Bulls

Bulls player preview: Adam Mokoka an intriguing prospect

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USA TODAY

Bulls player preview: Adam Mokoka an intriguing prospect

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter | Denzel Valentine

How last year went

Let’s start with the Summer League. Mokoka signed a two-way contract with the Bulls prior to the start of the LVSL and wound up playing well in all five games. He averaged 9.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists, shooting 43.6% from the field and 33.3% from beyond the arc on 21 attempts. It’s cliché, but he did a little bit of everything. He looked comfortable in transition, had a pure stroke on catch-and-shoot attempts and looked the part defensively. It was a promising start in a short timeframe for an intriguing two-way guy.

Expectations for this year's role

There are two schools of thought: First, Mokoka is a 21-year-old with no NBA experience on a two-way contract. But the Bulls are also shallow at small forward and could wind up going small at times with two true shooting guards on the wing when Otto Porter isn’t in the game.

What does that mean for Mokoka? His role will be to develop in the G League, and if some combination of Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Shaq Harrison can’t stay healthy, there’s a chance Mokoka finds himself with the Bulls at some point in the regular season. If that happens, there’s an even better chance we’re discussing Lottery ping-pong balls at some point in March or April.

Where he excels

It’s tough to garner much from Mokoka’s five games in Las Vegas, but from what we can tell he’s an active, athletic slasher with an NBA body. He’s still pretty raw around the edges (like most 21-year-olds who have never played in the NBA) but understands the game well. He has solid defensive potential as a lengthy wing with good feet. He stepped into a couple above-the-break 3-pointers and shot better than his splits would lead one to believe. The solid Summer League performances shouldn’t have been a surprise, as Mokoka has been playing professionally for three seasons.

Where he struggles

Mokoka looked comfortable from beyond the arc in the Summer League, making 7 of 21 triples. But last season, which he spent with KK Mega Bemax in France, he made just 32.3% of his 130 3-point attempts, and he shot just 41.4% from the field in that span. That’s obviously troubling for a slasher, but the international game is different from the NBA. The 43.6% shooting in the Summer League was better, and it came in a variety of ways with transition layups, jumpers and drives.

For what it’s worth, he averaged 3.34 fouls per game in France last season in 28.4 minutes. Perhaps that's just a case of a young player adjusting to a new league, but regardless, that’s something he’ll likely have to work on at the next level. Those fouls were down to 2.0 in 28.8 Summer League minutes per game.

Best case/worst case

In a best-case scenario, Mokoka is able to bump up that 3-point field goal percentage to add to his athletic, slashing frame. While it may not result in minutes at the NBA level, he’d give the Bulls an intriguing young piece to consider moving forward. It seems like the defense is going to be there. If he rounds into a productive offensive player, there’s a chance for him to stick at the NBA level.

There’s no real worst-case scenario for an international 21-year-old. Mokoka is house money for the Bulls. If his efficiency never improves it’ll be tough for him to make it at the next level. For now, he’s a project (and an enticing one at that after a five-game sample size in Sin City).

One key stat

We’ll just give you Mokoka’s per game stats from last season with KK Mega Bemax: 11.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals in 28.4 minutes. He also shot 41.4% from the field and 32.3% from beyond the arc.

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Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

When the Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, John Paxson and Gar Forman talked about his rare intelligence, mental toughness and maturity for a 19-year-old prospect.

We saw signs of Carter Jr.’s leadership ability during his 44-game rookie campaign. He took the losses as hard as anyone in the locker room and spoke candidly about the need to change the mindset and focus of everyone on the roster. Carter’s first season ended early because of a broken thumb, but his emergence as a strong voice among the players was only beginning.

With the Bulls getting off to an unexpected slow start to the 2019 season, the now 20-year-old Carter has been a prominent voice in the locker room, saying the players need to feel the pain of the constant losing and do everything possible to turn things around.

Carter has certainly done his part, taking a significant step forward through the first 11 games of his second season. The former Duke star is averaging 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and has already notched seven double-doubles — the first Bulls center to accomplish that since Joakim Noah in the 2010-11 season.

After experiencing the physicality of NBA post play as a rookie, Carter put in extra work in the weight room this past summer, and showed up for training camp at a solid 265 pounds. He’s used that extra strength effectively on both ends, banging with the league’s biggest centers under the basket, while also maintaining his ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll coverage.

Carter also got advice from Bulls television analyst and former NBA player Stacey King to always run hard down the middle of the court after a change of possession to set up opportunities for easy baskets and offensive rebounds. With the Bulls playing at a faster pace this season, Carter's ability to beat opposing centers on the offensive end has already resulted in more scoring chances.

The Bulls coaching staff is still hoping Carter will develop his shooting range to the point where he can be a consistent threat from three-point territory, but at this point that’s not a high priority in the offense. Carter is outstanding in the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens and then rolling hard to the basket for lob passes. He also has the ability to pop out to the elbow area for midrange jump shots.

With all the preseason conversation focused on the possibility of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen making the jump to All-Star consideration, Carter is the player making the biggest leap early in the season. And his increased production is coming without designed plays being run for him.

The Bulls’ offense doesn’t call for multiple entry passes into the low post, but we saw during Carter’s one season at Duke that he has a nice touch shooting jump hooks from close range with either hand. Carter’s offensive game figures to expand in the coming seasons, but his skill in protecting the rim and controlling the defensive backboard already makes him extremely valuable to what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.

Plus, we already know that a competitive fire burns deep inside the 20-year-old Carter. After former teammate Bobby Portis torched the Bulls for 28 points and 11 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Carter vowed it wouldn’t happen in Tuesday’s rematch at the United Center. 

“No words need to be said. We’re not letting that happen,” Carter said to reporters. “Bobby is going to want to put on a show. I’m not going to have it. I hope he’s watching this. I ain’t having it.”

Portis’ stat line in the Bulls’ blowout win following those comments? In 19 unproductive minutes, he tallied just 7 points and 3 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting.

The Bulls’ 20-year-old locker room leader made sure he backed up his pregame comments. Now, he says he’ll look for something to fire up his teammates for every game left on the schedule.

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Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Jim Boylen has plenty of pet phrases. Role acceptance is one of them.

And if you want to get the Bulls coach rolling, ask him about Kris Dunn’s performance in that department.

“Big time. Big time,” Boylen repeated, for good measure. “He just wants to win. He’s the first guy in the breakfast room. You have to be in the building 45 minutes before [practice]. He’s in 1 hour, 45 minutes before. He does his workout 45 minutes before everybody else with Coach [Nate] Loenser. He is locked in. He cares. He always cared. And he’s playing winning basketball. I’m really happy for him.”

There may be no greater compliment from a coach to a player than to say one is playing winning basketball. Relayed Boylen’s comment, Dunn didn’t take it lightly.

“That means a lot. That’s what I try to do,” Dunn said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “I come from a winning program at Providence. I know what winning looks like. And I know what it takes to win.”

Right now, that involves Dunn accepting his role as a reserve aimed at wreaking defensive havoc on opponents. When Dunn scores 13 points, as he did in Tuesday’s victory over the Knicks, it’s a bonus.

There’s a lot going right with Dunn’s game these days. He leads the NBA with 25 steals, posting multiple steals in seven of 11 games. He has tallied 30 assists to just nine turnovers in 224 minutes, emblematic of solid decision-making. And he’s shooting 47.1 percent from the field — a figure made even more impressive by his anemic 17.6 percent shooting from 3-point range.

“I take pride in my defense,” Dunn said. “The second unit, I think we have good defenders in our group. Archie [Ryan Arcidiacono], he’s a dog. Thad [Young], he’s a dog. Coby [White], he’s a dog. I could go on and on. We try to come in and bring great energy and try to maintain the lead or, if we’re down, try to get it back.”

But Dunn’s biggest area of growth has been his role acceptance. It’s not easy losing a starting job, particularly when it comes on the heels of executive vice president John Paxson publicly challenging Dunn. And then the Bulls acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign-and-trade transaction, drafted White and re-signed Arcidiacono.

Multiple outlets reported over the offseason that Dunn and his representatives wanted a change of scenery. The Bulls, league sources said in July, held trade talks with several teams, including the Grizzlies, regarding a sign-and-trade transaction for Justin Holiday.

Instead, Dunn returned. And since the first day of voluntary September workouts, he has maintained a positive attitude.

“It’s a good team we have. I just wanted to be a part of it. We have a lot of talented players, a good group of guys. I wanted to buy into what Coach is preaching, buy into the system,” Dunn said.  “All in all, I feel my game can go anywhere — starting, coming off the bench. Wherever you put me at, I’m a hooper.”

This example hasn’t been lost on young players like the rookie White.

“That’s my dog,” White told NBC Sports Chicago. “We’re part of the bench mob. Ain’t that right, KD? I love playing with KD. I know he’s going to compete at both ends. If things aren’t going well, he can turn the game around with his energy. He’s passionate. You love to play with people who play hard and want to win.

“Our relationship has grown on and off the court. He has instilled confidence in me. I haven’t been shooting it well before [Tuesday night]. KD told me to keep being aggressive and keep shooting. He’s always encouraging his teammates. When one of us does something good, he’s the first to hype us up.”

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