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Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

The Bulls will have a top 10 pick for the third consecutive season and it’s likely that the next piece of their rebuild is playing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

A handful of our Bulls analysts – Mark Schanowski, Mark Strotman, Michael Walton and Joaquin Carrig – have picked out 12 of the top prospects in this year’s class who you can watch during March Madness.

The list is done in order of when each player’s team tips off, so don’t be concerned that Zion Williamson isn’t leading things off. All times listed are Central Time. TV channels are listed in parentheses.

Thursday Games

Ja Morant, PG, Murray State – 3:30 p.m. vs. Marquette (TBS)

Stats: 24.6 points, 10.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.3% FG

Scouting Report: This could be the most entertaining opening round game on the schedule, featuring the top-rated point guard (Morant) against Marquette’s explosive scoring guard Markus Howard (25.0 points per game). Howard has been slowed lately by a left wrist injury but told reporters he should be fine physically for the tournament opener.

Morant averaged 24.6 points and led the nation with 10.0 assists per game during his sophomore season at Murray State, but questions persist about whether he can put up those kinds of numbers against elite competition. Marquette will present a tougher challenge defensively than any team Morant faced in the Ohio Valley Conference, especially with shot blocker Theo John waiting to protect the rim on Morant’s drives to the basket.

You can look for 6-foot-5 junior Sacar Anim to get the primary responsibility for guarding Morant on the perimeter, but keeping the lightning-quick guard from getting into the paint and drawing fouls will be a total team effort.

Marquette slumped badly late in the season, losing 5 of its last 6 games, but the Golden Eagles are used to playing against high caliber competition in the Big East Conference. NBA scouts will be watching closely to see how Morant performs under the high-pressure atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament. – Schanowski

Keldon Johnson, SF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 38.8% 3FG

Scouting Report: A consensus five-star recruit, Johnson has disappointed for those who expected gaudy numbers. But when it comes to being quietly efficient and productive, Johnson is your guy.

He does most of his work attacking closeouts, coming off of pin-down screens and on simple catch-and-shoot opportunities. Johnson is averaging 17.6 points per 40 minutes and shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range. His 44.9 percent free throw rate is a testament to how good he is at using his 6-foot 6, 211-pound frame to draw contact on drives. Johnson isn’t the fastest or most explosive athlete, but he makes up for it with a herky-jerky dribble-drive game and an awesome floater.

Any team that falls outside of the top-7 will have to take a hard look at Johnson. He can fit in any system, and has untapped potential as a shot-creator and defender. – Walton

P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 51.5% FG

Scouting Report: PJ Washington is without a doubt the best player on this year’s Kentucky team. Washington came back to Lexington for his sophomore year and has improved across the board.

He is averaging 20.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 40 minutes. Washington’s excellent passing ability and newfound 3-point stroke--41.9 percent through 33 games--make him a great fit for NBA offenses. Although he is still a work in progress on the defensive end, his 7-foot-3 wingspan leaves plenty of room for defensive improvement. The closest comparison at the moment would be where Chris Bosh was as an NBA prospect at Georgia Tech.

A hard worker and physical force on the floor, Washington is sure to be a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft. – Walton

Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 60.9% FG

Scouting Report: For some reason, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura hasn’t generated a lot of excitement among draft analysts, falling out of the lottery in many mock drafts. 

All he did during the regular season was average 20.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting an amazing 61 percent from the field. Hachimura only attempted 32 shots from 3-point range, but he made 15 of them (46.9%). He’s an underrated ball handler for a power forward and has the ability to finish in traffic. Maybe it’s the caliber of competition Hachimura faces in the West Coast Conference that has scouts a little wary at this point, but the talent is obviously there. 

Even if Hachimura doesn’t fit the NBA profile of a “stretch 4,” he could start climbing up draft boards around the league if he is able to string together a number of big games on the way to leading Gonzaga to the Final Four. With the Bulls in need of a back-up power forward, Hachimura could be an option if their pick lands in the 6-8 range. – Schanowski

Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 1.2 steals, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: While Rui Hachimura’s stock has been fairly steady throughout the college season, the Zags’ other starting forward has been a steady climber because of his off-the-charts athleticism. When you watch a Gonzaga game, you can’t help but notice the guy wearing No. 15 jumping over the top of everyone for rebounds and put-back dunks. 

Because he does most of his work close to the basket, Clarke is shooting 69 percent from the field, averaging 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and a very impressive 3.1 blocks per game. The 6-foot-8 junior has been all over the map on mock drafts, from late lottery to mid-second round. He’ll get a chance to show college basketball fans and NBA scouts if he’s more than just a runner and dunker during the upcoming tournament. 

Never underestimate what a great NCAA Tournament showing can do for an athletic player’s draft stock. Bulls fans won’t forget how Tyrus Thomas came out of nowhere in 2006, leading the front office to pass on LaMarcus Aldridge when they had the second pick in the draft. Clarke won’t crack the top-10 this year, but he’ll probably be featured on a lot of highlight shows over the next three weeks. – Schanowski

Friday Games

Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech – 12:30 p.m. vs. Northern Kentucky (TNT)

Stats: 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 48.5% FG

Scouting Report: Culver has consistently been listed as a top 10 prospect in NBA mock drafts with a smooth two-way game that should be even more effective at the pro level.

The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 18.5 points during the regular season, shooting 48 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. The Red Raiders earned a share of the Big 12 regular season championship, but then got bounced out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals. Does Culver have the ability and temperament to raise his game under the NCAA tournament spotlight? Can he create his own shots against elite perimeter defenders?

These are the questions NBA scouts will look to answer while the No. 3 seed Red Raiders try to duplicate last season’s run to the Elite 8. Culver could wind up being a top-5 pick by showing an ability to score consistently against defenses designed to stop him. He wears No. 23 and has a body type similar to former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. Could Culver eventually be as good as Butler? That’s what NBA decision makers are still trying to figure out. – Schanowski

De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia – 2:10 p.m. vs. Gardner-Webb (truTV)

Stats: 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 53.0% FG, 45.7% 3FG

Scouting Report: If there's a power rankings for tired draft cliches, "3 and D" has been on a steady rise the last few seasons. So pardon us for fanning the flames, but it's exactly what De'Andre Hunter brings to the table. He has an excellent frame at 6-foot-7, 222 pounds, and plays a physical brand of basketball on both ends of the floor.

He's the best perimeter defender in this year's class and - here comes another cliche - will defend multiple spots on the floor. He has the instincts, the toughness and the quickness to become an elite defender at the NBA level. Oh, and he's shooting nearly 46 percent from beyond the arc this season. He doesn't create much for himself - then again, he hasn't had to in Virginia's offense - but is physical enough around the rim that he won't be a one-trick pony at the next level. Remember, too, that his raw numbers take a hit in the Cavaliers' slow-paced offense. Every NBA contender needs a player with Hunter's skill set. – Strotman

Zion Williamson, PF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: He does everything. If you're not familiar with the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, the previous sentence is all you need to know. Williamson is as unique a prospect as we've ever seen, with a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame and the ability to jump out of the gym, blow by defenders with a lightning-quick first step and defend at an incredibly high level.

You've seen Zion highlights of him ferociously dunking in transition, but the reality is he's so much more than that. He's an outstanding passer, has great footwork once he gets into the paint and might even be better defensively than he is on offense; it gets overlooked but Williamson led the ACC in steals per game and was fourth in blocks per game. Question whether his jump shot will be an issue at the next level (he made just 17 of 54 attempts). You're in the minority. Williamson is a can't-miss prospect who is going to change an NBA franchise in three months. – Strotman

R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 45.7% FG

Scouting Report: He's been entirely overshadowed by Williamson, but let's not forget that it was Barrett who led the ACC in scoring. He's a natural with the ball in his hands and does an excellent job getting to the basket, averaging nearly 6 free throw attempts per game and scoring in a variety of ways. He also proved to be a plus passer, with much of Duke's offense running through him. He averaged 4.1 assists, including seven game with seven or more helpers (and the fourth triple-double in Duke history). His decision making needs some improvement but that can be chalked up to being 18 years old. There's always room for a scorer and ball handler in an NBA offense.

How he'll play off the ball in the NBA remains a question mark, as he shot just 30.4 percent from deep and was a totally different player without the ball in his hands. He's far from a finished product but there's still plenty to like about his game. He'll be a top-3 pick in June and has the ability in March to go off for 30 points at a moment's notice. – Strotman

Cam Reddish, SG, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 32.7% FG

Scouting Report: The talk all summer and early in the fall was that Duke could become the first program to have players selected first, second and third overall in an NBA Draft. Then Cam Reddish's freshman season began and that talk disappeared. While Zion Williamson was becoming the future of the NBA, and R.J. Barrett was leading the ACC in scoring, Reddish struggled to find any success in his first year at Duke. Touted as a sharpshooter with excellent length, Reddish shot less than 33 percent from beyond the arc and outside of his game-winner against Florida State never really had any impact moments.

That being said, Reddish is still a perfect NBA fit. Despite his struggles he's still an excellent shooter and one that comes standing 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. There's plenty of reason to believe the NBA's spacing and pace will open up shots for him, and once he fills out more (he's listed at 218 pounds) should be a plus defender at the NBA level. He's had his struggles but it wouldn't surprise anyone if he caught fire for a few games in March, reminding everyone why he was a potential top pick just a few short months ago. – Strotman

Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 46.4% FG

Scouting Report: Expectations were high for freshman forward Nassir Little, a five-star recruit out of Florida, when he signed his letter of intent to be a Carolina Tar Heel.

However, Little’s freshman campaign has not gone as anticipated. Despite his raw athleticism and star potential, Little has never cracked Roy Williams’ starting lineup, struggling to fit cohesively into UNC’s offensive system.

With that being said, Little is an important reserve, averaging 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game on one of the premier college basketball teams in the nation. That combined with the NBA currently favoring his combo-forward style of play, means Little is still projected to be drafted mid-to-late first round in most mock drafts.

Unless Little quickly materializes into a top-five pick, the Bulls interest in the forward remains low. Especially considering Chicago filled their glaring void at small forward with the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. earlier this year. – Carrig

Coby White, PG, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 16.3 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds

Scouting Report: While Little’s stock has fallen, Coby White’s has never been higher. The 5-star recruit has gone from likely returning to the Tar Heels for a second season to becoming a potential lottery pick.

White started all 33 games at the point for UNC, averaging 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. His 76 three-point makes are a Tar Heel freshman record.

As a result, White made the ACC All-Freshman team and only received second team All-ACC honors because of the absurd amount of talent in the conference this season.

White is the engine that led this UNC team to win a share of the regular season ACC title and if the Tar Heels go deep into March, he will be a main reason why. As a result, most mock drafts are projecting the young guard to go in the 5-10 range.

If the Bulls don’t land a top-3 pick, which likely means missing out on Murray State’s Ja Morant, White could be a very realistic alternative to address their weakness at the point guard position. – Carrig

Report: Bulls possibly interested in adding Jrue Holiday?

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Report: Bulls possibly interested in adding Jrue Holiday?

According to a story by Sporting News NBA writer Sean Deveney, the Bulls may be looking for help in the form of one of the NBA’s better two-way players.

In the post, Deveney goes over the most salient points made by brand new New Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. This included the fact that Griffin stated that Pels head coach Alvin Gentry will be back and that Jrue Holiday is considered “a franchise building block”.

This could be a bit of gamesmanship from Griffin, hoping to drive up the asking price for an All-Star caliber player such as Holiday.

But Deveney suggests that New Orleans may indeed be serious about their efforts to keep building with Holiday on the roster. Deveney stated, “if the Pelicans don't trade Holiday, it will set up the team for an attempt at a fast turnaround rather than a long, slogging rebuild......It will also frustrate teams looking for a versatile point guard in his prime, hoping that Holiday would be on the block.”

Phoenix was mentioned as the “top contender” for Holiday’s services should he be made available, as the Suns are one of the few teams with an obvious hole at PG. Along with the Suns, Chicago and Orlando were the other teams listed as having interest in Holiday. The Magic completed a low-risk trade during the 2018-19 season that landed them 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, so they may not be inclined to give up solid assets in a deal.

As far as the Bulls are concerned, any serious inquires on Holiday are likely to come after the May 14 NBA Draft lottery.

Depending on where the Bulls lottery pick ends up, the Pelicans could be much more inclined to make a deal with the Chicago front office. The Pelicans ended the season tied with Memphis and Dallas for the 7th spot in the draft lottery odds, and their specific organizational goals could make moving up in the draft order worth losing a valuable player like Jrue Holiday. And for the Bulls, nabbing a player like Holiday helps build onto the positive team culture that Jim Boylen wants to establish and gives the Bulls a perfect guard to pair in the backcourt with Zach LaVine.

Why the Bulls should take Charles Bassey with the No. 38 pick

Why the Bulls should take Charles Bassey with the No. 38 pick

This is the first entry in our "8 for 38" series, where will be looking at eight different under-the-radar NBA prospects that the Bulls could snag with their No. 38 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Charles Bassey/ 6’11’’/ 275 lbs./ Freshman/ Western Kentucky  

Bassey is a a well-regarded five-star recruit from Nigeria, who played his college ball at Western Kentucky University. He is a physical force on the court but definitely is a raw prospect at this stage of his development.

Bassey came into the season as an assumed first round talent, however, his stock has dropped after his impressive freshman season still revealed holes in his game that will definitely be exploited at the NBA level. All that being said, he was quite the prospect at WKU.

Strengths:

In his lone season at WKU, Bassey averaged 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game on 62.7 percent shooting from the field. His impressive double double average was built on his insane dominance inside the paint.

He shot an astounding 77.4 percent on shots at the rim and that number is even higher on non-post up shots around the basket. Bassey has a rudimentary hook shot that he can hit over his left shoulder but his postgame isn’t the hub of his offense. He generates most of his points by finishing on pick-and-rolls and using his faceup game.

Bassey’s physicality leads to him setting hard screens, and when he doesn’t set a hard screen, he slips to the basket quickly where he takes advantage with his soft touch when looking to score. It is tough for help defenders to knock Bassey off his path when he is rolling to the rim, as his immense lower body strength allows him to displace smaller players.

When Bassey faces up from 15-feet and in, he uses the aforementioned soft touch to convert on 40.8 percent of his 2-PT jump shots per Hoop-Math.com. On top of that, he generally has the speed to blow by most big men.

Bassey’s biggest strength from day one in the NBA will be his motor. He clearly gets fired up for big matchups, as he showcased when he dominated Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, who ended up winning the 2019 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given by the Basketball Hall of Fame to the country’s best center. In their late December matchup, Bassey helped hold Happ to a very inefficient 20 points on 23 shots.

In that same game Bassey finished with 19 points (7/8 FG, 5/5 FT), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 4 blocks. He has arguably had better games, but the all-around versatility showcased in the stat line above is outstanding.

Bassey has flashed the ability to make nice passes before:

Since Bassey’s NBA offense will be centered around pick-and-roll plays, further developing his decision making on the short-roll will be a boon to whatever team drafts him.

On defense, Bassey already shows the ability to be an asset in the right system. When he is allowed to play in a traditional defensive system that has the center dropping back in pick-and-roll coverage, he swallows up shots with his 7-foot-3 wingspan.

Weaknesses:

The gigantic weakness Bassey showcased this season was an inability to function as a switch defender. He was great when it comes to protecting the rim--he averaged 2.4 blocks per game-- but he was consistently beat off the dribble by guards.

Of course it is rare to find any center--let alone a young one--that has the legitimate ability to function at a high-level when it comes to switching on to smaller, faster players. But that is precisely what makes Bassey the exact type of center you can find easily.

This is why a player of his talent level can slip into the second round.

Another big issue for Bassey is hands, or more specifically, the inability to hold on to passes when diving to the rim. As mentioned above, pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop basketball is how Bassey will carve out a niche in the league. But he occasionally struggled to hold on to the ball on throws that many would not even consider to be “tough passes”.

In the above strengths section it is mentioned how Bassey has some untapped potential as a passer, but he will never cash in on that potential if simply possessing the ball is a difficulty for him. He isn’t as explosive as usual if there are multiple defenders crowding him and raking at the ball, which happens often.

Over 1,067 minutes Basey amassed 24 assists as compared to a whopping 97 turnovers.

Long term outlook:

I believe Bassey will have a long NBA career due to his finishing in the paint and ability to block shots.

Bassey ran roughshod over his mostly Conference USA opposition on the season.

His 62.7 percent shooting from the field and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes were a few of the many things that showed that Bassey is at least ready for the physicality of the NBA.

But to become much more than a solid journeyman center, Bassey will have to hone his perimeter jump shot to the point that he can become a solid 3-point threat. He shot 45 percent on a very limited 20 attempts from 3-point range and converted on 76.9 percent of his free throws, an enticing set of numbers that show the type of player he could be in the future.

Whether or not Robin Lopez stays, the Bulls will be short on center depth next season.  After Wendell Carter Jr. went down for the remainder of the 2018-19 season, we saw the Bulls play ultra-small lineups that got beat up on the glass often as Jim Boylen was still reluctant to play Felicio more than 15 minutes per game.

Adding a high-upside prospect like Bassey helps Boylen and co. avoid over-using lineups with Lauri Markkanen at center, which helps keep Markkanen fresh and theoretically improves the overall team defense.