Cubs

Ask Aggrey: Is Deng being overplayed?

728092.png

Ask Aggrey: Is Deng being overplayed?

Being a transplant to the Windy City, it always surprises me how spoiled fans in Chicago can be. Maybe it's the Cubs' lack of success -- hey, I live on the South Side -- or more than likely, the six titles the Bulls won a couple of decades ago, but between three losses to start the month of April, Derrick's injury saga and Thibs' contract, it feels like there's some overcompensating for the lack of drama all season.

The Bulls still have the best record in the NBA, Rose is back on the court and if you think Thibodeau or the organization is distracted by contract-extension talks (or lack thereof), no disrespect to C.J. Watson, John Lucas III or Mike James, you're probably in the crowd that wanted to trade the reigning MVP after they beat the Heat without him. Life is good right now, people, so be thankful Dwight Howard isn't in Chicago and enjoy this week's mailbag.

Has Thibs overplayed Deng this season? I have a bad feeling that when the playoffs are in full swing, Deng's legs will give out, and his shot won't fall as it has during the regular season. -- Michael C.

Michael, if you were talking about any other player, I'd agree with you. Lu, however, has truly thrived under Thibs and although it's a running joke that he plays too many minutes, he responds on a nightly basis, even when he doesn't have gaudy statistics. Lu has talked to me about when Thibs was first hired, how he visited Lu in the offseason to see his new player's summer conditioning program, got excited about the work ethic he was seeing and told Lu to get prepared to play major minutes last season, as well as being utilized differently than he ever had been before.

The results speak for themselves and the way he's adjusted his game since his left-wrist injury to remain effective has been remarkable. This is a guy who basically plays year-round, with the Bulls making deep playoff runs and his commitment to the British national team, so while his jumper could come and go at times, I don't see his effort waning and with his versatility, he'll still find ways to contribute. Trust me, if it hasn't been a problem so far, then conditioning won't be an issue for Lu in the postseason.
Which team would provide the best first round matchup for the Bulls? And what about the worst? -- Phillip P.

Phillip, I don't know how realistic it is, even with all of their recent turmoil, but I'd say Orlando would be the best opening-round opponent for the Bulls. The Magic's obvious lack of cohesiveness right now makes them easy prey and unless their shooters are having one of those ridiculous games from three-point range -- which happens semi-regularly, but isn't likely to occur enough against the Bulls' defense to win a series -- they are ill-equipped to beat the Bulls in a seven-game series, even if everything was peaches and cream in the Magic Kingdom these days.

However, both Orlando and Atlanta -- another team I don't think the Bulls would mind facing in the first round -- have enough separation from the seventh and eighth seeds to likely avoid either the Bulls or the Heat in the first round. Even before Sunday's loss to New York, I was wary of the new-look Knicks -- with or without Jeremy Lin, who probably won't be back in time -- and while Philadelphia has been experiencing their own freefall lately, the Sixers' style of play has given the Bulls problems in the past. Philly's weakness, a go-to scorer, is now no longer an issue for another candidate, Milwaukee, now that they have Monta Ellis, but of those three likely opponents, I believe the Knicks are the most dangerous potential foe.

I'm hearing some things about Tom Thibodeau's contract, do you think he will get an extension from the Bulls soon? -- Nick E.

Nick, if by "soon," you mean after the playoffs, my answer is...maybe? The Bulls have done things a certain way with coaches for some time now, going back to Phil Jackson. Scott Skiles was a bit of an anomaly and the decision to extend him for big money, in the view of the organization, backfired. With the likes of Michael Jordan and Rose leading the Bulls to success during team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's tenure, it's no shock that star players are viewed more highly than star coaches.

On the other hand, Thibs is clearly a major factor in the Bulls' ascent the past two seasons. With a Coach of the Year award under his belt -- not that the honor means much moving forward, if you check the track record of several recent winners -- and more importantly, the respect of a lot of people around the league, even a guy who had to wait 20 years for his first NBA head-coaching opportunity appreciates the fact that he can get another job elsewhere. At the same time, Thibs is a student of the game, understands what a great market Chicago is and knows how lucky he is to be coaching not only Rose, but a team that's a contender now and will be in the future.

That said, the Bulls could always decide to play hard ball and pick up his option for next season without offering a new deal -- a situation that's not uncommon among NBA coaches, as the likes of the Thunder's Scott Brooks and the Mavericks' Rick Carlisle are in the same boat -- but at the end of the day, Thibs wants to win and knows Chicago is as good as a place to do it as anywhere else, while the Bulls have the same goal and with the man on the sidelines being at or near the top of his profession, they know there's not really an upgrade available.

How good do you think Anthony Davis will be in the NBA? -- Barry W.

Barry, I think Anthony will be a very good pro in time, but I'll hold off from the Hall of Fame predictions for now. However, right off the bat, he'll have an immediate impact as a shot-blocking specialist, and I expect him to be one of the league's elite defensive talents early in his career. Offensively, I think he's better than a lot of observers believe. Forget the whole transformation from a 6-foot-2 guard to a 6-foot-10 athletic freak in a year thing for a second: Anthony's ability to run the floor, catch and finish will immediately pay dividends in the wide-open NBA.

He'll clearly have to get stronger, but he's shown the ability to knock down open mid-range jumpers and as one NBA assistant coach told me, "he'll be able to play the pick-and-pop game from Day 1," not to mention the fact that if he plays with guards or wings who can command double teams off screen-and-roll situations, they can simply throw the ball up to the rim and watch him go get it in certain situations.

That said, while I believe he has more perimeter skills, particularly off the dribble, than he was able to display with a perimeter-heavy offense loaded with talent at Kentucky, he certainly has a ways to go in terms of developing his back-to-the-basket game. Because of his college coach and style of play in his brief career, he's drawn comparisons to Marcus Camby -- I think he'll become a better scorer than Camby, but if he has a similar NBA career, he'll have nothing to be disappointed about, though the expectations that come with being the likely No. 1 overall pick will surely bring a share of detractors if that occurs -- but his upside might be more like that of Kevin Garnett's. Anthony has a long way to go before that happens, but his agility, defensive acumen and natural guard skills do remind me of a young KG.
Derrick Rose is such a fierce competitor...what is his mental state like during his current injury issues? -- Rick F.

Rick, before Derrick's return Sunday, it was evident that he was extremely frustrated by his injury situation. We're talking about a player who goes at full tilt all the time and has never been sidelined for long stretches of time. Thus, this entire injury-riddled season, let alone 12 consecutive games during the stretch run of the campaign, was very difficult for him to deal with. His annoyance with the media's constant questions and outside speculation was obvious, but to his credit, he handled the situation as well as he could and as soon as it was possible, it appeared that he jumped into each subsequent stage of the rehab process with the same abandon with which he attacks the basket.

Both Thibs and Derrick talked about the silver lining to him having to miss games -- he'll be well-rested for the postseason and he got a chance to study tendencies of teammates and opponents alike -- but it was clear Sunday that he's relieved to be back on the court. Sunday's game wasn't particularly smooth for him, but as the game progressed, more flashes of the player we've come to know began to appear and I believe that he'll be back to his previous form sooner than later.

Marlon Byrd on PED suspensions: 'You can make a mistake on purpose or on accident'

marlon-byrd-522.jpg
NBC Sports Chicago

Marlon Byrd on PED suspensions: 'You can make a mistake on purpose or on accident'

Six players on Major League Baseball rosters have been suspended twice for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Marlon Byrd, one of the players in that infamous group, has to live with that for the rest of his career. The 40-year-old talked about that on Baseball Night in Chicago on NBC Sports Chicago.

“Anybody that goes through this, it’s a part of their career,” Byrd said. “That’s it. This is a part of my career. Not testing positive once, but testing positive twice. I will always have to answer the question because it is a part of my 15-year major league career and always will. The easiest way to answer it is to tell the truth that way you can do it over and over and over again. Once you start telling fibs or telling lies you start holding onto something that’s not the truth.”

Byrd signed a 3-year deal with the Cubs ahead of the 2010 season. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in April of 2012. Byrd’s first suspension came on June 25, 2012. He was suspended for 50 games. In 2016, he received his second suspension on June 1 and retired after the suspension.

Byrd was asked about his view on the recent Robinson Cano suspension, which will cost the Mariners’ second baseman 80 games. He spoke from personal experience when explaining what can happen with PED use.

“You can make a mistake on purpose or on accident,” Byrd said. “Some guys make it on accident. Some guys make it on purpose. There’s nobody up here that can talk about this better than I can because I’ve done it twice. One time on purpose, one time on accident. To speak for another man and what he went through is tough. Did Robinson do it or not? Only he knows. Nobody else is going to know, but what you have to do is take your suspension.”

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

chandler-hutchison.jpg
USA TODAY

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

Bulls Twitter went on high alert after last week's national report that the front office had made a "promise" to draft Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison if he was still on the board at No. 22 in the first round. Weren't the Bulls supposed to be interested in SF prospects like Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges with their own first round selection? Did a "promise" to Hutchison mean the Bulls would go with Wendell Carter, Trae Young or Collin Sexton at No. 7?

The simple answer is the Bulls haven't made any final decisions on either pick. They still plan to bring the top prospects in for workouts and interviews before June 21 and will continue to take a close look at players likely to be available in the 18-30 range.

And, like any professional sports franchise, the Bulls aren't about to confirm or deny they've made a commitment to Hutchison or any other player. Drafts are fluid, and invariably players will rise and fall throughout the workout/interview process as teams try to get their boards lined up for the big night.

The main reason a team will make a "promise" to a player is to eliminate his incentive to work out for other franchises. In the case of Hutchison, he's obviously received assurances from a team or teams that he will be drafted in the first round. Hutchison cancelled his plans to participate in last week's NBA Draft Combine, and most likely will only work out for teams drafting ahead of the franchise that said they would select him.

Jerry Krause would famously try to hide his interest in players he coveted in a particular year and persuade them not to work out for other teams. The best example came in 1987 when a little known player from Central Arkansas named Scottie Pippen became an obsession for Krause, and the Bulls GM tried everything in his power to keep Pippen under wraps. Problem is, Pippen did attend the scouting combine and quickly became the hot topic among NBA scouts and executives. It took some intense work on Krause's part to arrange for the draft night trade that brought Pippen to Chicago for Olden Polynice. Krause also added Horace Grant later in that same draft, and the foundation was built for the Bulls' first three championship teams.

So, the idea of a team making a "promise" to a player they like is certainly nothing new. What's important to understand is that doesn't guarantee the team will follow through on that promise when they're on the clock. Back in 2013, the Bulls got word to Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng they were interested in taking him with their No. 20 pick in round one. But when the Bulls were on the clock, the front office decided they would rather have New Mexico swingman Tony Snell who was ranked higher on their draft board. The Bulls drafted Snell, much to Dieng and his agent's surprise. Dieng wound up going to Utah with the next pick and was traded to Minnesota. He's still with that franchise today, although in a reduced role after the Timberwolves signed Taj Gibson as a free agent last summer.

With so much uncertainty in this year's draft, it seems unlikely the Bulls would "promise" to select Hutchison five weeks before the selection process was going to begin. Hutchison and his agent most likely received assurances from NBA executives that he would be drafted in the 20-30 range, and that was enough to get him to drop out of the combine. But just like in 2013, if the Bulls see a player ranked higher on their draft board fall to 22, that's the player they're going to take.

Hutchison is a good prospect, a 3-and-D player who would fit well with the team the Bulls are building. But he's also a 22-year-old senior without the upside of some of the younger prospects who might be available with the Bulls' pick late in Round 1. Both Hutchison and the Bulls have to reserve the right to protect their own best interests. Hutchison will most likely agree to work out for teams drafting earlier than 22, and he'll have to understand if the Bulls decide to go a different direction on draft night, no matter what kind of previous discussions his agent may have had with the front office.

At this point in the pre-draft process, a "promise" can only be seen as a team's legitimate interest in a given player and an indicator of how the first round is likely to play out. But a lot can and will change before Phoenix goes on the clock on June 21.

Combine notes

Since most of the projected first round picks do little or nothing at the combine, it's left to the second-round guys to try to improve their draft stock with a strong showing in the scrimmage games. Last year, it was Kyle Kuzma working his way into the first round with a dazzling performance at the combine, and this year, the big winner might be Villanova shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo.

The NCAA Tournament hero impressed everyone with his athleticism on both ends and his ability to knock down open shots. DiVincenzo told me his 31-point performance in the title game against Michigan convinced him he had what it takes to apply for early entry, and his strong showing last week probably convinced him to hire an agent and remain in the draft.

Much like Kuzma, DiVincenzo had been projected as a likely second-round pick before the combine. Now he's looked at as a probable first rounder, going somewhere in the 20-30 range, which means he's likely headed to a good team that can ease his transition to the pro game. Not bad for a guy who came off the bench most of the season for the eventual NCAA champs and probably never imagined he would be leaving early for the NBA until that magical night in San Antonio.

----

Other players who improved their draft stock last week include USC combo guard De’Anthony Melton, Maryland swingman Kevin Huerter, Tulane shooting guard Melvin Frazier, Cincinnati swingman Jacob Evans and another Villanova product, point guard Jalen Brunson.

Brunson didn't play in the scrimmages in Chicago, but he showed well in the physical testing, displaying the kind of athleticism every team is looking for at the point guard position. It looks like Brunson will definitely be a first round pick.

Similar story for Evans, who averaged a modest 13 points a game for a top 10 Cincinnati team, but impressed the NBA execs at the combine with his tenacious defensive play and offensive potential. Evans could be a possibility for the Bulls at 22.

Maryland's Huerter showed scouts he's more than just a standstill 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just under 15 points a game last season, shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range. Huerter's solid play at the combine gives him a chance to be drafted at the end of Round 1.

Frazier also showed enough in games last week to have his name called among the top 30 picks. At 6-foot-6, he has excellent size at the shooting guard position. Frazier averaged just under 16 points a game during his junior season at Tulane, shooting almost 56 percent from the field.

----

But the most interesting story involves Melton, who was held out by USC last season because of his connection to the FBI's investigation of corruption in college basketball. Melton maintained his innocence all along, and said the university was just doing what it had to do, fearing additional trouble with the NCAA over allegations a friend of Melton's had accepted money to try to steer Melton to an agent.

Still, even without playing competitively last season, Melton probably cemented a first round selection with his play at the combine. The 6-foot-4 combo guard flashed on both ends, scoring 15 points in a game last Friday playing alongside DiVincenzo in the backcourt.

Melton told USA Today he compares himself to other two-way standouts like Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard and Avery Bradley. That's some pretty impressive company. Melton might be worth the investment of that No. 22 pick by the Bulls.

----

Kudos to all the players who took part in the two days of media interviews last week. Almost all of them came off poised and well prepared. Among the top ten picks, I was especially impressed with Michael Porter Jr., who patiently answered all the questions about his back surgery and confidently said he considered himself the best player in the draft without sounding cocky.

Of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young also proclaimed themselves the best player in the draft, and projected top 10 picks Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton also came across as supremely confident.

The latest Basketball Insiders Mock Draft has the Bulls taking Bamba at 7 and Chandler Hutchison at 22, which would make the front office and a lot of Bulls fans very happy. But just to show you the wide range in how draft experts are evaluating the top prospects, Basketball Insiders currently has Jackson Jr. going 11 to Charlotte, and it's hard for me to imagine him staying on the board past four.

Brace yourself for all kinds of wild speculation over the next four weeks.

----

Finally, May 22 turned out to be quite a day for Lauri Markkanen. Not only is Markkanen celebrating his 21st birthday, but he found out he was voted to the NBA's All-Rookie first team after averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Markkanen joined Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma from the extremely talented 2017-18 rookie class.

And the second team isn't bad either with Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Given Markkanen's talent and work ethic, it's very easy to see him making multiple All-Star Game appearances down the line. The Bulls can only hope they come up with another foundation player like Markkanen when they draft seventh for the second year in a row.