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NBA Buzz: Mock Draft 2.0 and news on potential future Bulls free-agent targets

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NBA Buzz: Mock Draft 2.0 and news on potential future Bulls free-agent targets

As we head into March Madness, NBA general managers and scouts will be criss-crossing the country to further evaluate the top college players under the high-pressure microscope of conference and postseason tournaments.

With that in mind, here's my second mock draft, looking at how the lottery selections might fall. Keep in mind only two games separate the team with the worst record from the eighth-place Bulls, so a lot could change over the final month and a half of the NBA regular season.

Mock Draft 2.0 (order as of Feb. 28)

1. Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. Even though his name has popped up at the center of the FBI's investigation into college basketball corruption, Ayton continues to play on at a high level. Ayton is probably just a cut below Philadelphia's Joel Embiid in his ability to impact a game on both ends of the court. He might be the one true franchise changer in this year's draft.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. Bagley missed four games recently because of a minor knee strain, but his ability to score inside and outside, plus control the defensive glass and block shots, should make him an instant impact player on the pro level. Based on what I’ve seen, Bagley and Ayton are a cut above the rest of the field. Both project as perennial All Stars.

3. Sacramento Kings: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Michigan State. The Kings could go for international star Luka Doncic, but given their glut of perimeter players, Jackson could be a bit of a surprise pick here. The 6-foot-11 freshman's shot-blocking ability and athleticism remind some scouts of a young Kevin Garnett, but he could wind up being the next Bobby Portis (solid rotation player, not a star).

4. Orlando Magic: Luka Doncic, SG-SF, Slovenia. The rebuilding Magic have needs at just about every position, and they might be tempted to reach for Oklahoma long-range shooting sensation Trae Young. But NBA scouts love the potential of Doncic, who's grown to almost 6-foot-8 with the passing and ball-handling skills of a point guard. Orlando could try Doncic at the point after trading disappointing former first-round pick Elfrid Payton to Phoenix.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter Jr., SF, Missouri. NBA executives are hoping Porter will play a few games before the end of the season to make sure he's fully recovered from back surgery in November. Sure, it might be a risk to take Porter this high, but remember he was projected to be the No. 1 overall pick before the injury with small forward skills at 6-foot-10.

6. Dallas Mavericks: Mo Bamba, C, Texas. Another team that needs an influx of talent everywhere. Mark Cuban might be intrigued by the star power of Young, especially with Dirk Nowitzki retiring soon. But the Mavericks need a big man to anchor their defense, and the 7-foot Bamba (with a 7-foot-9 wingspan) definitely fits the bill.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (from the Brooklyn Nets): Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. We know LeBron James is a big fan after watching Young play at James' annual summer camp in Akron, and that's probably a good enough reason for Cleveland to make this pick. Young can ease into his NBA career as a low-minutes shooting specialist off the bench in the mold of former Bull Kyle Korver.

8. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG-SF, Villanova. Watch Bridges play during the postseason tournaments, and you're likely to come away with an appreciation for his all-around skill set. Bridges is a knock-down 3-point shooter with a quick first step on drives, and he's strong enough to finish at the rim. Maybe a little undersized at the small forward spot in the NBA, but his athleticism makes him special.

9. New York Knicks: Kevin Knox, SF, Kentucky. The 6-foot-9 Knox will remind New Yorkers of Carmelo Anthony with his strong build for a college freshman. Problem is, Knox can't score like Melo. Still, he'll give the Knicks another frontcourt option with Kristaps Porzingis on the mend from ACL surgery.

10. Philadelphia 76ers (from the Los Angeles Lakers): Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. Carter hasn't received a ton of media attention with so much focus on the more versatile Bagley. But the 6-foot-10 banger could provide some needed muscle off the bench for a young team on the rise. Carter showed off his low-post scoring ability in the games Bagley missed recently, improving his draft stock.

11. Charlotte Hornets: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. Sexton is a top-10 talent, but not many teams in the lottery are looking for point guards this year. The Hornets have All Star Kemba Walker at the point, but Steve Clifford could probably play the two together, given Sexton's talent on the defensive end. Similar skill set to last year’s No. 5 overall pick De’Aaron Fox.

12. Detroit Pistons: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges can stay in the state of Michigan to start his pro career. The Pistons have been disappointed with the development of young forward Stanley Johnson and could be ready to move him in a trade this summer. That could open the door for Bridges, who improved his 3-point shooting during his sophomore season in East Lansing.

13. Utah Jazz: Robert Williams, PF-C, Texas A&M. The 6-foot-9 jumping jack was expected to be a top 10 pick entering this season but has dropped back because of his limited offensive skill. Williams could step right into the Jazz frontcourt rotation with the expected loss of free agent Derrick Favors.

14. Denver Nuggets: Lonnie Walker, SG, Miami. The athletic shooting guard has been at his best late in the ACC season with an ability to create his own shot off the dribble. At this point in the draft, it's best player available, and Walker has the potential to be a big-time scorer.

In case you haven't noticed, the New Orleans Pelicans keep winning despite the season-ending injury suffered by DeMarcus Cousins. They're now tied for sixth place in the West, which means the first-round pick the Bulls acquired in the Nikola Mirotic trade has dropped to No. 21 overall.

Who will be available in that range? Well, if the Bulls take Mikal Bridges with their first pick in Round 1, they might want to take a chance on a young center like UNLV's Brandon McCoy or high school eligible big man Mitchell Robinson. Several athletic guards could also drop to that spot including Kentucky's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo, Syracuse's Tyus Battle, Miami's Bruce Brown, Duke's Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval and high school eligible Anfernee Simmons.

Around the Association

Chicago native Anthony Davis has just put together one of the most remarkable months we've seen in some time. The All-Star big man averaged right around 36 points, 13 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.5 blocks in February, carrying the Pelicans' offense in the absence of Cousins.

Davis is signed for two more seasons, with a player option for 2020-21, and it's safe to say he's the most coveted player around the league by contending teams looking to poach a small-market star. Problem is, Davis has consistently stated he's happy in New Orleans and enjoys playing with Cousins. If the Pelicans are able to re-sign Cousins this summer, the two All Stars might be content to play the prime years of their careers together in New Orleans.

So, if the Bulls don't have a shot at Davis, what about Kawhi Leonard? We've all read the reports out of San Antonio talking about a disconnect between Leonard and the organization. Leonard has resumed basketball workouts at the team facility, and there's hope he'll be playing in games again sometime in March. But given the age factor on the Spurs roster (Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay and Danny Green are all over 30), will Leonard be willing to commit long term when he's eligible to hit the free-agent market in the summer of 2019?

Teams will be lining up to bid on the 26-year-old Leonard, who was considered a top-10 player before the mysterious quad injury that's limited him to only nine games this season. Leonard hates media attention, so you have to wonder if he'd even consider a big market like Chicago. But the Bulls are trying to maintain salary cap flexibility with the hope of being able to strike when an All-Star player unexpectedly becomes available.

Jimmy Butler can also be a member of the 2019 free-agent class, and the hope is he can make a quick recovery from the meniscus injury he suffered last week. Butler is the latest player coached by Tom Thibodeau to fall victim to a serious injury.

Bulls fans know all too well what's happened to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng through the years. Rose's injuries weren't directly related to overuse, but Noah and Deng have seen their careers effectively ended by years of ranking among the league leaders in minutes played. Butler was second in the NBA at 37.1 minutes per game at the time of his injury.

Coincidence? I think not.

Butler is determined to return to the Timberwolves' lineup in time for the playoffs, but there's no guarantee Minnesota will even get there with eight teams currently battling for the final six spots out West. At this point, the four-time All Star has to be thinking about how he can stay in one piece to land that next big contract, whether it’s in Minnesota or someplace else.

Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

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Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

It’s that time of the year again for the Bulls. Though last season’s shutdowns were a thinly veiled attempt to increase their chances at a top-3 pick, this time around injuries to key players have the Bulls taking an overly cautious approach as their campaign winds down.

The Bulls, already without rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison for the rest of the season, will be without Otto Porter Jr. and Zach LaVine on Tuesday against the Raptors. Point guard Kris Dunn, dealing with back soreness, is listed as doubtful and is unlikely to play.

That’s three missing starters – four if you include Carter – against a 51-23 Raptors team. So while a loss is almost certainly on the docket that hardly means there’s nothing to be gained from these final eight games.

“Next man up is the focus,” Lauri Markkanen said Monday. “We’re trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It’s an opportunity for other guys who don’t get to play as much.”

There are a handful of Bulls reserves who will be fighting for a roster spot next season. If we’re to assume that the sure bets – pending any trades – of the Bulls roster will be LaVine, Markkanen, Carter, Porter, Dunn, Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio, plus the Bulls’ first and second round picks, that leaves just three or four openings if the Bulls don’t add anyone in free agency, which seems unlikely.

So with only a few roster spots available next season, and plenty of playing time available this season, the eight-game audition begins Tuesday in Toronto.

The two most important players of these evaluations will likely start in the backcourt. Shaq Harrison will continue to start on the wing while Ryan Arcidiacono will start if Dunn is unable to go. Jim Boylen said he’s undecided on who will start at small forward and likely match up with All-Star Kawhi Leonard, but one of Wayne Selden or Antonio Blakeney would get the call, with Harrison moving to Leonard if the latter started.

“With every injury, there’s an opportunity for someone to step into that role,” Boylen said. “We’ve had guys do that pretty well this year.”

Arcidiacono has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. He had a serious lull in December and January but has rebounded nicely as the season nears an end, shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Meanwhile Harrison has averaged a cool 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in nearly 37 minutes over his last three games, all starts. He’s provided outstanding effort on the defensive end and has seen his offensive game improve; just how much that improvement can be sustained over a long stretch will determine his NBA future, but he should get that chance if one or both of LaVine and Porter are shut down.

While Blakeney’s contract is guaranteed for next season, he’s got work to do. He’s shooting just 42 percent from the field this season and is averaging just 0.6 assists per game. After a red-hot start from beyond the arc in October and November (44.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) he’s made just 36 percent since Christmas Day. But the opportunity is there for him to get extended run, as he’s averaged 22.5 minutes over his last three games, the last two of which were his first career starts.

While those players showcase their talents in the backcourt, the injuries could also allow Lauri Markkanen to take the reins and own the final two weeks. Though it's been a roller coaster of a season, the second year forward appears to be closing on a high note. He's averaging 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes and could see his numbers across the board improve as he takes on a high-usage role down the stretch with LaVine and Porter out.

"I’m doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don’t normally start and I talked about it with Coach (Boylen) about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."

Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Ja Morant would be a perfect fit

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Ja Morant would be a perfect fit

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kelly Crull react to the Bulls loss to the Jazz and the mounting injuries.

0:45 Kelly on making the transition to covering the Cubs

1:20 On Bulls limping to the finish line

2:35 On Paxson addressing the media before the Jazz game

4:15 Kendall on Chandler Hutchison

6:20 On Wendell Carter Jr and his leadership and expectations for next season

8:40 Kendall on next season, and his conversation with Robin Lopez

12:40 Kendall makes an analogy on Bulls needing a veteran to elephants

13:45 On Otto Porter Jr and his status for the last few weeks

14:50 On NCAA Tournament and NBA draft prospects; Ja Morant

20:20 Kendall on being recruited by Depaul when he was in high school

22:30 On what LaVine and Markkanen need to improve on during offseason

23:45 Other players biggest improvements

24:55 More on Kendall’s interview with Robin Lopez

25:40 On Sweet Sixteen

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: