NBA ROOKIE CLASS IMPRESSED WITH BULLS' CARTER JR.
NBA coaches, executives and scouts weren't the only people impressed with the play of Wendell Carter Jr. during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Turns out his fellow rookies also took notice of his all-around excellence.
In a survey of the 2018 rookie class done by NBA.com, the former Duke center was the most popular response to the question "Which rookie will have the best career?" Carter Jr. received 13% of the votes, compared to 10% for runners-up Kevin Knox and Jerome Robinson. No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton tied for 3rd at 7%, along with Mo Bamba, Mikal Bridges, Collin Sexton and Lonnie Walker IV.
Meanwhile, Ayton and Sexton tied for the most votes to the question "Who will be the Rookie of the Year?", and that's not surprising considering both can expect a high usage rate in starting roles. Carter Jr. figures to split time at center with Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis this season, so his raw numbers probably won't be impressive enough to put him in the running for the ROY award.
Still, the rookie class obviously took notice of Carter Jr.'s versatile skill-set in Vegas. At 6’10’’ , with a 7’4’’ wingspan, Carter Jr. showed the ability to block shots at the rim, as well as the lateral quickness necessary to switch on to smaller players in pick and roll situations. Carter Jr.'s offensive game is also more versatile than what we saw at Duke, with polished post-moves and the ability to finish with either hand, an excellent face-up jumper and the ability to shoot with accuracy from the 3-point line.
Carter Jr.'s skill-set should fit seamlessly with last year's rookie sensation, Lauri Markkanen, giving the Bulls a frontline duo they can build around for the next decade. Looks like that No. 7 draft position turned out to be very lucky in the Bulls' rebuild.
CENTRAL DIVISION SCRAMBLE
With the addition of Carter Jr., fellow 1st round draft pick Chandler Hutchison and free agent forward Jabari Parker, the Bulls could be poised for a double digit increase from their 27 wins of a year ago. Question is, where does that put them in the new-look, LeBron-less Central Division?
Right now, you'd have to expect the Pacers and Bucks to battle it out for the division title in the upcoming season. Indiana won 48 games last season led by All-Star guard Victor Oladipo and almost took out the Cavs in the opening round of the playoffs. Oladipo figures to be even better this season and the Pacers return their starting line-up intact. In addition, GM Kevin Pritchard went the free agent route to strengthen the team's bench, adding scorers Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott and physical big man Kyle O'Quinn. The Pacers also drafted the NBA's 3rd Holiday brother, UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday. Indiana should make a run at 50 wins this season and probably edge out the Bucks by virtue of their superior depth.
Milwaukee figures to benefit from new head coach Mike Budenholzer's share-the-wealth offense that helped the Atlanta Hawks win 60 games during the 2014-15 season. You can count on Budenholzer to come up with more creative ways to feature top 10 talent Giannis Antetokounmpo, and find open shots for the likes of Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, rookie Donte DiVincenzo and former Bull Tony Snell. The Bucks are also counting on improvement from young bigs Thon Maker and 2017 1st round pick D.J. Wilson. Pencil in Milwaukee for around 48 wins and a 5-seed in the playoffs.
Now things get really interesting. The Pistons, Cavs and Bulls all figure to be in the 35 to 40 win range, possibly competing for the last playoff spot in the East.
Detroit should be improved this season if Blake Griffin can somehow figure out a way to stay healthy for an entire season. Griffin consistently put up big scoring and rebounding numbers with the Clippers when healthy, but at this point you have to wonder if we've already seen the best from the high-flying power forward.
The Pistons should benefit from adding 2017-18 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, but they didn't do much to improve the roster this summer after trading their 1st round pick to the Clippers in the Griffin deal. Casey worked wonders with building the NBA's most productive 2nd unit in Toronto around unheralded young players Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. Now, he'll try to do the same with Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and rookie Khyri Thomas. The key for Detroit will be good health, particularly with their "Big 3" of Griffin, point guard Reggie Jackson and All-Star center Andre Drummond.
No one really knows what to expect from the Cavs in the post-LeBron era (part 2). GM Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert decided to stay the course with LeBron's flawed supporting cast instead of going into total rebuild mode. Collin Sexton should provide new energy and shot creating ability at the point guard position, and Kevin Love is still an All-Star talent at the power forward spot. But can Ty Lue get enough from young players Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr., along with returning vets Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, George Hill and J.R. Smith to make a run at a playoff spot? It will be interesting to see what kind of start the Cavs get off to, and how that might impact a change of direction at the trade deadline.
That leaves the Bulls, who figure to be good for 35 wins with the addition of new weapons on the offensive end. If Markkanen continues his progression in Year 2, and the backcourt duo of Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn develop better chemistry with a full season together, the Bulls should be playing meaningful games in March and April. And, whichever team finishes 3rd in the Central Division is probably going to earn that 8th playoff spot in the East.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Back to the Cavs, Love revealed frightening details of a panic attack he suffered during a game on November 5th of last season in an interview with Carson Daly on NBC's Today show.
"I had a moment where I thought I was going to die," Love said. "I had never experienced something like that. I thought I was having a heart attack. Heart racing and I was running around looking for something that I couldn't find. I just wanted to get air. And so I ended up basically unconscious on the floor and putting my hand down my throat and trying to get something out of there, but there was nothing there."
Love also said during the interview that the Cavs trainer had no idea what was going on at the time, and could only stay with him until his breathing stabilized in the locker room.
Since that life-changing night, Love decided to go public about his struggles with anxiety attacks with the hope of encouraging young people to seek out the help they need. Fellow NBA players DeMar DeRozan, Kelly Oubre and Steven Adams have also spoken out on their issues with anxiety and depression to try to increase mental health awareness worldwide.
It's no secret the Toronto Raptors are going all-in for the 2018-19 season, hoping a run to the Finals might convince free agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard to sign with the league's only Canadian franchise long-term next summer.
With that in mind, the Raptors hired Leonard's long-time friend Jeremy Castleberry to a position with their coaching staff. Castleberry was a teammate of Leonard's in high school and at San Diego St. and he worked on the Spurs' staff as an assistant video coordinator.
While most NBA analysts expect Leonard to bolt for Los Angeles next summer, the Raptors are the only team that can offer him a five-year, $191 million dollar contract. If Leonard chooses a new team, the most he can sign for is four years and $141 million. And, given what happened with Paul George deciding to re-sign with Oklahoma City in July after saying he wanted to play for the Lakers, the possibility of Leonard becoming comfortable in Toronto can't be ruled out.
That puts a ton of pressure on 1st year head coach Nick Nurse to try to mold a contending team while making sure Leonard and his entourage are happy. It will be one of the most interesting storylines to follow this season.
NBA scouts figure to be spending a lot of time following the Duke basketball team during the upcoming college campaign. The Blue Devils showed off their high-flying freshman class during a tour of Canada last week. 6'7", 285 pound forward Zion Williamson defies gravity with his alley-oop finishes, even though he's already heavier than LeBron James. It will be interesting to see if Williamson's body will hold up jumping that high at that weight. Williamson is projected as a top 5 pick in the 2019 draft even though he hasn't needed to worry about developing a consistent jump shot so far in his career.
Meanwhile, native Canadian R.J. Barrett is the projected number one pick with advanced scoring skills for an 18 year old shooting guard. Barrett and Williamson thrived against the weak competition they faced in Canada, and it will be interesting to see if they can score that easily against the top college programs in the U.S. The 3rd member of Duke's superstar freshman group, forward Cameron Reddish, didn't take part in the Canadian tour because of a minor injury, but he's also projected to be a top 5 pick next June.
Finally, it's been a productive summer for Bulls' guard Zach LaVine. Not only did LaVine sign a new four-year, $78 million dollar free agent contract, but he's been dominating games on the pro-am circuit. By all appearances, LaVine is back to the form that helped him average almost 19 points a game with Minnesota before suffering the ACL tear in February of 2017. He's been throwing down contest-worthy dunks during games while racking up huge point totals in the wide-open summer runs.
Probably the highlight of LaVine's summer was this shout-out from the winningest player in NBA history, Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, who posted on his Twitter account: