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NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Players to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Unless the Bulls are able to defy the odds in the NBA Draft lottery on May 15, it looks like they’ll be picking in the 7-9 range this June. So, if you’re just joining the college basketball party with the start of the NCAA Tournament, here are some players you should keep an eye on as possible Bulls’ draft targets.

Mikal Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Villanova — Bridges is your classic “3 and D” guy who brings so much value in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA. Bridges is already an accomplished defender with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and he’s been at his best in the most important games. He would be a good fit at small forward with the Bulls playing alongside Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.

Kevin Knox, 6-foot-9, SF, Kentucky — Knox wasn’t able to put together eye-popping stats playing for an erratic, freshmen-filled Kentucky team. But when you watch him play, he reminds you of Chicago native Jabari Parker; a big powerful small forward who can overpower defenders in the post. Knox has the potential to develop into a consistent NBA scorer.

Miles Bridges, 6-foot-7, SF, Michigan St. — Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives by coming back for his sophomore season, even though he would have been a lottery pick last year. Bridges looks more comfortable from the 3-point line this season, but he’s more of a fast-break finisher than a polished offensive player.

Collin Sexton, 6-foot-2, PG. Alabama — The Bulls really don’t need a point guard with Dunn, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne all signed for next season, but try to take your eyes off the electrifying Sexton. He possesses that extra gear that you only see in the special point guards like Russell Westbrook, John Wall and a pre-injuries Derrick Rose.

Trae Young, 6-foot-2, PG, Oklahoma — The Sooners only got into the NCAA field because of Young, who was the darling of college basketball when he was putting up 30-point, 10-assist games on a consistent basis during the early part of the season. Young’s shooting range is reminiscent of Steph Curry, but teams have reduced his effectiveness with aggressive off-the-ball defense.

Wendell Carter, 6-foot-10, PF, Duke — Again, not a position of need for the Bulls, but Carter showed his inside scoring potential in the four games Marvin Bagley missed because of a knee injury. Could Carter play small ball 5 alongside Markkanen? That will be one of the questions Bulls executives will be pondering while watching Duke in the tournament.

Lonnie Walker, 6-foot-4, SG, Miami — When you’re watching Chicago’s lone NCAA qualifier, Loyola, play in Round 1, keep an eye on Walker (actually you can’t miss him with his very distinctive hairstyle). Scouts love his ability to create his own shot, and he’s one of those classic upside guys that always seem to get over drafted.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-foot-6, PG, Kentucky — Another player who’s shooting up NBA draft boards based on his athleticism and ability to create off the dribble. Gilgeous-Alexander is painfully thin, but he does remind you a bit of Penny Hardaway with his size and shot-making ability at the point guard position.

Around the Association

Injuries continue to be a big story in the 2017-18 season. Boston has been hit especially hard, starting on opening night when free agent addition Gordon Hayward went out with a gruesome ankle injury.

Kyrie Irving carried the Celtics to the best record in the East for the first half of the season with MVP-caliber play, but now Irving is faced with missing several games because of knee soreness. And, if Irving isn’t healthy come playoff time, the Celtics are likely to be knocked out early.

Boston also lost valuable depth this week because of a season-ending injury suffered by rookie big man Daniel Theis and another injury to valuable wing defender Marcus Smart, this time a torn thumb ligament that could have Smart sidelined for several weeks. Add in the concussion suffered by Jaylen Brown in that frightening fall last week, and the Celtics find themselves with a depleted roster for the final 4 weeks of the regular season.

— That means Toronto will most likely finish with the number one seed in the East, and with the Cavs slumping again, they could wind up facing the Raptors in a second round series. Toronto and Boston would love to avoid the Cavs until the conference finals, especially with Kevin Love returning to the line-up soon to give Cleveland a reliable second scoring option alongside LeBron James. Surprising Indiana currently holds a slim lead over Cleveland for third place in the East, but a lot could change over the final month.

— The race for playoff positioning is taking a back seat to the massive tank-a-thon going on at the bottom of the standings. In case you haven’t been watching, wins are scarce these days for the bottom nine teams with all of them hoping to land a top three pick for a shot at franchise-changing bigs Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. The Knicks have completely given up since the season-ending injury suffered by Kristaps Porzingis, and it probably won’t be long before they pass the Bulls for eighth place in the race to the bottom.

— Finally, here’s hoping Derrick Rose can find a meaningful role in Minnesota after reuniting with Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson (among other former Bulls’ players and coaches). Rose turned the ball over a couple times in a 7-minute debut on Sunday against Golden State, but I don’t think Thibodeau would have brought in the former league MVP unless he planned to give him a serious look off the bench. Rose had a harsh response to critics who think he’s washed up at the age of 29, but if he can’t make it work playing for Thibs again, his NBA future could be in serious jeopardy.

Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

The specter of Kobe Bryant was omnipresent throughout All-Star weekend. Too often, it felt that the city of Chicago was not. 

But both took center stage at the All-Star game itself on Sunday night. The result was poignant, powerful and downright enthralling.

Magic Johnson set the tone early with a eulogy to Bryant that elicited multiple, impassioned ‘Kobe!’ chants from the crowd. That gave way to South Side native Common seamlessly weaving a cadenced monologue dedicated to Chicago, Bryant and daughter Gigi, as images of city legends from Barack Obama to Michael Jordan to Hebru Brantley flashed across the screen. The United Center rippled with emotion from start to finish.

For Bryant, the homage was a culmination.

"You could definitely feel Bean's presence just from the start. From every moment," LeBron James said. "He was definitely here."

And for Chicago, it was an essential re-centering to cap a weekend that saw only one Bull participate in an event — Zach LaVine, who exited after round one of the 3-point shootout. After 32 years since last hosting, this city deserved its moment in the sun. That one delivered.

“Chicago held it down,” Anthony Davis said. “I think they showed the league and everyone around the world about our Chicago history, about the city. I think everyone enjoyed it and respects Chicago a little bit more.”

Of course, there was a game to play, too — and embedded within were moments of pure symbolism.

On the surface: Members of Team Giannis and Team LeBron donned No. 24 and No. 2, respectively, in honor of Bryant and Gigi. The final quarter of the game went untimed, a slog to 157 (in a honor of Bryant, 24 points more than the 133 Team Giannis entered the period with, per the league’s new Elam-inspired format). 

Chicago charities — Chicago Scholars ($400,000) for Team LeBron, After School Matters ($100,000) for Giannis — also received a cumulative $500,000 over the course of the game. Seventy-nine assists between the two teams means $79,000 will go towards STEM research in the greater Chicago area, as well.

But now, let’s get a little nebulous. 

That fourth quarter, after a familiarly lackluster previous three, was electric. The offenses were legitimately running plays, the defenses were scrapping. There was controversial officiating, sweat dripping, and charges and clutch blocks galore. By the end, you could cut the tension with a knife.

“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Davis said.

Forgive me this contrivance, but how fitting a finish to commemorate both this city and Bryant. A true grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw affair. And as epic a pickup run as you’re like to find.

Most poetic, then, was the winning bucket. Yes, it was a free-throw — an anticlimactic ending to a memorable night — but the man that took it, Davis, was both born and bred in Chicago, and currently reps the same purple and gold Bryant did for 20 seasons as a member of the Lakers. 

“It was a great feeling, to be back home,” Davis said. “And I’m happy I was able to be the one to knock down the free throw to seal the game.

“For our side to get a win, for Kob (Kobe), this whole weekend was honoring him. And I think the league did a great job of doing that.”

Davis went on to congratulate Kawhi Leonard, who tonight took home the first ever Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award. His 30 points led all scorers in the game.

“It’s very special,” Leonard said. “I had a relationship with him (Bryant). Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room… And just to be able to see Kobe’s name on there. It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”

On Thursday, normalcy will return to the United Center in the form of the Bulls and Hornets. But this was a night no one will soon forget. Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, basketball.

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New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155.

Team LeBron’s charity, Chicago Scholars, won $400,000. Team Giannis’ charity, After School Matters, took home $100,000.

Kawhi Leonard won the first Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award.

Another winner? How about the sport of basketball, the NBA and critics of All-Star games everywhere?

Thanks to a new format that featured charities benefitting by whichever team won each quarter, plus the first usage of an Elam Ending, the United Center featured a fourth quarter whose intensity might make Michael Jordan smile.

Man, that was fun. They fixed the NBA All-Star game. It still seems surreal.

Anthony Davis sank the second of two free throws after Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse used a second coach’s challenge — and third of the fourth quarter overall — to finalize matters.

But not until — deep breath here — Giannis Antetokounmpo dived for a loose ball; Kyle Lowry took two charges; Antetokounmpo blocked Davis twice and LeBron James once at the rim; officials called back-to-back offensive fouls, one of which felt like a makeup call; and players argued with officials like the NBA Finals, or maybe playground bragging rights, were at stake.

“Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun,’” James said.

That it was.

In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver credited Chris Paul for bringing him the idea to incorporate the Elam ending, which establishes a target score rather than using a clock to discourage late-game fouling. Paul returned the compliment.

“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding new things and trying to figure out from our fans what they like,” Paul said.

Silver and the league introduced their own twist by making the target score 24 points more than the leading team after three quarters — a nod to Kobe Bryant’s number — and having the quarter-by-quarter charity winners.

Actually, nobody won the third quarter. It ended tied despite Nurse and Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel trading timeouts in the waning seconds to try to win the quarter.

“Every quarter from a coaching standpoint was really fun,” Nurse said.

Several players likened the ending intensity to that of a playoff game. How much did the Elam Ending benefit the ramp up in effort?

After three quarters of lob dunks, behind-the-back passes and uncontested 3-point shots that featured 55.5 percent shooting, the teams combined for 35.5 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“The end was amazing,” Nurse said. “Offensively, it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”

Fans greeted it as such, standing down the stretch. What better way to honor Bryant’s legendary competitiveness than the way this one played out in the waning minutes?

That it was Davis who sank the winning free throw seemed a fitting end to honor the legacy of Chicago basketball that had been on display all week and then intensified with a beautiful pregame tribute to the city narrated by the rapper Common.

Davis, who attended Perspectives Charter High School, is the latest in a long line of stars this city has produced.

“Listen man, Chicago is right up there with one of the top cities in the world with producing some of the greatest basketball players to ever play this game,” James said. “You’ve even got Ben Wilson, who was on his way to being a star and obviously we know the story about that. So you got it all the way from grade school-era through high school through college and then so many pros and so many Hall of Famers.

“KG (Kevin Garnett) is about to go into the Hall of Fame soon. The great Isiah Thomas. DWade (Dwyane Wade) at some point will go into the Hall of Fame.”

That James cited Wilson, the late Simeon star gunned down on the eve of his senior season, showed the ultimate respect to this city’s rich heritage. A heritage that was honored by a competitive ending that would make anyone playing on playgrounds from Margate Park to Murray Park proud.

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