Atlanta Hawks

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Lauri Markkanen had gone nearly 47 minutes without making a jumper, but he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to seal the Bulls’ first win.

He put the six straight misses from 3-point range behind him, slipped out to 25 feet and nailed a triple with 48.5 seconds left to put the finishing touches on the Bulls’ first win, a 91-86 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.

“I guess you could say it worked out perfectly,” he deadpanned. “We knew how they were going to guard the pick and rolls. I slipped in there and was wide open.”

It wasn’t his prettiest performance but one of his most telling through four games, achieving yet another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

“Lauri was reading the way the defender was guarding him, so he slipped outside,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It was a great read. Not only did he have the shot but he had driving lanes.”

His jumper abandoned him, so Markkanen left it where it was to start the second half, going to the basket with a layup from a Euro-step and then a 3-point play following a dunk.

He seemed to enter the second half with a more aggressive mindset, not just with the drive but also going to the glass, using his length to get inside position. The vast difference in the Bulls’ offense when Markkanen is making shots, as he was in Cleveland, compared to early Thursday, when he wasn’t, shows the dependency the Bulls have on him four games in.

“When you can play through a 20-year-old kid like that, it’s pretty impressive to have a game like that when his shot wasn’t falling,” Hoiberg said.

But the fact he was willing to take the shot along with Hoiberg drawing up a play in the last seconds for his young player shows a level of progress that won’t show up in the win-loss column but will aid in Markkanen’s in-season growth.

“Hopefully,” Markkanen said about being a go-to option. “That’s why I’m working on my game. Hopefully I can be that one day.”

Apparently he has the backing of his teammates very early in his tenure.

“That’s big time. We weren’t surprised by that,” Robin Lopez said. “He knows what he can do out there. We all believe in him. He has the utmost confidence in himself, which is awesome. I’ve seen those shots go in in practice. We know it’s gonna go in more often than not.”

Ugly win: Of the games the Bulls will win this year, many of them will be of the pretty variety where 3-pointers will be flying for 48 minutes. This will be one of the few where the Bulls are grinding out a win, outrebounding the Hawks 62-40—even though the Bulls only got up five more shots.

Markkanen, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba grabbed at least 10 rebounds, which was necessary considering the Bulls shot just seven of 32 from 3-point range and just 36 percent overall.

“What did we make, like 22 percent? It shows how much we fight,” Markkanen said. “We rebounded the ball, we found other ways to score the ball.”

To illustrate their offensive struggles, Lopez was essentially the only offensive option early with 10 shots (making five) in the first quarter. He can’t even make the claim to get that kind of attention in grade school.

“I’m trying to do what I can to help the team. I’m taking a bigger role,” said Lopez, who’s scored in double figures in every game this season, as he finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Unexpected and bloody energy: Coaches will always find a place in a rotation for guards who play tough and are unafraid to get dirty or even take a shot to the mouth, as well as teams looking for tough-minded guards who’ll challenge everything.

Enter David Nwaba, who’s taking his opportunity for more minutes in the absence of Kris Dunn and more recently Paul Zipser (late scratch), giving the Bulls a lift with 15 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes for his first double-double in 24 career games.

He played with the Lakers last season and the Bulls like his energy and athleticism here, so he had no problem using all 209 pounds of his body to take contact and give it as a way to prove himself with his chance.

“David was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half we couldn’t get anything going. He got us a couple fast-break baskets, got us an and-one just by rebound and taking off in transition. He’s always going to give you a hard defensive effort.”

Holiday made note of Nwaba blocking Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korver in a preseason game a couple weeks ago as a mark of Nwaba’s tenaciousness, and a bloody lower lip courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from a Hawks player is another example of a tough player trying to make a name for himself in the league.

“What I plan on bringing is energy,” Nwaba said. “Looking to push in transition, get to the basket. We have a lot of shooters so it’s important somebody attack the basket.”

Whether it’s here or anywhere else, he knows eyes are watching and he’s forming his own identity for how he’ll be evaluated around the league.

“Majority of guys at my position are usually shooters,” Nwaba said. “I try to help the team as much as possible whether it’s rebounding or driving to the basket. Try to do the little things to help the team out. It’s important for every team to have guys like that.”

Tough road ahead, the win was necessary: When players and coaches say they don’t look ahead to other games on the schedule, they’re lying.

The Bulls have played high-level playoff teams and on the horizon are teams with aspirations on getting beyond round one of the playoffs. To say a win was needed for overall team morale considering everything swirling around the Bulls isn’t overstating it.

A game against the Hawks, a team that has the same aspirations for lottery balls the Bulls do, won’t rank up high at the end of the season but for the moment it was critical to team sanity.

Oklahoma City, Miami and Orlando are up next, with Miami and Orlando being on the road.

“We expect to win those games, too,” Holiday said. “With the games we’ve had to this point, this was one we wanted to start that confidence and get going. Hopefully we can move this to Saturday and surprise them.”

After the Hawks got up 86-85 with 1:48 left, Holiday slipped backdoor from Kent Bazemore for a layup that restored order, a change from his usual drifts to the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

Count Lopez among those impressed with the team’s approach and lack of panic.

“They got up on us late in the fourth quarter so to have that mental fortitude, make the plays and get the stops, win the game, that’s big for us,” Lopez said. “Nobody has been able to question our effort so far.”

Bulls continue stockpiling young point guards

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USA TODAY

Bulls continue stockpiling young point guards

Point Guard of the Future Part VIII? 

The Bulls added another guard to their already-claustrophobic backcourt on Monday, claiming Kay Felder off free agency waivers, according to The Vertical's Shams Charania. 

Felder, 22, was dealt alongside Richard Jefferson from the Cavaliers to the Hawks on Saturday before being immediately waived.

The Bulls then decided to take a flyer on the Oakland University product because why the heck not? Barring some type of NBA miracle, the Bulls are on a season-long march to the lottery, so adding another young player can't hurt. Even if Felder is now the fifth point guard, joining Cameron Payne, Kris Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono and Jerian Grant, on the squad. 

In 42 games with the Cavs last season, Felder averaged four points and 1.4 assists in just over nine minutes. He was drafted with the hope that he could further his NCAA reputation as a scorer. However, he connected on just 39 percent from the field during his rookie season. He's also undersized -- like Nate Robinson-Isaiah Thomas Undersized -- lowering his ceiling as a defender. 

Whether he can find a niche as a second-unit heat check guy remains to be seen, but with Kris Dunn expected to miss a few weeks, it gives Fred Hoiberg another option at the very least. He's also former NBA All-Star Steve Smith's cousin, should you believe in the power of basketball families. 

In a corresponding move, the Bulls waived Diamond Stone and preseason hero, Jarell Eddie. 

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

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AP

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

When your team is no longer in playoff contention it's always a good time to look forward. The Bulls finally have a direction after trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and will go to a youth movement to build the talent pool back up. And with free agency pretty much wrapped up (although Derrick Rose is making noise) it's time to look at where Fred Hoiberg's group stands among the teams looking for the most ping-pong balls on Lottery night next May.

The numbers in parentheses are the projected over-under win totals in Las Vegas:

Brooklyn Nets (20.5 wins)

The good news? Brooklyn had an excellent offseason. The bad news? It's going to take way more than one good string of moves to fix this mess. In dealing Brook Lopez and a first-round pick for D'Angelo Russell, the Nets gave away their best player for one with a bright future. Drafting Jarrett Allen was another solid move, but he's barely 19 and is more of a project than anything right now. Taking on DeMarre Carroll's and Timofey Mozgov's contracts provide them more talent, but neither should get much playing time during the youth movement. It may be tough for this team to get to 20 wins.

Phoenix Suns (25.5 wins)

There might not be a better young core in the Western Conference than in Phoenix. With Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson (all lottery picks) leading the way, there's optimism about the Suns' future. It just might not lead to many victories in 2017-18. Bender is 19 and the others are 20, and veterans Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are prime trade candidates. Phoenix is going somewhere, but expect them to pick in the top 3 a year from now.

Chicago Bulls (28.5 wins)

It's difficult right now to project how many wins the Bulls will tally. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic is still unsigned, and there are questions about whether Dwyane Wade will be bought out at some point during the season. Zach LaVine's timetable on returning from ACL surgery is still unknown, and the Bulls will take a cautious approach in bringing him back. Robin Lopez could also be dealt at some point. The young guns are going to get all the run they can handle, helping the rebuild while not doing much in the win department.

Sacramento Kings (30.5 wins)

The Kings went 8-17 after dealing DeMarcus Cousins, which projects to a 26-win season over an 82-game span. The good news is Scott Perry made this roster a whole lot better before leaving for the Knicks. Drafting De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason III, and signing George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph has this roster looking as deep as it's been in quite some time. They're in the West, which makes things more difficult, but they're a good bet to make serious improvement in 2017.

Indiana Pacers (31.5 wins)

Like the Bulls, the Pacers began their rebuilding phase after dealing a star in Paul George. Indiana grabbed an established two-way guard in Victor Oladipo (25 years old) and 21-year-old Domantas Sabonis, Potential trade candidates are Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic. Myles Turner is a budding star, while young players in T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Glenn Robinson III will get plenty of playing time. Those four matchups against the Bulls could loom large as far as the Lottery balls are concerned.

Los Angeles Lakers (32.5 wins)

It looks like the Lakers hit on both their first-round draft picks, as Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma had monster Summer Leagues. Add Brook Lopez, who was outstanding last season, to a talented young core and it appears the Lakers are trending in the right direction. It wouldn't be surprising to see Los Angeles compete for a playoff spot. Plus, the Lakers have no incentive to tank, as their first-round pick in 2018 will go to Philadelphia or Boston. Expect them to move past the Bulls in the win total.

New York Knicks (32.5 wins)

Not sure about this one. It still seems there's a good chance Carmelo Anthony gets dealt, and depending on what they get back in a deal their second best player (behind Kristaps Porzingis) will be $71 million man Tim Hardaway Jr. They won 31 games a year ago, and it's hard to imagine they're better without Anthony, regardless of how inefficient he's become.

Atlanta Hawks (34.5 wins)

No team in the league took a bigger hit from where they were a year ago to now than the Hawks. After winning 43 wins and earning the No. 5 seed in the East, Atlanta lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. to free agency and traded Dwight Howard. Essentially it's Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and a ton of question marks. Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry and rookie John Collins are a good core, but this is going to be an ugly season in the ATL.

Dallas Mavericks (34.5 wins)

We'll go ahead and assume restricted free agent Nerlens Noel returns. So, too, is Dirk Nowitzki back for another year, and the Mavs look like they have a steal in rookie Dennis Smith Jr. They've entered a rebuild, which owner Mark Cuban admitted, but their talent across the board might be enough to get them to the 33 wins they had a year ago. Playing in the West makes it more difficult to project, but they should tally more wins than the Bulls simply on their talent pool.

Orlando Magic (34.5 wins)

This Las Vegas win total is a little confusing. Orlando made nice moves in the offseason, drafting Jonathan Isaac and signing Jonathon Simmons. But that's about it, and the Magic were lucky to win 29 games a year ago. True, they're in a depleted Eastern Conference but it's hard to see Frank Vogel turning around the franchise this quickly. That being said, their young players (Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon) have NBA experience, so maybe they make a jump and it results in wins.