Bulls

Roommates, brothers, opponents: Coby White, Cam Johnson reunite and show out

Roommates, brothers, opponents: Coby White, Cam Johnson reunite and show out

Cameron Johnson had just been selected by the Phoenix Suns with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. At the time, the move was a surprise — Johnson was projected to fall into the middle to late first round, despite averaging 16.9 points and shooting 45.7 percent from 3 in his last year at North Carolina.

So, elation was a natural response for all close to Johnson. And nobody displayed that elation more authentically — nor more publicly — than Johnson’s teammate, roommate and ‘little brother,’ Coby White (who had been picked by the Bulls just four slots earlier). You remember the clip:

That familial bond was grown over many nights bunking together on the road during White’s one and only year at UNC. It all began on a week-long trip to the Bahamas before last season.

“Coming in, I'm the type of dude where if I don't really know you, then I don't talk a lot,” White said. “And then Cam was like ‘Why you so anti(-social)?’ and then it kinda started from there. He became a guy I could always go to if I ever needed something, on or off the court.”

“You know, seniors pair with freshmen, make sure they're everybody they need to be on time,” Johnson, a fifth-year in 2018-19, said. “But he was, like, a mature, easy, no-drama freshman. His composure was at a very high level. His maturity was at a very high level.”

White scoffed at that, saying he got a similar rep (of being ‘mature’) in his first weeks with the Bulls. “I was like nah just trust me,” he said. “And now I'm like that little brother that's annoying them.”

Still, Johnson and White became fast friends during their overlapping year in Chapel Hill. Though it’s been tough to keep in touch amid the rigors of their first NBA seasons, they each agreed that competing against each other was a fun change of pace.

“It was great seeing him. I hadn't seen him in a long time, so it was great seeing him,” White said. “We talk here and there, but because we're so busy — it's one of those things, like, you know no matter what we're gonna have each other's backs. We always gonna be there for each other when we need each other.”

“I love that kid, man. I tell you, most of the time when we talk, it’s just saying what’s up and just reminding each other that we love each other,” Johnson said. “That’s my guy and I went over and gave him a big hug before I went on the court today.”

 

What ensued come gametime was special for all. In the contest — a 112-104 Suns victory — White poured in a career-high 33 points and canned seven 3-pointers, shooting 11-for-22 from the field. Johnson notched 11 points and three 3-pointers, and made all of them count.

RELATED: Coby White posts career night but Bulls come up short vs. Suns

“It was fun but I hate him so much,” White said of Johnson, who hit two of his three 3-pointers in the game’s fourth quarter. “I just know whenever he shoots, if he gets any type of open look, it's going in. So every time he shot it, in my head, I'm like mad cause I'm like, he's the one you just can't leave him open. The ball just kept finding him in open space.”

But then, with a smile: “But obviously, it's all love. After the game, I talked to him. He told me he was proud of me and whatnot. He's like a big brother to me, so it means a lot.”

There’s just something about these Tar Heels. With Roy Williams at the United Center on Nov. 12, White set a Bulls record for 3-pointers in a quarter with seven in the fourth against the Knicks. Tonight, lined up across from Johnson, he scored the second-most points in Bulls franchise history by a rookie off the bench.

He, Johnson and Bulls fans everywhere will be counting down the days until the team visits Phoenix on April 5.

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Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.

But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.

That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.

Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.

The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).

You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did. 

The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity. 

Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.

Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half

What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.

But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.

Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.

Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.

Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.

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Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

A palpable buzz is building as we creep closer and closer to the April 19 release date for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls.

Former ESPN employee and current CEO of the Ringer, Bill Simmons, added to that in a recent appearance on FS1’s "The Herd," a radio show hosted by Colin Cowherd.

 

In Simmons’ time at ESPN, he famously pioneered the "30 for 30" documentary series that has since swelled in popularity and name-brand recognition. In a six-minute interview with Cowherd, Simmons recalled the universal reverence for Jordan and the ’90s Bulls, and Jordan’s reluctance to peel the curtain back on their exploits.

“We [ESPN] tried to do it [a Jordan documentary] after we finished the first "30 for 30" series when we had everything going in 2009,” Simmons said. “We knew about this documentary that NBA Entertainment had. You know, they had filmed his whole season. They had all this behind the scenes stuff. So we got a copy of it, and we watched it. And the behind the scenes stuff, it was the real Jordan. It was the homicidally competitive Jordan, the guy yelling at his teammates. It was all the stuff we had always heard of but never seen. And we were just like, how do we get this made?”

But…

“Jordan never wanted it, and I think what happened, middle of the (2010s) decade, especially when LeBron won that Cavs title, when things really started to shift and all of a sudden there was an MJ vs. LeBron argument. I think for the first time, Jordan and his camp realized, ‘Oh, we gotta protect our legacy here,’” Simmons said. “People are starting to forget how great and famous and how universally everyone thought, who was there, this is the best basketball player I’m ever going to see. And I still feel that way.”

To be clear, there’s no evidence of the footage Simmons alluded to being directly related to “The Last Dance.” But it shows that there is a side to Jordan that the masses have yet to see.

Hopefully, we get to experience that side in all its flaws and glory come April 19.

RELATED: How to watch 'The Last Dance' docuseries on MJ, '98 Bulls

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