Bulls

NBA Buzz: Wendell Carter Jr. looks like the real deal, plus RFA chaos

NBA Buzz: Wendell Carter Jr. looks like the real deal, plus RFA chaos

Let's start this week's column with our annual disclaimer: NEVER make any conclusions about a young player's potential based on Summer League results. And yes, I know guys like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Jerian Grant have been standouts in recent years in the loosely competitive format in Las Vegas.

But after three games playing for the Bulls' entry this summer, top draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. has drawn nearly unanimous acclaim as an NBA-ready big man capable of making an immediate impact as a rookie. Carter has made a big impression as a rim protector with 11 blocked shots, while also showing the lateral quickness and close-out ability to defend smaller players on pick and roll switches. As you'll recall, that was one of the biggest question marks about Carter after playing a lot of zone defense in his one college season at Duke.

Carter showed off his versatile skill set in the Summer League opener against the Cavs, finishing with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocked shots and 2 steals. He knocked down a pair of 3 pointers, scored in the post and in the mid-range while showing a good knack for reading pick & roll plays to either get to the basket or pop out for a 15-18 foot jumper.

After playing in Marvin Bagley's considerable shadow at Duke, Carter is thriving as the primary low post scoring option on the Bulls' Summer League team. He showed off his full arsenal of post moves in a loss to Atlanta on Tuesday, including a nice baseline up-and-under lay-up, and a quick shot fake, driving floater. Carter posted his highest scoring game of the week with 23 points.

Still, it's the 6'10" rookie's play on the defensive end that's really opening the eyes of NBA talent evaluators. He's blocked shots in just about every situation, from 1-on-1 post defense, to weak-side help at the rim, to switching on to smaller perimeter players. The Bulls ranked last in the NBA in blocked shots a year ago, so adding an agile, quick off his feet post man fills a glaring need.

Only time will tell if Carter opens the season as the Bulls' starting center or if the coaching staff decides to open games with veteran Robin Lopez in the middle. (Incidentally, Lopez was in Vegas to check out his new teammates Tuesday, wearing his trademark Seattle Mariners' baseball cap sitting behind the bench.) But no matter which player gets the starting nod, Carter is prepared to contribute in a variety of ways, hopefully having the same kind of impact 2017 No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen had in his rookie season with the Bulls.

The Bulls' other 1st round pick, 6'7" forward Chandler Hutchison is still looking to find his offensive rhythm in the first three games in Vegas. Hutchison showed good quickness in attacking the basket and you can see how his ability as a secondary shot creator intrigued the Bulls' scouts and front office. He's already teamed up with Carter on a couple nice pick and roll plays, which could become a staple of the Bulls' offense if both play together on the second unit.

Hutchison is showing a knack for drawing fouls, which is another area where the Bulls were often lacking last season, and it was good to see him knock down a couple of 3-point shots late in the Bulls' loss to Atlanta. Defensively, the former Boise St. star has good positional size and will be able to switch comfortably to guard the 1 through 4 spots.

Fred Hoiberg and his staff will probably give both rookies a lot of playing time during pre-season games to figure out exactly where they'll fit in the rotation, but the early returns indicate both Carter and Hutchison have the ability to play the pace and space offense the Bulls prefer.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Speaking of the Bulls’ rotation, they now have a bit of a logjam at the wing spots following Friday's decision to match the four-year, $78 million offer sheet Zach LaVine signed with Sacramento. LaVine will start at the shooting guard spot, with Denzel Valentine, Justin Holiday, Hutchison, Antonio Blakeney and possibly David Nwaba (if he's re-signed) competing for minutes at the 2 and 3 positions.

While some fans and media members are upset at the $19 million per season contract given to LaVine, the reality is the Bulls are in the talent acquisition phase of the rebuilding process, and you just can't let a talented, athletic, 23-year-old shooting guard walk out the door without any compensation.

LaVine should be much more efficient next season after a full summer of workouts and a complete training camp to build chemistry with the other young foundation players. He's still the same guy who was having a breakout 3rd season in the NBA before the ACL injury with the Timberwolves, and still was able to average 16.7 points in the 24 games he played with the Bulls that began with a strict minutes restriction.

Plus, with the salary cap scheduled to go up in the next few seasons, LaVine's contract will take on an increasingly smaller percentage of the Bulls' cap sheet, making it a better value. If the Bulls eventually decide that LaVine isn't a great fit with Markkanen, Carter and Kris Dunn, LaVine's contract won't be too rich to include in a trade.

Bottom line, the Bulls front office made the right decision to keep LaVine as a key piece in the rebuild. Now, we'll all get the chance to watch if he can fulfill his intriguing potential in Chicago.

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With LaVine out of the picture, the Kings are still looking to add an impact player through free agency. They've shown interest in Cavs' restricted free agent Rodney Hood, but according to multiple reports, Sacramento's No. 1 target is Celtics' restricted free agent Marcus Smart.

Smart could be the most "gettable" player in this year's RFA class. The Celtics will be facing luxury tax issues in the not too distant future, and may not want to commit in excess of $10 million per season to a bench player. At the end of Boston's playoff run, Smart told reporters he was worth more than $12-14 million a season because of the intangibles he brings that don't always show up in the box score.

Smart emphasized his ability to impact the game on both ends with his all-out hustle and physical play, qualities that would be extremely valuable to a young team like the Kings that's still trying to figure out how to win. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported Sacramento loved Smart in the 2014 draft and would have taken him if he had fallen to their pick at No. 8 overall.

It's unlikely the Kings would make the same type of offer they extended to LaVine, but something in the $14-15 million per season range should be enough to steal him away from Boston. The Celtics already have three max contract players in Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, and young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be due for huge extensions in the not-too-distant future. Whether Danny Ainge is willing to pay big money to keep a valuable reserve like Smart will be one of the more interesting stories to watch as NBA free agency starts to wind down.

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Similar story in Milwaukee, where Chicago native Jabari Parker is still trying to drum up interest in a tight market. With just about all of the available cap space dried up, Parker could be forced to return to the Bucks on the one year qualifying offer and go back into free agency next summer.

Milwaukee is already over the cap for next season, with 5 players making in excess of 10 million dollars a year. Plus, sharp-shooting wing Khris Middleton will be looking for a sizable raise when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Teams have been reluctant to commit long-term dollars to Parker because of the two left ACL tears he's already suffered. Most likely Parker will have to prove he's 100% healthy again by making it through the 82 game regular season and playoffs without any setbacks. Then he could be in line for the big contract he hoped to land this year.

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Finally, it looks like Carmelo Anthony may soon have a new team for next season. Anthony's reps are working with Oklahoma City to come up with the best formula to get Melo off the roster and give the franchise some much-needed luxury tax relief.

Houston is the overwhelming favorite to sign Anthony once he becomes free. Melo and Chris Paul are long-time friends and the Rockets could use a quality reinforcement at the forward position after losing both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute in free agency.

 

Problem is, Anthony and current Rockets' coach Mike D'Antoni clashed when they worked together in New York, and it's difficult to project Melo being able to play at the pace that made Houston so successful last season. Defensively, the Rockets will miss Ariza and Mbah A Moute, especially if they meet up again with Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. Anthony is a huge liability on the defensive end, even if D'Antoni tries to hide him at the power forward spot.

So, Paul and Anthony might be the best of friends, but it's hard to imagine them leading the Rockets to an NBA title in their mid-30's. 

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

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USA TODAY

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

After a drama-filled first eight days under the leadership of new head coach Jim Boylen, maybe a trip to Mexico City is exactly what's needed for the 6-22 Bulls.

With all the reports of player unrest, a potential practice boycott and the formation of a players' leadership group, maybe a team dinner in a warm climate is the perfect recipe for reducing tension.

Of course, both the Bulls and Magic will have to adjust to playing at the mile-high altitude in Mexico City Thursday night. The Bulls' players are hoping to get their legs back after last week's training camp-style practices. They played well in the first half against Sacramento on Monday, running out to a 56-45 lead. But the Bulls looked stuck in the mud the rest of the way, getting outscored 63-33 in the 2nd half on the way to a 108-89 loss, their third in four games under Boylen's direction.

The Magic have also struggled lately after getting off to a good start that currently has them in the eighth playoff position in the East. Orlando has dropped seven of its last 10 games, the latest a 101-76 haymaker at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.

The Magic are led by free agent to be Nikola Vucevic, who's averaging 20.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Aaron Gordon got the big contract he was looking for as a restricted free agent last summer and he's having a decent season, but not what the front office was hoping for after paying him close to 80 million dollars over the next 4 years.

Former Bulls guard D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant are running the point for Orlando. Augustin has started all 27 games so far and he's been decent, averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 assists, while Grant has chipped in 4 points and 3 assists in just under 20 minutes of action off the bench.

Orlando is also getting solid production from wing players Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross, but much like the Bulls, their future is about the development of recent top 10 picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Both have been inconsistent so far, and both need to add strength to be able to deal with all the physical contact in the paint. Unless one or both develop into a top tier post player, the Magic's grand rebuilding plan will fall apart pretty quickly.

Still, Orlando is 12-15 at this point which is about where the Bulls figured to be if they hadn't suffered so many injuries at the start of the season. It will be interesting to see which direction each of these teams go now that the Bulls have everyone back except for Denzel Valentine. Of course, trades could change the composition of both rosters with players like Vucevic, Fournier, Ross, Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez all of potential interest to contending teams.

Here's what it will take for the Bulls to get into the win column on Thursday.

1. Sustained effort. As my former studio partner, the late, great Norm Van Lier used to say, "I need 48 minutes of intensity." The Bulls gave Jim Boylen 24 minutes on Monday, with Zach LaVine throwing down a monstrous hammer dunk to punctuate his 12 point, 5-6 shooting first half effort. Whether it was tired legs from all the extra practice time or poor execution, the Bulls were done in by a turnover-filled second half. They'll need to find a way to avoid the nightmare quarters that have cost them a chance at several wins this season.

2. Limit second-chance points. Orlando has plenty of size with Vucevic, Gordon and Isaac in the starting lineup and Bamba coming off the bench. The Bulls' big men have to focus on boxing out and not allowing the Magic to get multiple shot opportunities. Robin Lopez played well in the first half on Monday, then didn't see the floor after intermission. His size will be important in this game.

3. More from Dunn and Portis. Both players showed encouraging signs in their first game since late October, combining for 14 points and 8 rebounds in the opening half against Sacramento. Best of all, they showed no hesitation in going all out following their rehabs from knee sprains. Dunn should return to the starting lineup soon where his ability to penetrate will lead to easier shots for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Portis can provide instant offense off the bench, something that's been sorely lacking for most of the season.

Don't forget you can watch Thursday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Sticking with the Mexico City theme, we'll be doing the preame show live on location from Harbee Liquor and Tavern in the Pilsen neighborhood, 1345 W. 18th St. If you're going to be in the area, come on out and say hello to Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Horace Grant and myself. Pregame coverage begins at 8 p.m., with the play-by-play call from Neil Funk and Stacey King at 8:30, followed by Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

At the halfway point to the All-Star Game, Zach LaVine has work to do to get in

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USA TODAY

At the halfway point to the All-Star Game, Zach LaVine has work to do to get in

The Bulls will play 58 games before All-Star weekend, and to date they’ve played 28. That means we’re just about at the halfway point. The Bulls’ last All-Star was Jimmy Butler in 2017, though there’s a chance they could have another one take the floor on Feb. 17 in Charlotte. Here’s a look at where Zach LaVine’s chances stand in the Eastern Conference midway through the season’s “first half.”

The locks

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee: He’s the frontrunner for league MVP and given his international appeal has a chance to be the top vote-getter in the entire league. He’s an easy selection to make his third consecutive appearance.

Kawhi Leonard, F, Toronto: Oh right, that’s what a healthy Leonard looks like. Past his hamstring injury that cost him an entire year in San Antonio, Leonard is tearing up the East and has the Raptors sitting atop the conference. His recent play has him in the MVP conversation. He’s in.

Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte: He’s having a career year in this, a contract year, averaging 25.8 points without the real help of a second option around him. He’s been outstanding and consistent all year.

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia: Another year, another step forward. Embiid has once again lifted his game to new heights in his third year, averaging a remarkable 26.3 points and 13.1 rebound per game. Since 2000, only Shaq, Kevin Love and Giannis Antetokounmpo (this year) have reached those numbers.

Jimmy Butler, G, Philadelphia: We thought it’d be in the West, but a midseason trade to Philadelphia will put Butler back on the East All-Star team for a fifth straight year. Even with his baggage he’s one of the league’s best.

The really safe bets

Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto: He’s struggled of late but Lowry is still the league leader in assists and the floor general of a dominant Raptors team. He should make his fifth straight All-Star appearance.

Blake Griffin, F, Detroit: He’d be the frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year if the NBA handed it out. Griffin is averaging career highs in points and 3-pointers and has a chance to be the 11th player ever to average 25-9-5.

Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando: This one may surprise you, but go look at his numbers. He’s averaging 20 and 11 and is one of eight players averaging 1 steal, 1 block and 1 3-pointer per game. He’s also shooting .541/.400/.840. He’s been incredible.

Ben Simmons, G, Philadelphia: Politics might have left him off last year’s team, but don’t expect that this time around. Simmons is unique, efficient and a budding star. He won’t get left off two years in a row.

Andre Drummond, C, Detroit: The Pistons’ big man is on pace to become the first player since Moses Malone in 1983 to average 18 points and 15 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. In fact, only six players have ever done it and they’re all in the Hall of Fame (Abdul-Jabbar, Bellamy, Chamberlain, Lucas, Malone, McAdoo)

The should-be-ins

Victor Oladipo, G, Indiana: A knee injury has slowed him down some but Oladipo remains one of the best two-way players in the East. His numbers are down slightly from last year’s Most Improved Player campaign but he’s still one of the conference’s best.

Kyrie Irving, G, Boston: It was an ugly start for the C’s point guard but Irving has righted the ship. Since Oct. 30 he’s averaging 24.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 43 percent from deep.

That’s 12 names. Here’s how the prospective All-Stars from the East would look. Yes, there’s a draft and these players will be mixed up, but the pool that the captains pick from will still come from this format.

Starters

2 guards: Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler

3 frontcourts: Giannis, Kawhi, Embiid

Reserves

2 guards reserves: Lowry, Simmons

3 frontcourt reserves: Griffin, Vucevic, Drummond

2 wildcards: Irving, Oladipo

In this author’s opinion, LaVine has work to do. The two Wild Cards, Irving and Oladipo, don’t have flawless resumes this season. There’s certainly an argument that LaVine has had the better season of the three, especially given how much he’s been asked to do for the injury-ridden Bulls.

But he won’t get the seniority edge, and the Bulls’ 6-22 record won’t do him any favors (just ask Devin Booker last year). LaVine has also been in a funk the last month or so, though he’s put together two nice outings and (we think?) is now on the same page with new head coach Jim Boylen.

His counting numbers will decrease naturally with Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn in the fold, but perhaps his efficiency will increase, pushing the Bulls to a handful more wins. That’d give LaVine some notoriety and perhaps push him toward his first All-Star appearance at age 23.