Bulls

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

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USA TODAY

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

Thirteen days after Fred Hoiberg was hired as the 19th head coach in Bulls history, Steve Kerr and the Warriors were crowned NBA champions. Part of Kerr’s offseason included meeting for lunch with the newest member of the 30-man head coaching fraternity. It was an important sitdown for Hoiberg, getting to speak with both a man who had followed a similar path to his now-current position, and one he was trying to emulate from a stylistic perspective.

“I think the world of Steve. He’s been great to me since I’ve been in the league,” Hoiberg said Wednesday. “He’s just done an unbelievable job and I feel fortunate to be able to talk to him about situations. And I’ve done that through good times and bad.”

Conversation between the two has been far more good than bad these days. Golden State remains the golden standard of the NBA. Wednesday's win over the Bulls was their 14th consecutive on the road, third longest in NBA history. They have the league's best record (37-9), its most efficient offense and fourth most efficient defense. 

They're far and away the favorites to hoist a third Larry O'Brien trophy in June, and even without Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on Wednesday they pulled away with ease and cruised to a ninth win in their last 10 games. But the Bulls team they beat competed for 48 minutes - just as they've done the last six weeks - and looked far different from the one that suffered a 49-point loss in Oakland in late November.

Hoiberg admitted that the Bulls, like every team in the league, attempts “to pattern their style after this team.” And at times the Bulls looked the part of the up-tempo, step-on-your-throat offensive juggernaut the Warriors have been the last three seasons under Kerr. They scored 40 in the first, and inexplicably put together a 17-0 run spanning the first and second quarters to take a seven-point lead. It wasn't quite as pretty as Golden State's perfection looks, but the Bulls had 15 assists and scored 17 points off Warriors turnovers.

“They go in spurts, they have little streaks and runs, especially at home because they’re a talented team,” Kevin Durant said after the game.

The Warriors were just fine getting into a shooting contest with the Bulls, knowing their core containing three of the world’s best shooters would ultimately outlast their opponent. And it did. In the third quarter the Warriors’ Splash Brothers took over, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting from deep. Their league-best defense, even without Green, stifled the Bulls, who scored just 11 points in the quarter.

The Bulls, as they've done in this six-week span that's included a 12-8 record, fought down the stretch, inching the deficit down to nine early in the fourth quarter and as close as five in the final minute. But the Warriors closed - same as they always do - and despite a narrow win as far as they're concerned, managed to shoot 50 percent from the field, make 13 3-pointers and hand out 24 assists. Kerr's philosophies, combined with an unprecedented roster in terms of talent, added another tally to its record-breaking win total.

And it's that combination that Kerr believes can propel the Bulls. He admitted being "flattered" that Hoiberg models much of his offense around what the Warriors have done, and said that he's followed Hoiberg since his Iowa State days (when Kerr was an NBA commentator for TNT) and sees the talent not only improving, but meshing with Hoiberg's philosophies in Year 3.

“We’re winning because we have some of the best players in the world. The only way you can truly replicate what we’ve done is to amass a ton of talent,” Kerr said. “Bulls are on the right track. They drafted Markkanen, they got some good players back in the Butler trade, and got some nice young pieces and are playing really well.”

The Jimmy Butler trade return struggled on Wednesday, going 13-for-41, but has proven to be perfect fits with Hoiberg's offense. Dunn will only improve having a creator like LaVine alongside him, and Lauri Markkanen added two more triples to his record-breaking rookie campaign. Nikola Mirotic scored 24 points with four triples, and Bobby Portis stayed efficient with 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Even David Nwaba, whose roster spot would have been filled by a second-round pick, played stifling defense on Curry down the stretch and even added eight points in 27 minutes.

The Bulls hit 10 3-pointers, extending their franchise record of double-digit makes to nine straight games. Their offensive rating since Dec. 7 is 12th in the league, just a tick below the Cleveland Cavaliers. Perhaps because of the offensive improvements the defense, too, has shown improvement: they're 16th in the league in efficiency since the 3-20 start. And for what it's worth, they held Golden State to seven fast-break points, more than 14 below their league-leading average.

"We have a group this year that has bought in, especially the past six weeks to getting up the floor and trying to play with pace and get shots up before the defense gets set," Hoiberg said.

So while the Bulls wait for their talent to simmer and improve, they'll go along with and continue to mesh with Hoiberg's philosophies. Golden State's 73-win record won't be in reach, and the Bulls shouldn't wait for two Hall of Famers and four All-Stars in one lineup. But Kerr and the Warriors started somewhere, and while Hoiberg needed to sift through players to find the right fits the last three years, the start of their rebuild is now in focus.

"I think we share a lot of the same vision for the game: spacing and ball movement and everybody touching the ball, feeling part of it. He knows his stuff," Kerr said of Hoiberg. "In this league it takes talent and it takes the right fit and I feel like it’s happening for them now. I know it’s taken a couple of years to get to this point, but in this league fit is everything."

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

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USA TODAY

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t come to the NBA Draft Combine with the boastful statements made by his peers, refusing to declare himself the best player in a loaded draft.

But it doesn’t mean he lacks for confidence.

Carter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects in next month’s draft, even though he doesn’t come with the heavy fanfare of what many expect to be the top three picks.

One of those top three players was Carter Jr’s teammate at Duke, Marvin Bagley III, relegating Carter Jr. to a supporting role of sorts in his lone collegiate season. He couldn’t turn college basketball upside down as a freshman; He didn’t have the opportunity to, still averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 29.1 minutes last season.

“Bagley's a phenomenal player. He came into college basketball, did what he was supposed to do,” Carter Jr. said. “My role changed a little bit but like I said, I'm a winner and I'll do what it takes to win.”

Like he said, considering it was the fifth time he patted himself on the back, describing his positive attributes. It didn’t come across as obnoxious, but more an affirmation, a reminder that his willingness to sacrifice personal glory shouldn’t overshadow his ability.

“I'm pretty versatile as a player,” Carter Jr. said. “I'd just find a way to fit into the team, buy into the system. I'm a winner. Do whatever it takes to win.”

When asked about his strengths, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s “exceptional” at rebounding and defending, certainly things teams would love to see come to fruition if he’s in their uniform next season.

Playing next to Bagley and not being the first option—or even the second when one considers Grayson Allen being on the perimeter—forced him to mature more in the little things.

“It was (an adjustment) at first,” Carter Jr. said. “I knew what I could do without scoring the ball. I did those things. I did them very exceptional. I found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

“I think it did do wonders for me. It definitely helped me out, allowed me to show I can play with great players but still maintain my own.”

If he’s around at the seventh slot, the Bulls will likely take a hard look at how he could potentially fit next to Lauri Markkanen and in the Bulls’ meeting with Carter Jr., the subject was broached.

“Great process. I was just thinking, me and him together playing on the court together would be a killer,” he said with a smile.

“I know they wanna get up and down the court more. The NBA game is changing, there's no more true centers anymore. They wanna have people who can shoot from the outside, it's something I'll have to work on through this draft process.”

An executive from a franchise in the lottery said Carter Jr’s game is more complete than Bagley’s, and that Carter Jr. could be the safer pick even if he isn’t more talented than his teammate.

It’s no surprise Carter Jr. has been told his game reminds them of Celtics big man Al Horford. Horford has helped the Celtics to a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in no small part due to his inside-outside game and ability to ably defend guards and wings on the perimeter.

Horford doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s matured into a star in his role after coming into the NBA with a pretty grown game as is. Carter Jr. has shown flashes to validate those comparisons.

“Whatever system I come to, I buy in,” Carter Jr. said. “Coaches just want to win. I want to win too. Whatever they ask me to do. If it's rebounding, blocking shots, setting picks, I'm willing to do that just to win.”

He was also told he compares to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge, two disparate players but players the Bulls have had a history with in the draft. The Bulls passed on Green in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Marquis Teague, and in Aldridge’s case, picked him second in 2007 before trading him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas.

As one can imagine, neither scenario has been suitable for framing in the Bulls’ front office, but whether they see Carter Jr. as a the next versatile big in an increasingly positionless NBA remains to be seen.

“I definitely buy into that (positionless basketball). I'm a competitor,” Carter Jr. said. “Especially on the defensive end. Working on my lateral quickness, just so I could guard guards on pick and roll actions. Offensively I didn't show much of it at Duke but I'm pretty versatile. I can bring it up the court. Can shoot it from deep, all three levels.”

His versatility has come into play off the floor as well, deftly answering questions about his mother comparing the NCAA’s lack of compensation for athletes to slavery.

Carter Jr’s mother, Kylia Carter, spoke at the Knight Comission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently and made the claim.

“The only system I have ever seen where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation … The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place is slavery and the prison system, and now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that.”

As if he needed to add context to the statement, Carter Jr. indulged the media members who asked his opinion on the matter—or at least, his opinion of his mother’s opinion.

“A lot of people thought she was saying players were slaves and coaches were slave owners,” Carter Jr. said. “Just the fact, we do go to college, we're not paid for working for someone above us and the person above us is making all the money.”

As sensible as his comment was, as direct as his mother’s statements were, he still finds himself in a position where he has to defend his mother. In some cases, teams asked him about her—but that’s not to say they disagreed with her premise.

“My mom is my mom,” Carter Jr. said. “She has her opinions and doesn't mind sharing them. In some aspects I do agree with her. In others...you'll have to ask her if you want to know more information.”

“I never thought my mom is ever wrong. But I think people do perceive her in the wrong way. Some things she does say...that's my mom. You have to ask her.”

The versatility to handle things out of his control, as well as understanding how his season at Duke prepared him for walking into an NBA locker room should be noted.

There’s no delusions of grandeur, despite his unwavering confidence.

“I'd come in and try to outwork whoever's in front of me,” Carter Jr. said. “That's the beauty of the beast. You come into a system, There's players in front of you 3-4-5 years and know what it takes.”

“I would learn those things and let the best man win.”