Lonzo Ball

NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

With Zach LaVine set to make his debut Saturday at the United Center against the Pistons, Bulls fans will now get a chance to watch one of the most athletic players in the league. Matter of fact, LaVine was voted the third most athletic player in the NBA as part of the annual preseason survey of general managers, even more impressive considering he was coming off ACL surgery.

LaVine joked with reporters on Tuesday that he was ready to play “two months ago,” but the reality is the Bulls have every reason to be conservative with getting him back into game action, given their past experience with Derrick Rose and the fact the franchise currently is in Year 1 of a rebuild. The front office will get a chance to gauge how LaVine fits with the rest of the players on the roster over the final 40 games, but barring another injury, it's unlikely anything LaVine does will change his status as the face of the franchise in the wake of last summer's Jimmy Butler trade.

The immediate impact of LaVine's return will be seen in the Bulls' offense. Head coach Fred Hoiberg says he started tweaking his system over the summer with LaVine's skillset in mind, and can't wait to run high pick-and-roll plays with LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to force defenses into no-win situations. Most fans are familiar with LaVine as a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion, but he made tremendous improvement as a 3-point shooter last season in Minnesota, converting at a nearly 39-percent clip before suffering the ACL injury in early February. He's also capable of creating shots off the dribble on need possessions with his quickness and leaping ability.

LaVine will be limited to 20 minutes a game at the outset, and John Paxson made it clear there won't be any leeway for the coaching staff to go beyond that limit to get him back into a close game late. The plan is to increase LaVine's minutes slightly each week leading up to the All-Star break as his conditioning improves.

Adding a player of LaVine's talent and skill level will undoubtedly help the Bulls win some of the close games they let slip away in the first half of the season, so it's fair to wonder if we should expect more roster tweaking before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. We've seen Nikola Mirotic's name being bandied about in trade rumors nationally, and it's no secret the Bulls will listen to trade offers for the fourth-year forward, who currently leads the team in scoring.

It's also possible other veterans could be paired with Mirotic in trade discussions, including Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant. The Jazz, Trail Blazers and Pistons are among the teams reportedly showing interest in Mirotic, with contending teams like the Rockets, Celtics, Raptors and Spurs also expected to check in. With the trade deadline moved up to before the All-Star break this season, it's possible the Bulls' roster will have a much different look for the final 25 to 30 games.

Still, with LaVine back in the rotation to go along with the two other promising young players acquired in the Butler trade, Markkanen and Kris Dunn, the Bulls are likely headed to at least 25 wins this season, which probably will put them somewhere between Nos. 5 and 10 in the ranking of the NBA's worst records and corresponding lottery odds. So, they'll have to get lucky on lottery night to snatch one of the top three picks for a shot at foundation talents like Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

No one said rebuilding is easy. Just look at teams like the Kings, 76ers, Suns, Magic, Knicks, Nets and even the mighty Lakers, who have been picking high in the draft for several years and are still struggling to make an upward move in the standings. The Bulls got a big head start on their rebuilding project by acquiring three young, high-quality starters in the Butler trade, but it looks like the next moves will be a little trickier to execute.

Around the Association

With the trade deadline now less than a month away, we're hearing more rumors about players who could be on the move. Mirotic is one of the most popular names league-wide, but he's not the only player hearing his name mentioned in trade discussions.

There's a lot of speculation right now about what the Clippers will do with veteran center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has a player option for next season at just over $24 million, and given the fact very few teams will have cap room this summer, it's unlikely he'll be able to command a long-term deal at that salary figure on the open market. So, do the Clippers roll the dice and assume he'll opt of his contract for next season? Or do they trade him now to eliminate the risk of having Jordan walk away in free agency and get nothing in return?

The Bucks reportedly are anxious to upgrade at the center position for the playoffs, and it's possible the Cavs might put in a bid for Jordan to give them another impact defender for the expected matchup with Golden State in the Finals. Matching the money on Jordan's $22.6 million salary won't be easy for any team, but as we've learned over the years, general managers can get pretty creative on multi-team trades to land a player they really want.

The Magic have been a huge disappointment after getting off to an 8-4 start. Injuries are part of the reason for the Magic's annual collapse, but with a new front office in place, it might be time to start exploring trades for some of the young players who were supposed to be the core of a revival in Orlando, including Nic Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.

Fournier in particular has generated a lot of interest around the league, even with two more years at $17 million, plus a player option for 2020-21 remaining on his contract. Hezonja will be a free agent this summer and could be a second-tier player the Bulls look at as an affordable wing option for next season. Payton has been a disappointment, and the Magic could look to upgrade at the point guard position in the 2018 draft with potential stars like Young and Collin Sexton expected to go in the top 10.

Who else could be dealt before Feb. 8? The Hawks currently own the league's worst record and are in full-on tank mode, so they would be happy to unload veterans like Kent Bazemore, Ersan Ilyasova and former Bull Marco Belinelli.

The Mavericks are also hoping to sink to the bottom, which means a high-priced veteran shooter like Wesley Matthews is very much available. The Grizzlies are getting surprising production from the oft-injured Tyreke Evans, but they are having a terrible season so they might look to flip the veteran swingman for a future asset.

And, let's not forget about the Lakers, who are looking to free up cap room for their summer pursuit of free agents LeBron James and Paul George. It appears no team is willing to take on the two and a half years remaining on the ridiculous four-year contract they gave Luol Deng back in the Wild West summer of 2016, but they could find a market for combo guard Jordan Clarkson (who's owed more than $25 million for the next two seasons) and young forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.

The Lakers don't own their first-round pick this year, so Magic Johnson plans to go all in on free agency, hoping to convince James or George to bring their star power to the L.A. market. But first, Magic has to whittle down the payroll, and that could make the Lakers one of the most intriguing teams to watch over the next month.

Quote of the week

Speaking of the Lakers, coach Luke Walton found himself in the crossfire as bombastic LaVar Ball held court with ESPN during his made-for-television reality show centering on his two younger sons playing professional basketball in Lithuania.

LaVar Ball told Jeff Goodman that Walton had lost the team and didn't know how to coach his oldest son, Lonzo, who was selected No. 2 overall by the Lakers in the 2017 draft.

Walton took the high road in responding to the comments, but when asked after the next game the Lakers played why he took Lonzo out so early in the first quarter, he offered this beauty: "His dad was talking s---, so I took him out early." Two seconds later he smiled and said, "Just kidding."

Or was he? Safe to say the LaVar-Lakers drama isn't going away any time soon.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

It'd be a stretch to say that any rookie is having a better or more impactful season than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The Sixers are 9-7, and Simmons looks like a 10-year veteran with his decision making, athleticism and all-around feel for the game. He's the frontrunner for MVP, but there are two other rookies vying to catch Simmons and win that title. And they'll face each other tomorrow night in Los Angeles.

Lonzo Ball was the second pick in June's NBA Draft, and fellow Pac-12 freshman standout Lauri Markkanen went five picks later to the Bulls, who had traded up as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Both players were drafted to rebuilding franchises - the Lakers still working out the kinks in the post-Kobe era, and the Bulls beginning their rebuild after dealing Butler - and were expected to make immediate impacts on their franchises.

Ball's was more pronounced, as the Lakers dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Nets on draft night to free up space at the point for their prized No. 2 pick. Markkanen's came more abruptly, as the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic's fight put Mirotic in the hospital and Portis on paid leave. However they got there, both players have been impressive in their early NBA careers.

Starting with Markkanen, the Bulls knew the 7-foot stretch forward was a perfect build for the modern NBA. He set freshman 3-point and rebounding records that, since 1992, only some guy named Kevin Durant had reached. After a successful summer in Eurobasket he was set for a large role with the Bulls, and he's succeeded in just about every aspect. His 15.6 points per game are third only to Simmons and the other Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, and his 8.1 rebounds are second to Simmons. And his 2.6 made 3-pointers per game are most among rookies, and well past No. 2 on the list (Utah's Donovan Mitchell, 1.9 per game).

In fact, Markkanen would become the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 3-pointers per game. The 2.5 3-pointers would break a rookie record currently held by Damian Lillard (2.3 per game). The closest a rookie has ever come to reaching those marks was Stephen Curry, who averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie. Allen Iverson also met the 4/2 threshold, but that's a far cry from Markkanen's 8/2.5 mark. Paul Pierce's rookie season saw him average 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers.

But that's not all. If he kept those averages up he would be just the fifth player EVER to accomplish those thresholds. The others are James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Antonie Walker, who naturally did it twice.

So, yeah, Markkanen is having quite a rookie year.

So, too, is Ball. While he's had some real issues with efficiency, slashing .313/.228/.462 and has committed 2.6 turnovers per game, his counting stats have been outstanding. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and that puts him in equally impressive company.

Simmons has reached those numbers this season, too, averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists. You may have heard of the other two players, named Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

The two future Hall of Famers averaged these numbers:

Robertson: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (missing averaging a triple-double for the season by 20 assists)

Johnson: 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists

Ball is also averaging 0.9 blocks, and no other rookie guard has ever accomplished that. It might not always look pretty for Markkanen and Ball as they feel their way out in the NBA, but just remember watching these two that they're in the midst of making history in the new era of the NBA.