There was bound to be significant change in the Bulls frontcourt following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow injury late last month. And while the Bulls ended a generally disappointing preseason on a similar note Friday night, the continued impressive play from the newly appointed starting frontcourt can’t be overlooked.
Wendell Carter Jr. and Bobby Portis were two of the few bright spots in an ugly 98-93 loss to the Nuggets. And what 10 days ago appeared to be a serious weakness has now become a promising feature to a Bulls roster beginning the regular season in six days.
The duo started for a second consecutive game and showed and in-and-out chemistry offense, fluidity with a backcourt that at times played sloppy, and most importantly a defensive presence they’ll have to rely on.
Carter, matched up against blossoming superstar Nikola Jokic, more than held his own. His 10 points on 4 of 8 shooting included a turnaround jumper on the baseline, soft touch around the rim and a sequence in which he grabbed a defensive rebound, beat Jokic down the floor in transition and drew two foul shots. It was an impressive array of moves from a player expected to be a fourth option in the starting lineup. What’s more, he grabbed four offensive rebounds and three assists, tied with Kris Dunn for the most of any starter.
Defensively he couldn’t have been better. Though Jokic got the best of him at times, Carter’s overall play was a sight for sore eyes. He battled with Jokic on the blow block, picked his pocket for one of his two steals and in the second half contested a Gary Harris reverse layup with a verticality reminiscent of a 10-year veteran. Later in that third quarter he was switched on to point guard Jamal Murary, who couldn’t shake the rookie and forced a contested fadeaway that missed short.
“I thought Wendell was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “His length bothers shooters.”
And it hasn’t been against nobodies. Jokic was hardly the first difficult cover of the year for the Duke product. He squared off against Anthony Davis in his professional debut, took Julius Randle 1-on-1 and also faced Myles Turner in his first “start” against the Pacers.
“The art of verticality, he’s got it down in the paint where he goes straight up to affect shots at the rim. And he’s running the floor extremely well for a 7-footer. He’s continuing to get more comfortable out there. The more reps he’s getting against these really good players I thought he’s handled it well.”
Portis has been just as good. Though his shot wasn’t falling – 5 of 12 and missed all three triples – he was arguably the Bulls’ most impressive performer throughout the preseason. He spent the majority of those minutes playing with Carter, whether it was on the second unit (the first three games) or the starting lineup (the final two).
That chemistry has made it an easy transition to the starting lineup. Hoiberg said before the season began that Portis would be helped on the second unit by Carter’s presence, allowing Portis to play more power forward after he spent 47 percent of his minutes a year ago at center.
“I think they play well together. I think Bobby’s a guy that can knock down a shot and when he goes down to the block, Bobby a lot of times he’ll run first post in transition,” Hoiberg said. “Wendell does a good job of playing off him, playing underneath the backboard and playing in the dunker spot. So he’s a high IQ player. Very, very smart.”
It was also a positive to see Jabari Parker thrive off the bench in the team’s final tune-up before Philadelphia. After commenting that he wasn’t sure how he would adjust to coming off the bench, Parker scored 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting and looked comfortable with reserve Cameron Payne, who assisted Parker twice. Parker finding comfort on the second unit is paramount for Portis to remain on the first unit.
If there’s anything that will keep Carter off the floor it’s his foul trouble. He was once again limited by fouls, though battling an offensive juggernaut like Jokic is no easy task. Carter had at least three personal fouls in each of the five preseason games, including four in two of those. Such is life for a 19-year-old rookie rim protector. They’ll be learning experiences for him, and having a veteran in Robin Lopez to provide help in such situations will be beneficial.
But Lopez showed his age Friday, just as he did most of the preseason. He finished with four points and one rebound in 17 minutes, and twice Jokic took him out to the 3-point line and buried triples on pick-and-pop action. Lopez has value, but it’s clear teams are going to attack his slow foot speed.
And when Markkanen eventually returns in late November or early December, Portis will shift back into a reserve role, presumably with Parker. That presumes the Bulls have given up on the experiment of playing Parker at small forward. But Portis has experience playing center, like he did alongside Nikola Mirotic last season.
There weren’t copious positives that came from the Bulls’ preseason, but the emergence of Portis and Carter as a viable frontcourt option was one of them. Though Hoiberg did not anoint the two of them as starters for Thursday’s tilt against the Sixers, their play the last two games – and really the whole preseason – speaks for itself. The Bulls accomplished their goal of finding a solution with Markkanen on the mend.