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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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Bulls Talk Podcast: Sports Uncovered 'I'm Back' bonus episode

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Bonus episode of “Sports Uncovered: I'm Back.” The details and telling of what led Michael Jordan to send the greatest two-word fax of all time, and its impact on the NBA and the sporting world from the people that were impacted, from Steve Kerr to Ahmad Rashad to LeBron James and more. 

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Luol Deng opens up on 2014 trade from Bulls: ‘I remember I felt betrayed’

Luol Deng opens up on 2014 trade from Bulls: ‘I remember I felt betrayed’

In a recent Instagram Live interview with Carol Tshabalala, Bulls great Luol Deng opened up about his trade from the team to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2014.

Deng stressed his gratitude for the 10-year tenure he carved out in Chicago multiple times in the conversation, and the role Tom Thibodeau played in him establishing himself as a do-it-all star in the NBA. But he was clear that he felt betrayed by the way contract negotiations and eventual trade talks played out from the management side, in part because of how much playing for the Bulls, a lifelong dream of his, meant to him in the first place.

“When I got traded, I remember I felt betrayed,” Deng told Tshabalala. “Because the guy who traded me obviously ruined the team — and I don’t mind saying that now, I would never speak about him as a person — but just the decisions that he’s made. Because it changed the whole course of what we were trying to do. When Derrick got hurt, we really felt that we were going to win a championship, but when he broke up the team, you just feel hurt because we became so close as a team. But we had a mission. And that was to wait for Derrick to get healthy and go at it again, but he decided to just break up the team.”

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Deng didn’t directly say who he was referring to over the course of the above comments, but when Tshabalala followed up to ask exactly what happened during his breakup with the Bulls, he recalled Gar Forman leading the contract deliberations that ultimately culminated in him being dealt.

“I gave up a lot of money to stay with the Bulls,” Deng said to Tshabalala, alluding to a past contract (presumably, a six-year, $71 million extension he inked as a 23-year-old in 2008) he said he signed with the team against the wishes of some in his camp, who wanted him to explore more lucrative options elsewhere. “So when they came back again for my next contract, the year before the contract, me and Thibs went in and we talked to Gar Forman, (who) at the time was the GM, and we said, I want to sign right now before the free agency comes up and other people offer money. And at the time, he said — I was 27? 28? — he told me to take another team discount.

“And I remember saying, ‘Why would I take another team discount? Why is there a discount again?’ You know, because this is when I was an All-Star. So he said, ‘We want you to take a team discount.’ So I was like, ‘OK, what’s a team discount?’ and he didn’t discuss anything. And at the time, it didn’t make sense for where I’m at, at the best of my career.”

Deng was eventually traded to the Cavaliers on Jan. 7, 2014, midway through the expiring year of that aforementioned six-year contract. And indeed, he entered the 2013-14 campaign fresh off two consecutive All-Star selections in seasons he combined to average 16 points, 6.4 rebounds and an NBA-leading 39 minutes per game. In 23 games with the Bulls in 2013-14 before the trade, Deng averaged 19 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on a career high 25.1% usage rate.

According to reports at the time, ownership had mandated the Bulls get under the luxury tax line after Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee in November 2013, effectively quashing the team’s title hopes for that year. In line with that order, reports indicate that the Bulls offered Deng an extension that averaged a roughly $10 million annual salary over “three or four years,” which Deng declined.

To hear Deng tell it, Thibodeau fiercely advocated for him throughout.

“Thibs was upset, and Thibs kept telling them (the front office), ‘Sign Lu, I need you to sign Lu,’” Deng told Tshabalala. “So when the [2013-14 season] started, I wasn’t signed for the Bulls, and Thibs decided he was going to make them know how important I am for the team, and ran everything through me — and this is why I love Thibs still today...  I was averaging 20 (points per game) at the time when I got traded. When the front office saw that I was averaging 20, obviously now, everybody wanted to pay me more money. So they decided that it was better to trade me before they lose me for nothing.

“So I was called into the office and I was given two days to take $30 million for three years, or else. I decided to go with ‘or else.’”

The Bulls netted Andrew Bynum, who they immediately waived, and three conditional draft picks, which eventually became Jordan Bell (flipped to the Golden State Warriors for cash considerations), Sir’Dominic Pointer and Paul Zipser, in the transaction. Deng finished out the 2013-14 season in Cleveland, then signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Miami Heat that summer, with a player option on the second year that he eventually exercised. A $72 million payout from the Los Angeles Lakers and a stop with the Minnesota Timberwolves followed before he officially retired in October 2019 after signing a one-day contract with the Bulls.

Deng remains the fourth-leading scorer in Bulls franchise history, top five steals and minutes played, and is one of just five players (along with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Jerry Sloan and Tom Boerwinkle) to begin a 10th season with the team. His legacy was honored in a ceremony attended by many from the Baby Bull and Thibodeau eras during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 20 at the United Center.

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