Bulls

Nikola Mirotic sits late in loss to Blazers, but the Bulls were really missing Zach LaVine

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USA TODAY

Nikola Mirotic sits late in loss to Blazers, but the Bulls were really missing Zach LaVine

Kris Dunn muttered expletives after his jumper came up short that could have tied the game at 122 and forced the Bulls and Portland Trailblazers into another delicate dance into double overtime.

A learning experience to be sure as Dunn has played in plenty of close games late and come out on the positive side more times than not.

“I was trying to look for the pocket pass for (Robin Lopez) and then the kickout,” he said. “I was deep in the paint and I just took the shot.”

On the bench sat a man who could have helped Dunn out with spacing on a cramped floor, where Dunn’s late pass on a previous possession hit Lopez at the worst possible place—near his feet.

But Nikola Mirotic didn’t play the final 12:34 of the game, being subbed out with Bobby Portis for Lopez and Lauri Markkanen as Fred Hoiberg had to decide what was most important with Jusef Nurkic eating up space like Pac-Man in the paint.

“I wish I was there playing,” said Mirotic, who revealed he had an issue with a strain in his ribs in the second quarter. He didn’t take the bait of criticizing Hoiberg for not playing him late, especially when the Bulls could’ve used the firepower.

“I felt good in the third quarter, making some shots, and Fred just played with Lauri and Robin, which is great.”

Mirotic’s 18 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes looked good on the box score, but even he wasn’t the best option to aid Dunn on a night where he had eight turnovers—his highest output of the season, turning the clock on his development back for one night.

Zach LaVine will be the man to best clear room late, so defenses won’t be able to load up on the slithering point guard as he navigates the field for easy shots. LaVine finished his third day of training camp-like practices, this one with the Windy City Bulls as he’s halfway to hitting the mark the Bulls set for him before the next step surrounding his potential return.

“Everything looked great. He’s had two lengthy practices the last couple days with Windy City and has had no complications,” Hoiberg said. “He’s sore, as expected. After practice [Monday] he went straight to the ice tub to kind of work on the soreness. But yeah, overall he’s handled it great. He’ll have another good opportunity [Tuesday].”

Hoiberg isn’t getting ahead of himself, as he made those comments before Monday’s game, but

“He’s another guy that can give you that. We were playing through Denzel (Valentine), then Kris-Lauri and RoLo had a little bit of success,” Hoiberg said. “He gives you a really good shot maker, probably the best shot maker on the team.”

It’s what the Bulls missed Monday as C.J. McCollum overcame missing his first eight shots and a borderline miserable night to take over late, getting into the crevices of the Bulls defense with his sneaky athleticism and ability to play the angles to his advantage.

Thirteen of McCollum’s 32 points came in the fourth quarter and overtime, and it took 30 shots to get there as the Blazers were without headliner Damian Lillard due to a hamstring injury.

He had help from Al-Farouq Aminu and Chicagoan Evan Turner, as Aminu kept slipping away from the weak side to drain five triples and Turner’s unorthodox game kept the Blazers afloat until McCollum shook free of the Bulls defense late, scoring 22 on 10 of 14 shots.

On a good team, Lauri Markkanen fills the role of secondary scorer late, as defenses won’t be able to load up on a more mature Dunn and a fully healthy LaVine from getting to their spots.

Dunn has been a revelation and shows the gumption to take big shots late but even he would probably say in a moment of honesty his best fit is in a role complementing LaVine late as opposed to being looked at as a closer on a nightly basis—at least to this point.

Markkanen calmly drilled a 3-pointer late against the Wizards Sunday afternoon and came up a hair short on a triple with 17 seconds left in the fourth that could’ve broken the 112-all score, but this experience is invaluable for his long-term development.

“Being in there at the end of crunch time. That shot he took, that was right there. Just another centimeter, that thing’s in the basket,” Hoiberg said. “He’s not afraid. He hit a couple big shots for us in overtime, the kid is going to be an unbelievable player.”

As a whole, we’ve been distracted, our thoughts led astray by the Astro bombs Mirotic has fired away at a moments’ notice that resulted in a hailstorm of victories. The clouded vision has made the Bulls more than watchable; they’ve been downright fun to observe as Hoiberg’s system creates almost a controlled chaos of sorts—heck, anything where Portis and Mirotic make sweet basketball music in tandem has to be some form of insanity given the circumstances.

Averaging 109 points in the 13 games before Monday’s overtime thriller is not a mirage, and some have quietly wondered if LaVine’s return would throw off the Bulls’ newfound chemistry and effectiveness, having to work in a perimeter player who’ll command a lot of attention and need a chance to work the rust off a debilitating ACL injury.

But the last two games—losses that put the fun and exciting Bulls back to 2.5 games away from having the worst record in the league—have also shined a light on the roster’s limitations as it stands.

Hoiberg’s system can create shots for just about anybody—see Lopez taking 16 shots or Mirotic having the ultimate green light as he boosts his trade value in the meantime—but what the Bulls need long-term is someone to create shots outside of the offense, when the game slows down and movement becomes less of a priority.

See John Wall and Bradley Beal, as no one with a brain can tell you the Washington Wizards ran smoother offensive sets with Scott Brooks on the sidelines, who for his strengths as a coach, X’s and O’s aren’t high on that list.

See McCollum, who caught a rhythm late.

See Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, the player who gave the Milwaukee Bucks a 52-point performance Monday night, and he’ll be in the United Center Wednesday for an encore.

Having Mirotic on the floor would’ve been nice for the short-term, to send the United Center faithful home with more than just a participation trophy of sorts, but any criticism headed Hoiberg’s way is short-sighted.

LaVine is the guy who was missed Monday.

Bulls Talk Podcast: How NBA Draft combine impacted mock drafts

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: How NBA Draft combine impacted mock drafts

On this edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski and Kendall Gill discuss the NBA Draft and what happened at the NBA combine that shifted most experts mock drafts.

Kendall also explains why a "promise" to draft a player isn’t guaranteed. He also shares his experience on getting drafted by the Hornets and why he initially felt they were the wrong team for him.

North Carolina "News and Observer" Duke basketball beat writer Jonathan Alexander gives us his opinion on Wendell Carter and the other Duke draft prospects including why he thinks Carter will be a future all-star. Also includes an interview with Carter from the draft combine.

Listen to the full Bulls Talk Podcast right here:

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

Anfernee Simons looks more like a ball boy than a 2018 NBA Draft prospect right now. He’s not considered small, what with having a 6-foot-3 frame with a massive 6-foot-9 wingspan, and he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine at 183 pounds, “heavier” than Lottery-bound guards like Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Collin Sexton.

But there’s plenty of potential to unpack from the soon-to-be 19-year-old, baby-faced combo guard. Don’t let the appearance fool you. Simons is one of the most talented players in the class, and a team patient enough to let him develop at his own pace could reap major benefits in due time.

You won’t find much video on Simons, as the IMG Academy star is preparing to be the first prospect to go preps-to-pros without a year in college since Thon Maker did so in 2016.

Simons, a consensus five-star recruit in the 2018 class, originally committed to Louisville in November 2016 and then decommitted the following September shortly after Rick Pitino was fired. Since he had graduated from Edgewater High School in Florida and was playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy, he became eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft because he is a year removed from high school. That’s where he played this past season, declaring for the draft and signing with an agent in late March.

“The opportunity is there. Me and my parents talked about it a lot and I feel like I’m confident in myself that I’ll be able to make this jump,” he said at last week’s Combine. “So I just felt like, do it now and not waste any time.”

Simons has been on the radars of NBA teams, even if he’s not a household name like Ayton, Doncic and Bagley. He’s currently projected outside of the Lottery, in part because teams haven’t seen him compete against collegiate level talent and because his wiry frame almost surely means time in the G-League as a rookie. But again, the skill set is there.

Simons is a point guard with solid range beyond the arc. He may struggle off the ball because of his size, though that long wingspan and a quick release from his chest should allow him to get off shots. He’s a blur in transition and finishes well at the rim – his 41.5-inch vertical was tied for third best at the Combine, and his three-quarters court sprint was eighth fastest.

He’s a mixed bag defensively. Wingspan is the fun buzz word these days, and that will help him at the next level, but his small frame means there’s work to be done. A strength and conditioning coach will salivate at bringing Simons into the weight room and getting his body NBA-ready.

“Just staying durable through 82 games,” Simons answered when asked about his biggest challenge physically at the next level. “Taking care of your body is real pivotal so I feel like learning how to take care of my body now is a good thing.”

Simons maturely answered that the “unknown” of his game will be both a positive and minus during the pre-draft process. While fellow prospects he may face in team workouts don’t know as much about him and, thus, his game, teams also need to find out more about Simons’ game and off-court habits.

“Coming in young, people don’t know who I am and haven’t seen me play much. That’s the good side about coming in early,” he said. “It could be the same thing (negatively). People haven’t seen me like that, so I feel like they don’t know who I am. They probably think I’m too young to play in the league.”

Simons met with the Bulls and has scheduled a pre-draft workout with them. Though the Bulls feel like their rebuild could go quicker than anticipated – especially if they hit on their No. 7 pick – there could be plenty to gain from drafting for upside on a player like Simons.

Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne will both be free agents in 2019, and Denzel Valentine’s long-term future isn’t set in stone in Chicago. That leaves plenty of openings in the backcourt behind Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Simons won’t be ready to contribute much in 2018-19, but the Bulls wouldn’t need him to. A handful of outlets projected Simons as a top-5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Bulls could snag him a year earlier, let him develop in Hoffman Estates and bring him up in a year when they’re a step closer to contending.