a lot better last night,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Got another round of treatments today. We just feel the smart thing is to be patient with him.”

Hoiberg was a bit tight-lipped when asked if Markkanen would miss the Bulls’ first two preseason games next Tuesday and Wednesday, instances where he’ll be toying with lineups and combinations.

Playing Markkanen at center, along with trying to find minutes at two positions for five players will be Hoiberg’s biggest coaching challenge this season, as Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio will vie for minutes with Markkanen—and make no mistake, Markkanen will play this season.

“Yeah, we’ll play different lineups for sure,” Hoiberg said. “We won’t know for sure until probably the day before, who we’re going to start against New Orleans, and we’ll probably have a completely different lineup against Dallas that second game.”

Markkanen’s Summer League wasn’t terribly impressive but his performance in the EuroBasket Tournament a few weeks ago opened eyes and now an appetite has been developed for the sweet-shooting rookie, who by all accounts, is the best shooter on the team not named LaVine.

The back spasms that have flared up for the second time since being drafted promises to slow things a bit, at least from the standpoint of anticipation. Markkanen hasn’t had the typical summer for a rookie, with his busy schedule leading the Bulls to be careful about his workload.

“He had it one time this summer where it kept him out for two days, where he had a little bit of soreness in his back, but he got over it quickly,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a kid, especially when you’re 20, 21 years old, not a lot of break. He goes from the season to the draft to the Summer League, and he really hasn’t had much of a break, so to give him that time to recover and recuperate and recharge, and now to ramp that activity back up he just had a little bit of soreness. And again, nobody is concerned about this being a long-term issue.”