Trae Young

NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Unless the Bulls are able to defy the odds in the NBA Draft lottery on May 15, it looks like they’ll be picking in the 7-9 range this June. So, if you’re just joining the college basketball party with the start of the NCAA Tournament, here are some players you should keep an eye on as possible Bulls’ draft targets.

Mikal Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Villanova — Bridges is your classic “3 and D” guy who brings so much value in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA. Bridges is already an accomplished defender with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and he’s been at his best in the most important games. He would be a good fit at small forward with the Bulls playing alongside Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.

Kevin Knox, 6-foot-9, SF, Kentucky — Knox wasn’t able to put together eye-popping stats playing for an erratic, freshmen-filled Kentucky team. But when you watch him play, he reminds you of Chicago native Jabari Parker; a big powerful small forward who can overpower defenders in the post. Knox has the potential to develop into a consistent NBA scorer.

Miles Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Michigan St. — Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives by coming back for his sophomore season, even though he would have been a lottery pick last year. Bridges looks more comfortable from the 3-point line this season, but he’s more of a fast-break finisher than a polished offensive player.

Collin Sexton, 6-foot-2, PG. Alabama — The Bulls really don’t need a point guard with Dunn, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne all signed for next season, but try to take your eyes off the electrifying Sexton. He possesses that extra gear that you only see in the special point guards like Russell Westbrook, John Wall and a pre-injuries Derrick Rose.

Trae Young, 6-foot-2, PG, Oklahoma — The Sooners only got into the NCAA field because of Young, who was the darling of college basketball when he was putting up 30-point, 10-assist games on a consistent basis during the early part of the season. Young’s shooting range is reminiscent of Steph Curry, but teams have reduced his effectiveness with aggressive off-the-ball defense.

Wendell Carter, 6-foot-10, PF, Duke — Again, not a position of need for the Bulls, but Carter showed his inside scoring potential in the four games Marvin Bagley missed because of a knee injury. Could Carter play small ball 5 alongside Markkanen? That will be one of the questions Bulls executives will be pondering while watching Duke in the tournament.

Lonnie Walker, 6-foot-4, SG, Miami — When you’re watching Chicago’s lone NCAA qualifier, Loyola, play in Round 1, keep an eye on Walker (actually you can’t miss him with his very distinctive hairstyle). Scouts love his ability to create his own shot, and he’s one of those classic upside guys that always seem to get over drafted.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-foot-6, PG, Kentucky — Another player who’s shooting up NBA draft boards based on his athleticism and ability to create off the dribble. Gilgeous-Alexander is painfully thin, but he does remind you a bit of Penny Hardaway with his size and shot-making ability at the point guard position.

Around the Association

Injuries continue to be a big story in the 2017-18 season. Boston has been hit especially hard, starting on opening night when free agent addition Gordon Hayward went out with a gruesome ankle injury.

Kyrie Irving carried the Celtics to the best record in the East for the first half of the season with MVP-caliber play, but now Irving is faced with missing several games because of knee soreness. And, if Irving isn’t healthy come playoff time, the Celtics are likely to be knocked out early.

Boston also lost valuable depth this week because of a season-ending injury suffered by rookie big man Daniel Theis and another injury to valuable wing defender Marcus Smart, this time a torn thumb ligament that could have Smart sidelined for several weeks. Add in the concussion suffered by Jaylen Brown in that frightening fall last week, and the Celtics find themselves with a depleted roster for the final 4 weeks of the regular season.

— That means Toronto will most likely finish with the number one seed in the East, and with the Cavs slumping again, they could wind up facing the Raptors in a second round series. Toronto and Boston would love to avoid the Cavs until the conference finals, especially with Kevin Love returning to the line-up soon to give Cleveland a reliable second scoring option alongside LeBron James. Surprising Indiana currently holds a slim lead over Cleveland for third place in the East, but a lot could change over the final month.

— The race for playoff positioning is taking a back seat to the massive tank-a-thon going on at the bottom of the standings. In case you haven’t been watching, wins are scarce these days for the bottom nine teams with all of them hoping to land a top three pick for a shot at franchise-changing bigs Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. The Knicks have completely given up since the season-ending injury suffered by Kristaps Porzingis, and it probably won’t be long before they pass the Bulls for eighth place in the race to the bottom.

— Finally, here’s hoping Derrick Rose can find a meaningful role in Minnesota after reuniting with Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson (among other former Bulls’ players and coaches). Rose turned the ball over a couple times in a 7-minute debut on Sunday against Golden State, but I don’t think Thibodeau would have brought in the former league MVP unless he planned to give him a serious look off the bench. Rose had a harsh response to critics who think he’s washed up at the age of 29, but if he can’t make it work playing for Thibs again, his NBA future could be in serious jeopardy.

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.

NBA Draft prospect Trae Young has tied a Stacey King record

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft prospect Trae Young has tied a Stacey King record

While the Bulls winning run of late may tempt the front office to alter its long-term plans, the upcoming draft class remains the focus of many NBA fans.

The elite talent category seems to be growing with the likes of Marvin Bagley Jr., Mo Bamba, DeAndre Ayton and Trae Young doing big things in college as freshmen (that doesn't even include the injured Michael Porter Jr. and Slovenian prospect Luka Doncic). Young dropped 39 points and 14 assists in a 90-89 win at previously undefeated TCU on Saturday.

That was his 11th straight game with 20 points or more. The last Sooner to do that? Former Bulls forward and current announcer Stacey King.

King took note of Young's accomplishment:

Young is averaging 28.7 points per game and the only game in which he didn't score 20 or more was his collegiate debut (he still had 15 points and 10 assists in that one). The 6-foot-2 guard has rapidly climbed up draft boards with his stellar play. For more on Young, check out Mark Schanowski's draft profile of him.

The Bulls may not be losing enough lately to have a chance to draft Young, but plenty of Bulls fans would love to hear King yell "Gimme that hot sauce!" in reference to a fellow Sooner next year.