The Bulls played basketball Thursday! Kind of.
Roughly two weeks after its offseason minicamp — the team's first cohesive group activities in nearly seven months — concluded, the Bulls released footage from four intrasquad 5-on-5 scrimmages, the first three played to seven points and the fourth to 11.
NBC Sports Chicago Bulls insider K.C. Johnson and writer Rob Schaefer voraciously consumed every second of the action, and have some takes to get off. Here goes nothing, because who knows when we’re getting real-life Bulls basketball again.
Rob Schaefer: Well, K.C., it's been quite the day around the NBA. Anthony Davis' Staples Center statue entered the blueprint stage, Daryl Morey is out in Houston, Ty Lue is in with the Clips and the Bulls just returned to our TV screens.
OK. One of those things is not like the other. But we got to watch virtually every key piece of the roster (sans Kris Dunn) get collective run for the first time in over a half-year. How do we feel? What did you see? Are we ready to anoint Coby White the point guard of the future? Is Lauri Markkanen back? Did Chandler Hutchison look, dare I say, springy?
And most importantly: Does any of this matter at all?
K.C. Johnson: I see the pandemic has roused the nihilist in you, Rob.
It matters because, well, IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS SINCE WE WATCHED THE BULLS PLAY BASKETBALL OF ANY KIND TOGETHER.
Remember that March 10 night? Coby White scored 20 points in his first NBA start — we won't mention the nine turnovers — the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and all seemed flush with possibility. The next night, the NBA, and soon the world, shut down due to Rudy Gobert's positive test for COVID-19.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the pandemic from a professional standpoint is the complete disruption of the normal NBA calendar and season/offseason rhythms. So in that sense, it makes perfect sense to be breaking down a taped and streamed scrimmage from one of the so-called "Delete Eight" teams from inside their self-created "bubble" during a pandemic.
However, since it's typical to use the "it's only summer league…” qualifier to analyze that exercise, what qualifier do we use for this?
Rob: It’s a great question. I’m not sure. Anything we land on is sure to be a mouthful. I know I was hawkishly watching for jump cuts to cover clanked 3s and missed defensive rotations like the Zapruder film, and there appeared to be a few convenient splices peppered in there.
I suppose we can start with what stood out. I’ll go against the grain to start. Aside from the broadcast pairing of Adam Amin and Stacey King — which lived up to every ounce of hype in those 20-25 minutes — and Coby's theatrics, the pace was pretty breakneck, and one guy who appeared to really benefit from that was Hutchison.
Again, we’re not taking much away here. But for a guy who’s struggled with injury so perpetually, seeing him streak out on the break, cut hard and finish with force was a breath of fresh air; I counted two tomahawk dunks, one shooting foul drawn and a transition assist to win Game 1 grabbing and going off of a defensive rebound. That type of role is his sweet-spot, and can be impactful for the Bulls if he can stay on the floor.
Lauri Markkanen canned a couple 3s. Zach LaVine had some smooth finishes (and might have packed on some muscle?). Denzel Valentine and Coby White traded clutch buckets and Cristiano Felício dropped the dime of the day.
Who stood out to you?
K.C.: All hail Coby White. From his two scrimmage-ending game-winning shots to his push-the-pace, point-guard look in transition to his still-childlike-wonder demeanor in an interview with Amin, there was lots to like.
Again, settling for the “it’s only footage of an intrasquad scrimmage by a Delete 8 team in its bubble during a pandemic” qualifier, let’s take a deep breath. But let’s also acknowledge his isolation stepback 3-pointer over Markkanen to end one scrimmage and his adept usage of a Luke Kornet screen on LaVine to sink another scrimmage-ending 3-pointer.
We’ve seen those movies before. What we didn’t see last season with as much consistency was his passing and strong decision-making, particularly in transition. In my scribbled notes, I have three references to good passes/right reads. That’s progress.
Also, he sank a midrange jumper. Guess those aren’t forbidden anymore.
Rob: I’ll submit the line-drive, live-dribble dart to a rolling Wendell Carter Jr. for an and-1 dunk that kicked off Game 3 as my favorite Coby play of the day.
As for favorite moments overall: I alluded to the Felício dime from Game 1 already (combined with the one-handed slam he unleashed on the prior possession, he scored or assisted on the White team’s first four points of the day #TakeThat).
But the most surreal — and thus, most fitting for the occasion — sequence had to be Adam Mokoka and Ryan Arcidiacono reprising the Dion Waiters-Tim Hardaway Jr. 2014 Rising Stars game shootout to start the fourth and final scrimmage. Or at least, that’s what it felt like after seven months without Bulls basketball.
Mokoka and Arch traded triples to tip off the game, which ended with Zach and Coby trading haymakers for the win. But I won’t let the former be overshadowed.
Which segment of this thing got you up and out of your seat and why?
K.C.: That might be overstating matters.
However, Markkanen knocking down three 3-pointers of the four attempts shown is an encouraging sign. Less encouraging was LaVine taking the ball cleanly from Markkanen as he attempted to back LaVine down and post him up.
That said, seeing Markkanen trying something offensively other than standing around launching 3-pointers is another step towards progress. He doesn’t necessarily need to be in the post more but at least on the move. That, to me, is when he’s at his best.
One question I’ve been getting a lot since the Bulls hired Billy Donovan: Who will benefit most from the hire? I’ve written Wendell Carter Jr. But I think Markkanen could be a close second.
Speaking of Carter, is it a bad thing that I barely remember him from the broadcast — other than the notable moment you previously mentioned and the fact he attempted a 3-pointer? (He missed.)
Rob: Ha! I also had a note on LaVine’s strip of Markkanen. He had a couple buckets dropped on him too. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s to find the positive. We can build off 75 percent from deep and renewed aggressiveness with the ball in his hands.
Perhaps I’m desperate for the Wendell Carter Jr. reclamation tour to take off, but I saw a few things I liked from him out there. First, the willingness to take that 3 at all, especially in transition, is a good sign. It missed, but he looked comfortable pulling, which is going to be half the battle for him re-finding his comfort shooting from out there. Then, early in Game 3, Carter drew a crowd attacking a Hutchison closeout, and picked out an open Mokoka in the corner (possession ended in a turnover); he had another nice read off a Coby White transition dump-off to find Mokoka in the corner again (who missed a 3 badly).
Offseason scrimmages are a time to try things out. That Carter didn’t hesitate to shoot from the outside, create a little off the dribble and make decisive reads is enough positive to run with, for me. I remain confident he stands the most to gain from Donovan if those types of plays are encouraged. It’s a topic I’m eager to deep dive on, when schedules allow.
Plus — while it’s unclear who refs these things — I didn’t see him commit a foul throughout. Baby steps, people!
K.C.: Speaking of babies, I almost didn’t recognize assistant coach Chris Fleming, who shaved his beard and looked like a young pup leading the scrimmage. This is the kind of hard-hitting analysis you didn’t know you needed.
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention Denzel Valentine’s game-winner to end the first two scrimmages. Valentine, after all, is the one who hit a game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime and then a buzzer-beater to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves and win NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in 2016.
Afterward, he uttered this classic quote: “The people who are saying that [Summer League doesn’t matter] didn’t win Summer League.”
The fact we remember such moments — and just broke down this taped scrimmage — can only mean one thing: We’re thirsty for some Bulls basketball.