Bulls

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr. trusts his process and in his mind it’s only a matter of time before people who matter believe in it too.

The NBA’s biggest question mark strolled confidently into the combine at Quest Multisport for a late afternoon media session, declaring next month’s draft is more than a two-player showcase.

“They had me as the No. 1 player in high school and I wasn't 100 percent. I'm still the best player,” he said. “I played against all these guys, they're all great players but I'm the best player in the draft.”

Suddenly, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton heard their ears ringing at the notion, that a player who hasn’t truly been seen since the Adidas Nations showcase a year ago is better than the top stars in a star-studded class.

Porter has no swagger-dripping game-winners against the best overseas competition and certainly no tour de force campaign Ayton put together in Tucson. The lingering image to Porter’s name is a back injury that robbed him of essentially his entire freshman season at Missouri.

Three games are on his collegiate ledger, but his confidence and talent are as undeniable as the question marks surrounding him.

“Is he gifted or talented,” repeated one assistant general manager in attendance for the combine.

“He’s gifted.”

At 6-foot-10, scouts believe Porter has the greatest ability necessary to excel in a league full of multidimensional talents and transcendent stars: He can get a bucket, and get it easily.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” said Porter, mentioning Ayton and Trae Young as prospects who each had considerable time capturing the imagination of scouts and fans through the college season.

“But this is a step in my process to be the best player I can be,” Porter said. “It's a little different but I'm more ready than ever. I've been dreaming about this NBA stuff forever, I feel like I'm ready.”

Playing against Seattle-based pros like Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas and DeJounte Murray gave him a confirmation of sorts, that missing the showcase one-and-done season cannot rob him of.

Seeing Philadelphia’s “Process” fulfillers, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, emerge after early injuries held them back, along with belonging on the floor with NBA players, gives him reason to believe he’ll be next.

“It was dope, I got used to playing with those guys,” Porter Jr. said of the Seattle players. “It was cool. It was weird, those guys are in the league but I was doing my thing. I felt good on the court, it was really good for me.”

The back injury that sidelined him at Missouri had been affecting him since his sophomore year in high school after being undercut during a dunk. Instead of resting it, he kept playing and things deteriorated—not after being the consensus No. 1 player in the country, in his eyes.

“I think I got a good glimpse in high school but I feel I far surpassed that player,” Porter said. “There (were) things I didn't want to do due to the back pain. But I think I'm a much better player.”

If his on-floor polish meets his ability to negotiate the task of answering the mundane questions asked by media members probing about which teams he met with — no, the league didn’t set up anything with the Bulls for the combine — he’ll be a find for whomever drafts him.

If his medical records check out.

Jared Sullinger’s back was red-flagged before the 2012 draft, when his freshman year at Ohio State had him pegged as a top-five pick.

He slid to Boston at 21 and had serviceable years, averaging 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds his second season, before things caught up with him in 2016-17. But Sullinger was undersized and battled weight issues as a post player.

Porter Jr., said the one executive and a few others, is “gifted”.

The combine is a place used for teams to unearth details about potential draftees through the interview process more than it is the five-on-five play or the measurements everyone goes through. They have thick folders of strengths and weaknesses for players on the floor, but can’t truly get to know them until sitting down with them.

Porter is the opposite.

He knows that’s the question, and he had no problem quoting the medical minutia, using the term “minimally invasive” to describe his November surgery that had him sidelined until early March.

Because seemingly, there should be no question about his game.

“It was a step back to take three steps forward,” Porter Jr. said. “It's been challenging but I feel 100 percent. I feel better than ever actually. I feel pain free and I haven't felt that way for a long time.”

Porter Jr. doesn’t know if he’ll release his medical records to every team, even though some league executives murmured teams should have access to every player as opposed to players and agents steering matters to their advantage — or at least acting in the client’s best interest.

“I can already go, full go. In the workouts I won't be holding back at all,” he said. “When I get on the floor, they'll see for themselves that I'm 100 percent. I feel great.”

He’s in a lose-lose situation to some degree. Of course he’s going to say he feels great and teams will see how he performs at full health, and of course it’ll be met with a certain amount of skepticism.

Critics can present his two-game late-season return to Missouri as “Exhibit A”, when his game against Georgia in the SEC Tournament and showing against Florida State in the opening round of the NCAA’s didn’t show the best player in the country.

Totaling 28 points and shooting 33 and 29 percent, respectively, won’t inspire much confidence but it doesn’t seem fair in the least to use that as evidence.

“I knew I wasn't gonna put on a show or be the Mike they saw in a few months,” Porter said. “Really just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had six players on scholarship and two got injured. Just trying to do what I can.”

He declared for the draft soon after, and has been in Chicago for the past several weeks, working out at Quest Multisport to get himself right.

Porter Jr. remembers going through every step of the rehab process — the cautious stage where being careful was recommended as things healed gradually, instances where he had to build strength in his left leg, the leg he explodes from.

Then the step of trusting his body, which he didn’t do at first when he was given the green light to “push it as hard as it gets”, he said.

“It was weird, especially going back to play at Missouri,” Porter Jr. said. “Even at practice, I was trying to be different as a player. Not trying to get to the rim and dunk on anybody. I had the power in my leg, I know I can jump and dunk it but I was jumping two inches off the ground.”

He’s well past that point now, he claims, and has no problem addressing whatever concerns teams have — again, believing he’s in the upper crust of draft prospects but saying he’s not tied to having his name called first.

“At the end of the day, I don't have to go No. 1. I don't have the ego to go No. 1,” Porter Jr. said. “I just want to be in the right situation for me. Look at (Utah’s) Donovan Mitchell. But I think when I work out I'll be in that conversation, yes.”

He feels his versatility in a positionless league, businesslike approach and undeniable gifts will make some team happy and others regretful when it’s over.

He talks it.

He’ll have the chance to show he can walk it.

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

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NBC Sports Chicago

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

It doesn’t take an anniversary for Chip Schaefer to think about Hank Gathers.

“It’s never really far from my mind,” Schaefer said in a recent interview.

Schaefer is the Bulls’ director of sports performance, working his second stint with the franchise after serving as the athletic trainer for the dynasty. But one of the Deerfield, Ill., native’s first jobs was athletic trainer and strength coach at Loyola Marymount University from 1987-90.

In fact, Schaefer was the first non-player to Gathers’ side on that fateful March 4, 1990 day when the star forward collapsed on the court during a West Coast Athletic Conference tournament game and died moments later due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Wednesday marks 30 years since Gathers’ death. On Saturday, Loyola Marymount will unveil a statue honoring him. The family invited Schaefer to the ceremony, no small gesture in Schaefer’s world.

But with the Bulls in New York and Schaefer having already squeezed a trip into Los Angeles this week for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Schaefer merely sent his appreciation and respects to the family.

“It doesn’t take much for me to think of him,” Schaefer said. “Every time we’re in Philadelphia, his hometown, I think of him. Every time I flip around the TV and see a Loyola Marymount game, I think of him. I run into people, Jay Hillock, one of (the Bulls’) scouts, was an assistant coach on the staff, and I think of Hank. He was special.”

Schaefer isn’t merely referring to Gathers’ athletic ability, which had NBA talent written all over it.

“He was really an extraordinary personality,” Schaefer said. “He had just an unbelievable sense of humor and a wonderful gift for mimicry.

“I remember one year we had the typical college, end-of-season awards night. It was supposed to be MC’d by one of the local sports anchors. He had to cancel at the last minute. Hank wound up MC’ing it. And he killed it. He could’ve done Vegas with the bit. He had a whole (Muhammad) Ali- (Howard) Cosell bit. It was just unbelievable. He had something funny for every player. And he was riffing, completely spontaneous. I remember nights like that where his rich personality and wit and intelligence was on full display.”

Much like with Bryant, who Schaefer worked with for 12 seasons with the Lakers, he is trying to remember the happy times. When Loyola Marymount hired Schaefer from the esteemed Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, he was only a few years older than Gathers.

“Hank was actually a patient that I met at the clinic. I think he had patellar tendinitis. And we really hit it off,” Schaefer recalled. “That Spring, the athletic trainer before me (at Loyola Marymount) was let go. Hank came in all bubbly and was all excited about me applying for the job.

“So we had the next three years together where we continued to build the special relationships you often build in this field. There were a lot of really personal moments. Hank and Bo (Kimble) grew and we kind of shocked the world in the NCAA tournament that 1987-88 season. We built a national spotlight.”

Indeed, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89. And then Kimble led an emotional run to the Elite Eight in 1990, shooting a free throw left-handed to honor Gathers’ memory.

Schaefer attended Bryant’s memorial service by taking a red-eye flight so as not to miss any Bulls’ commitments. Saturday’s game against the Knicks doesn’t allow him to do the same for Gathers, although he grew emotional when asked what the invitation meant to him.

After all, since Schaefer was one of five people who worked on Gathers outside the gym after his collapse, he was named as one of 10 people and three medical practices in a lawsuit. Schaefer knew he did nothing wrong and followed proper emergency protocol by the book, and Gather’s mother, Lucille, ultimately settled the $32.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit for $545,000.

“I’m the one there along with the doctors on the floor trying to help revive and resuscitate him, so you never know how a family is going to react to anybody that is associated with that,” Schaefer said. “But I’ve heard from Hank’s brother, Derrick, occasionally with warmth and affection and magnanimity and grace. That’s really something. After three decades, that Lucille would even remember my name much less think, ‘It would mean a lot to have him here,’ I’m touched beyond words about that.”

Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

One thing that has stood out throughout this disappointing Bulls season is Jim Boylen’s positivity.

Following most every game, he has highlighted in-game moments that he feels are signs of progress, even if they’re as basic as winning a quarter. He has praised players for their care factor and development.

The approach, like many of Boylen’s, has bothered some fans and observers. Perhaps not to the degree that his late-game timeout usage or rotational decisions or systems have, but the trait has caused some angst nonetheless.

It also stands in contrast to when Boylen first took over for the fired Fred Hoiberg. You remember his “shock and awe” campaign, the one where he openly questioned his players’ conditioning, made them do push-ups and in general sounded like a drill sergeant.

But the approach has at least served Boylen well as the Bulls have endured yet another stretch of injuries that has bordered on ridiculous. Wendell Carter Jr. is aiming for a Saturday return, while Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are trending in the right direction.

But the Bulls weren’t expecting to be playing two-way player Adam Mokoka rotational minutes in February, particularly alongside Cristiano Felicio and Shaq Harrison.

“What I’ve learned to do from people I’ve worked for and from being in this business is I take it as it comes,” Boylen said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I try to stay in the moment, do the best I can to help this team get better and grow. I do not worry about tomorrow and I try to stay right in where we’re at. And where we’re at right now is banged up.

“I cannot wallow in that negativity or the things I can’t control. Otherwise, I don’t do as good a job on that floor teaching the guys that are practicing and are playing and staying positive and upbeat. And that’s what I get paid to do. I take a lot of pride in my attitude in these moments. That’s what this league is about to me. It’s easy when your team is healthy and you’re playing good and you’re winning games. But a lot of us in the league right now are going through these moments. And that’s part of it.”

So Boylen will continue stressing whatever he sees as positive, trying to set an example for his young team. On Thursday, that featured more talk of the Bulls’ shot profile. The Bulls rank second in shots from 5 feet or less and ninth in 3-point attempts.

“We have areas on the floor that we really value. A rim-2, which is right at the rim in the restricted area, or a corner 3, those are your highest-valued shots. Then you have a mid shot and an above-the-break 3. There are four distinct areas that we talk about,” Boylen said. “You would like more of the rim-twos and the corner 3s because those are the most valuable shots.”

The next step is converting them. The Bulls rank 26th in shots from 5 feet or less and 22nd in 3-point percentage.

“You hope to make those good looks you get. You hope to finish plays at the rim. And we’re working to do that,” Boylen said. “And that’s strength and youth and toughness and all those things we’re developing, You would say Coby White’s finishing has improved dramatically as he’s grown in the system. Our shot profile is very good.”

At 19 games under .500, that’s more positivity from Boylen.

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