Bulls

Portis 2.0? Bulls get mature, hard worker in Daniel Gafford: 'He has a great feel for who he is'

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USA TODAY

Portis 2.0? Bulls get mature, hard worker in Daniel Gafford: 'He has a great feel for who he is'

Had Daniel Gafford kept his name in the 2018 NBA Draft as a freshman, he likely would have walked across the stage and shook the commissioner’s hand as a first-round selection. The Arkansas center instead returned to school for his sophomore season and, despite individual successes, saw his draft stock fall out of the first round.

Draft evaluators would consider his decision to return to school a failed attempt at betting on oneself. But Gafford, who the Bulls made the No. 38 pick on Thursday night, knew he wasn’t ready for the NBA and instead got himself ready for the league on his own terms.

“I decided to come back to get that year under my belt. If I would have came out my freshman year, this process would have (eaten) me up,” Gafford said Monday at the Advocate Center. “And I didn’t want that to happen.”

That maturity and self-awareness was apparent during Gafford’s introductory press conference that also included first-round pick Coby White, VP John Paxson and head coach Jim Boylen. He made no excuses for why he may have slipped to the second round in what was largely considered a weak draft class – “it could have been me, it could have been the draft – but owned that reality that he says will only push him to work harder.

Both Paxson and Boylen saw that ownership in the pre-draft process. Ironically enough, it reminded both of Bobby Portis, another Arkansas big man selected by the Bulls.

“His spirit of who he was in the interview, at the pre-draft camp, to where he came in and worked out for us, it was a Bobby-like spirit,” Boylen said. “Competitive, toughness, compete, take coaching, take correction, learn on the fly. We changed his free throw a little bit just when he came in for the workout. He was able to pick it up. Things like that.”

It’s common – and almost a requirement – for draft picks to describe their competitive nature and willingness to work hard in introductory interviews. But none of it felt rehearsed or fake with Gafford, who admitted he’s far from a finished product but also said he’s willing to improve wherever he can.

Gafford, who said he became a Portis fan before he even committed to Arkansas, won’t provide the same versatility as Crazy Eyes did in his time with the Bulls. Gafford is a true center, a rim-runner whose offense will come from pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds – “I think everything's a miss,” he said when describing his rebounding prowess – and who will be relied upon to defend the rim on the other end. He admitted that at times he’s guilty of expanding his game too far but that he’s gotten better at realizing his strengths and playing to them. That’s something Boylen said stuck out to him when he first met Gafford in the pre-draft process.

“There’s an art in the world of kind of knowing who you are, and he has a great feel for who he is as a player,” Boylen said. “Again, he adds to our vertical spacing, he adds to our athleticism, our length, our competitiveness, and again, he looks you in the eye when you talk to him, he has a great spirit.”

The expectation is that Gafford will slide in behind Wendell Carter Jr. on the depth chart at center. There’s been no indication that the Bulls plan to bring back Robin Lopez, and Cristiano Felicio won’t be part of any rotation unless the Bulls are playing for Lottery balls in March and April.

His skill set also gives the Bulls an added dimension. He’s built like and plays like Clint Capela, a comparison he agreed with on Monday, and should allow the Bulls to run more in the open court. He’s an unfinished product (despite being 6 months older than Carter) but will get to learn on the fly for the rebuilding Bulls.

A new skill set, a hard worker and a guy who returned to Arkansas for his sophomore season to hone his game. Though they’re different players at different positions, the Bulls would be more than happy if Gafford’s career panned out the same as Portis’.

“Bobby was great for us and a great kid and I think that Daniel’s in that same mold, maybe on a different style of play, different position,” Boylen said. “He adds to our versatile spacing and our length and our athleticism. (The) Arkansas program has been good to us, so we’re gonna keep it going here.”

Zach LaVine's and Lauri Markkanen's best combined games last season

Zach LaVine's and Lauri Markkanen's best combined games last season

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen only played 1,100 minutes together over 41 games last season, but they made them count. Here are their five most impressive games as a duo.

5. Jan. 4, 2019: Pacers 119, Bulls 116 (OT)

LaVine: 31 points (12-21 FG, 5-9 3FG), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 35 minutes
Markkanen: 27 points (11-20 FG, 4-9 3FG), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 42 minutes

Combined: 58 points (23-41 FG, 9-18 3FG), 14 rebounds, 5 assists

We begin with the only loss on this list. LaVine and Markkanen scored 18 of the Bulls' first 20 points and the former finished with 17 in the opening period. LaVine went scoreless on 0 of 3 shooting in the second and third quarters but turned it back on in the fourth, scoring eight points in the final minute, including a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.

Markkanen scored 14 of his points in those second and third quarters to keep the Bulls close, but he really turned it on in overtime. Markkanen scored back-to-back buckets on assists from Kris Dunn (who had 17 of them in the game) to give the Bulls a 109-107 lead in the extra period. Markkanen then hit a 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 116-116. Victor Oladipo's 3-pointer off the glass with 0.3 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner, but only after officials overturned LaVine's 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer that would have sent it to overtime.

4. Dec. 7, 2018: Bulls 114, Thunder 112

LaVine: 25 points (10-18 FG, 2-5 3FG), 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 36 minutes
Markkanen: 24 points (8-12 FG, 4-8 3FG), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 28 minutes

Combined: 49 points, (18-30 FG, 6-13 3FG), 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals

Lauri Markkanen had looked disappointing in his first two games back from injury to begin the year. He had made just 12 of 38 shots (31.6%) and a date against the league’s top-ranked defense suggested it wouldn’t get better.

Instead, Markkanen put together what wound up being his most efficient game of the season. He shot 8 of 12 (his best field goal percentage of the year) and was a perfect 4 of 4 in the paint. Two of those paint shots were an impressive drive past Paul George for a thunderous dunk, and the other was a spinning drive-and-layup over George and Steven Adams with 8 seconds left to give the Bulls a two-point lead.

LaVine wasn’t bad, either. He was George’s assignment much of the evening but managed to put together a solid line that included nine critical fourth-quarter points to erase a seven-point deficit.

It was the Bulls’ most impressive victory to date and marked the first time both players had topped 24 points in a game. Call this one the first sign of something special brewing between these two young guns.

3. Feb. 8, 2019: Bulls 125, Nets 106

LaVine: 26 points (10-17 FG), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 37 minutes
Markkanen: 31 points (11-18 FG, 3-7 3FG), 18 rebounds, 2 blocks, 38 minutes

Combined: 57 points (21-35 FG, 5-9 3FG), 21 rebounds, 5 assists

LaVine’s numbers don’t jump off the page, and this was during Markkanen’s best stretch of the season, but this one was memorable because of how seamless the duo worked with Otto Porter in his Bulls debut. Porter had been acquired two days earlier, and there were tempered expectations about how quickly he would acclimate to a 12-42 team.

Well, Porter wound up opening plenty for the Bulls offense. The Bulls scored 125 points on 62.4% effective shooting and had an offensive rating of 121.9. LaVine and Markkanen both lived inside, with 14 of their 21 combined field goals coming in the paint.

LaVine had 17 in the first half and Markkanen took over after halftime, scoring 21 of his 31 as the Bulls coasted to their second largest victory of the year. Markkanen also pulled down 18 rebounds, making him one of nine players this past season to log a 30-18 game.

2. Mar. 1, 2019: Bulls 168, Hawks 161 (4OT)

LaVine: 47 points (17-35 FG, 6-14 3FG), 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 56 minutes
Markkanen: 31 points (9-18 FG, 3-6 3FG, 10-12 FT), 17 rebounds, 54 minutes

Combined: 78 points (26-53 FG, 9-20 3FG, 17-23 FT), 26 rebounds, 11 assists

The raw numbers are certainly magnified because the two combined for 110 minutes. But looking past that inflation, LaVine and Markkanen both had monster nights in the most entertaining victory of the year.

Just watch the highlights. It was that freaking good.

1. Feb. 23, 2019: Bulls 126, Celtics 116

LaVine: 42 points (17-29 FG, 5-11 3FG), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 39 minutes
Markkanen: 35 points (12-20 FG, 3-7 3FG, 8-9 FT), 15 rebounds, 37 minutes

Combined: 77 points (29-49 FG, 8-18 3FG, 11-12 FT), 21 rebounds, 6 assists

This one was easy. All LaVine and Markkanen did in the second game out of the All-Star break was each set career-highs in points, obliterate the No. 4 defense in the NBA that had just limited the Bucks to 98 points, and do so on the second half of a road-home back-to-back (they played in Orlando the previous night).

And the fact that it exacted some demons from 77 days earlier, when the Celtics handed the Bulls their worst home loss in franchise history, made it even more special. It prompted Jim Boylen to say after the game that “maybe it’s starting to sink in” for the young group.

There were two sequences that really stuck out from this memorable night. After the second unit had extended the Bulls’ lead to eight in the second quarter, LaVine and Markkanen went on a run, scoring 34 of the Bulls’ next 41 points spanning into the third quarter. They went 13 of 17 from the field and pushed the lead to 87-62.

After the Celtics cut the lead down to 94-86 early in the fourth quarter, the duo was back at it. They scored 15 straight points for the Bulls and wound up scoring 22 of 24 points that pushed the lead back out to 12 with 2 minutes remaining. LaVine capped off his night with two free throws in garbage time to give him his 41st and 42nd point to set a career-high.

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Lakers sign Dwight Howard, ending the Joakim Noah-to-LA-possibility

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USA TODAY

Lakers sign Dwight Howard, ending the Joakim Noah-to-LA-possibility

The Los Angeles Lakers were scrambling for another big man in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins torn ACL and Bulls fan were sent into a collective panic at the idea of lifelong LeBron James (and Cleveland) agitator Joakim Noah joining forces with him in Hollywood. 

Following a series of workouts with Noah and veteran centers Mo Speights and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have settled on Howard as their replacement for Cousins. 

Howard was a member of the Washington Wizards before they traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a deal to acquire wing shooter CJ Miles earlier this offseason. 

Over the 2018-19 season, Howard averaged 12.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 0.4 blocks per game and finished with the second-lowest PER (17.4) of his career. Comparatively, Noah played 42 games in 2018-19, averaging 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.7 blocks per game and posted an 18.6 PER. 

The Lakers deal with Howard is non-guaranteed and the Lakers have all the leverage in the deal as ESPN reported, they will be able to cut Howard before the NBA's January 7 deadline without any financial impact on the team. 

The move reunites Howard with the Lakers, with whom he played 76 games for in the 2012-13 season.

Howard was an All-Star during his first Lakers stint, averaging 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game but ultimately had an unsuccessful (in terms of championship aspirations) tenure in the purple and gold.

The Howard-to-Lakers deal makes LA's roster full with 15 players in tow, so this officially ends any possibility of Noah teaming up with LeBron. Bulls fans can rejoice, for now. 

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