Thaddeus Young eager to help change Bulls’ culture and return to the playoffs

Thaddeus Young eager to help change Bulls’ culture and return to the playoffs

LAS VEGAS — After an abysmal 22-win season in 2018-19, Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said the Bulls intended to add culture-changing veterans in free agency. At 6:01 on June 30, the Bulls followed through on that promise, quickly agreeing to a three-year, $41 million deal with 12-year veteran forward Thaddeus Young, who spent the previous three seasons with the Indiana Pacers.

Young was an unexpected early signing, given that he will likely come off the bench behind Lauri Markkanen at power forward. But if Paxson’s goal was to bring in serious-minded professionals to put around Chicago’s burgeoning young core, he accomplished it. Speaking to reporters at Summer League for the first time since officially signing with the Bulls, Young expressed a desire to get the most out of the likes of Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter, Jr. and help the Bulls return to the playoffs for the first time since trading Jimmy Butler in 2017.

“It starts by not getting tired of the grind,” Young said. “Not getting tired of the competitive nature. A lot of guys, they tend to get tired of the competitive nature, of coming to practices each and every day and playing over and over. But when you do those same things over and over, it helps you get better as a team, and it helps you win more games as a team. We just have to continue to keep that grind, continue to stay focused on the task at hand, which is winning basketball games, and hopefully we get to the playoffs.”

Young was in Las Vegas watching the Bulls’ Summer League team drop their second straight game, a blowout loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The main attraction of Chicago’s teams has been No. 7 overall pick Coby White, whose performances have been up-and-down through three games at the event. Young likes what he sees in the newest member of the Bulls’ young nucleus, even if he acknowledges that White has a ways to go before becoming a productive player at the NBA level.

“He's a decent point guard that's very aggressive,” Young said. “Sometimes he picks his dribble up a little bit. But just from watching a couple games, I think he's going to be very good in this league. He's young, he's still got a lot to learn, but I can tell he's one of those kids that's very smart, very bright, and he'll be able to learn on the fly in a hurry. I'm looking forward to playing with him. I watched him at Carolina pretty much the whole season, just because I'm a basketball junkie. I watch all the games. I watch all the guys. And I know guys are trying to come in every year trying to take my job, so I have to pay attention. But I think he has a very high ceiling and he wants to win.”

Young and White aren’t the only new additions the Bulls have made this summer. They also signed veteran guard Tomas Satoransky and agreed to a deal with center Luke Kornet (the latter of which has not yet been made official). Satoransky joins Young as one of the proven veterans the Bulls’ front office has brought in, which they’re hoping will add depth in case they suffer another injury-plagued season like the one they just finished, which saw nearly every core player miss significant time.

“I think we have a well-rounded roster,” Young said. “Last year, we just had so many guys that were hurt and out due to injury, that you couldn't really see the potential of this team. When they were healthy, they were a force to deal with. They played hard, they were aggressive, they continued to fight, and they did things that can help a team win. But like I said, injuries limited them a little. But going in, changing the culture, being the leader. It starts with being that mold where we're doing something repetitively.”

Young has seen plenty of things in his NBA career. He’s been to the playoffs and been a part of the worst team in the NBA in Philadelphia, and everything in between. He’s a durable veteran who knows his role and plays within himself, and every playoff team needs those sports of players. Coming from a very good Pacers team, Young is embracing the challenge of helping guide the Bulls from the depths of the lottery back into the postseason.

And he’s well aware that it starts with changing the culture.

“It's a young team,” Young said. “I've taken on that role plenty of times in my career. Being in Minnesota, we had Zach and [Andrew Wiggins]. Come to Indiana, we had those guys had just won 40 games. We had to reshape our culture after Paul George leaves. We have a 42-win season with Paul and then a 48-win season and another 48-win season. But the guys got younger. You had Victor Oladipo coming in, you had Domas [Sabonis], you had a Myles Turner. I've taken on that role as a leader and helping shape and build a culture. And then we all know what happened in Philly. I was there at the start of the Process. We had a horrible season, but I went out there and played my butt off each and every night.

“It was like bringing a knife to a gunfight, but at the end of the day, I was swinging with that knife. So I've been in those situations before. I understand those situations. I know the task is very, very hard. I carry that weight each and every day. I know I can help these young guys get better, I know I can push them over the hump.”

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

When the Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, John Paxson and Gar Forman talked about his rare intelligence, mental toughness and maturity for a 19-year-old prospect.

We saw signs of Carter Jr.’s leadership ability during his 44-game rookie campaign. He took the losses as hard as anyone in the locker room and spoke candidly about the need to change the mindset and focus of everyone on the roster. Carter’s first season ended early because of a broken thumb, but his emergence as a strong voice among the players was only beginning.

With the Bulls getting off to an unexpected slow start to the 2019 season, the now 20-year-old Carter has been a prominent voice in the locker room, saying the players need to feel the pain of the constant losing and do everything possible to turn things around.

Carter has certainly done his part, taking a significant step forward through the first 11 games of his second season. The former Duke star is averaging 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and has already notched seven double-doubles — the first Bulls center to accomplish that since Joakim Noah in the 2010-11 season.

After experiencing the physicality of NBA post play as a rookie, Carter put in extra work in the weight room this past summer, and showed up for training camp at a solid 265 pounds. He’s used that extra strength effectively on both ends, banging with the league’s biggest centers under the basket, while also maintaining his ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll coverage.

Carter also got advice from Bulls television analyst and former NBA player Stacey King to always run hard down the middle of the court after a change of possession to set up opportunities for easy baskets and offensive rebounds. With the Bulls playing at a faster pace this season, Carter's ability to beat opposing centers on the offensive end has already resulted in more scoring chances.

The Bulls coaching staff is still hoping Carter will develop his shooting range to the point where he can be a consistent threat from three-point territory, but at this point that’s not a high priority in the offense. Carter is outstanding in the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens and then rolling hard to the basket for lob passes. He also has the ability to pop out to the elbow area for midrange jump shots.

With all the preseason conversation focused on the possibility of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen making the jump to All-Star consideration, Carter is the player making the biggest leap early in the season. And his increased production is coming without designed plays being run for him.

The Bulls’ offense doesn’t call for multiple entry passes into the low post, but we saw during Carter’s one season at Duke that he has a nice touch shooting jump hooks from close range with either hand. Carter’s offensive game figures to expand in the coming seasons, but his skill in protecting the rim and controlling the defensive backboard already makes him extremely valuable to what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.

Plus, we already know that a competitive fire burns deep inside the 20-year-old Carter. After former teammate Bobby Portis torched the Bulls for 28 points and 11 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Carter vowed it wouldn’t happen in Tuesday’s rematch at the United Center. 

“No words need to be said. We’re not letting that happen,” Carter said to reporters. “Bobby is going to want to put on a show. I’m not going to have it. I hope he’s watching this. I ain’t having it.”

Portis’ stat line in the Bulls’ blowout win following those comments? In 19 unproductive minutes, he tallied just 7 points and 3 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting.

The Bulls’ 20-year-old locker room leader made sure he backed up his pregame comments. Now, he says he’ll look for something to fire up his teammates for every game left on the schedule.

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Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Jim Boylen has plenty of pet phrases. Role acceptance is one of them.

And if you want to get the Bulls coach rolling, ask him about Kris Dunn’s performance in that department.

“Big time. Big time,” Boylen repeated, for good measure. “He just wants to win. He’s the first guy in the breakfast room. You have to be in the building 45 minutes before [practice]. He’s in 1 hour, 45 minutes before. He does his workout 45 minutes before everybody else with Coach [Nate] Loenser. He is locked in. He cares. He always cared. And he’s playing winning basketball. I’m really happy for him.”

There may be no greater compliment from a coach to a player than to say one is playing winning basketball. Relayed Boylen’s comment, Dunn didn’t take it lightly.

“That means a lot. That’s what I try to do,” Dunn said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “I come from a winning program at Providence. I know what winning looks like. And I know what it takes to win.”

Right now, that involves Dunn accepting his role as a reserve aimed at wreaking defensive havoc on opponents. When Dunn scores 13 points, as he did in Tuesday’s victory over the Knicks, it’s a bonus.

There’s a lot going right with Dunn’s game these days. He leads the NBA with 25 steals, posting multiple steals in seven of 11 games. He has tallied 30 assists to just nine turnovers in 224 minutes, emblematic of solid decision-making. And he’s shooting 47.1 percent from the field — a figure made even more impressive by his anemic 17.6 percent shooting from 3-point range.

“I take pride in my defense,” Dunn said. “The second unit, I think we have good defenders in our group. Archie [Ryan Arcidiacono], he’s a dog. Thad [Young], he’s a dog. Coby [White], he’s a dog. I could go on and on. We try to come in and bring great energy and try to maintain the lead or, if we’re down, try to get it back.”

But Dunn’s biggest area of growth has been his role acceptance. It’s not easy losing a starting job, particularly when it comes on the heels of executive vice president John Paxson publicly challenging Dunn. And then the Bulls acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign-and-trade transaction, drafted White and re-signed Arcidiacono.

Multiple outlets reported over the offseason that Dunn and his representatives wanted a change of scenery. The Bulls, league sources said in July, held trade talks with several teams, including the Grizzlies, regarding a sign-and-trade transaction for Justin Holiday.

Instead, Dunn returned. And since the first day of voluntary September workouts, he has maintained a positive attitude.

“It’s a good team we have. I just wanted to be a part of it. We have a lot of talented players, a good group of guys. I wanted to buy into what Coach is preaching, buy into the system,” Dunn said.  “All in all, I feel my game can go anywhere — starting, coming off the bench. Wherever you put me at, I’m a hooper.”

This example hasn’t been lost on young players like the rookie White.

“That’s my dog,” White told NBC Sports Chicago. “We’re part of the bench mob. Ain’t that right, KD? I love playing with KD. I know he’s going to compete at both ends. If things aren’t going well, he can turn the game around with his energy. He’s passionate. You love to play with people who play hard and want to win.

“Our relationship has grown on and off the court. He has instilled confidence in me. I haven’t been shooting it well before [Tuesday night]. KD told me to keep being aggressive and keep shooting. He’s always encouraging his teammates. When one of us does something good, he’s the first to hype us up.”

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