Bulls

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Comparing Bulls players to wrestlers from WWE's Attitude Era

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AP

Comparing Bulls players to wrestlers from WWE's Attitude Era

HOT TAKE: Things aren’t great for the Bulls right now. Between fired coaches, player mutinies, getting trolled by the Kings, and a 6-22 record, it's tough to find things to get excited about. It's never good when the off-court news drowns out any on-court accomplishments. If this was a work of fiction it might be downright interesting. This feels more like 90s wrestling than 2018 NBA. In the spirit of taking a break from the negative stuff, and honoring the Gods of Content, here are the 2018 Bulls if they were Attitude Era WWE Superstars.

(Editor's Note: The WWE Attitude Era was 1997-2001)

Slam Dunks Don’t @ Me

Zach LaVine is The Rock

The Rock conquered Hollywood, LaVine went to UCLA. The Rock’s finishing move “The People’s Elbow” is the most electrifying move in sports entertainment. A Zach LaVine dunk is the most electrifying move in the United Center. The Rock was the “People’s Champ”. Zach became the Bull’s “People’s Champ” when he was top 5 in scoring in the face of injuries and team dysfunction. Do you smell what LaVine Cuisine is cooking?

Bobby Portis is Ken Shamrock 

Bobby is the emotional leader and brings 100 percent intensity each and every game. Ken Shamrock was called “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.”

Wendell Carter Jr. is The Undertaker

The Undertaker wasn’t always the elder statesmen of wrestling. When he debuted at Survivor Series in 1990, he was a 6-foot-10 athlete with a stoic personality who seemed mature for his age and had a huge upside. Sound like anyone you know? They even called The Undertaker, “The Phenom”. Can we please start calling Wendell Carter Jr. “The Phenom”? Please?

Ryan Arcidiacono is Billy Kidman

Ok, Billy Kidman was with WCW during the Attitude Era, but this is too perfect. They are both undersized fan favorites who overachieve and show flashes of brilliance. Plus they are 90’s dreamy. #TWOTIGERBEATS.

Lauri Markkanen is Chris Jericho

Both are blonde, charismatic, foreigners who have the potential to be The Best In the World. Jericho would often talk about how he would “save the fans” and Markkenan returned last week to save us from this season.

Justin Holiday is Christian

Both are solid, reliable athletes that have more heralded brothers. Christian is no Edge and so far Justin has not been Jrue. Both Justin and Christian can thrive if in the right circumstances. 

Kris Dunn is Eddie Guerrero 

Let’s hope Kris Dunn has the chance to have a career like Eddie Guerrero. Dunn is an undersized determined athlete with the work ethic heart and IQ to be great. Eddie Guerrero was an undersized determined athlete with the work ethic heart and IQ to be great and became great. We haven’t seen enough from Dunn to know what we have.

Robin Lopez is Kane

Cam Payne is X-Pac

Still Trying Figure Out and Welcome Suggestions Please @ Me 

•    Chandler Hutchison is the Lethal Weapon Steve Blackman
•    Jabari Parker is Razor Ramon
•    Shaq Harrison is D’Lo Brown
•    Denzel Valentine is Val Venis
•    Cristiano Felicio is Gangrel

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

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USA TODAY

Bulls trip to Mexico a much-needed diversion

After a drama-filled first eight days under the leadership of new head coach Jim Boylen, maybe a trip to Mexico City is exactly what's needed for the 6-22 Bulls.

With all the reports of player unrest, a potential practice boycott and the formation of a players' leadership group, maybe a team dinner in a warm climate is the perfect recipe for reducing tension.

Of course, both the Bulls and Magic will have to adjust to playing at the mile-high altitude in Mexico City Thursday night. The Bulls' players are hoping to get their legs back after last week's training camp-style practices. They played well in the first half against Sacramento on Monday, running out to a 56-45 lead. But the Bulls looked stuck in the mud the rest of the way, getting outscored 63-33 in the 2nd half on the way to a 108-89 loss, their third in four games under Boylen's direction.

The Magic have also struggled lately after getting off to a good start that currently has them in the eighth playoff position in the East. Orlando has dropped seven of its last 10 games, the latest a 101-76 haymaker at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.

The Magic are led by free agent to be Nikola Vucevic, who's averaging 20.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Aaron Gordon got the big contract he was looking for as a restricted free agent last summer and he's having a decent season, but not what the front office was hoping for after paying him close to 80 million dollars over the next 4 years.

Former Bulls guard D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant are running the point for Orlando. Augustin has started all 27 games so far and he's been decent, averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 assists, while Grant has chipped in 4 points and 3 assists in just under 20 minutes of action off the bench.

Orlando is also getting solid production from wing players Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross, but much like the Bulls, their future is about the development of recent top 10 picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Both have been inconsistent so far, and both need to add strength to be able to deal with all the physical contact in the paint. Unless one or both develop into a top tier post player, the Magic's grand rebuilding plan will fall apart pretty quickly.

Still, Orlando is 12-15 at this point which is about where the Bulls figured to be if they hadn't suffered so many injuries at the start of the season. It will be interesting to see which direction each of these teams go now that the Bulls have everyone back except for Denzel Valentine. Of course, trades could change the composition of both rosters with players like Vucevic, Fournier, Ross, Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez all of potential interest to contending teams.

Here's what it will take for the Bulls to get into the win column on Thursday.

1. Sustained effort. As my former studio partner, the late, great Norm Van Lier used to say, "I need 48 minutes of intensity." The Bulls gave Jim Boylen 24 minutes on Monday, with Zach LaVine throwing down a monstrous hammer dunk to punctuate his 12 point, 5-6 shooting first half effort. Whether it was tired legs from all the extra practice time or poor execution, the Bulls were done in by a turnover-filled second half. They'll need to find a way to avoid the nightmare quarters that have cost them a chance at several wins this season.

2. Limit second-chance points. Orlando has plenty of size with Vucevic, Gordon and Isaac in the starting lineup and Bamba coming off the bench. The Bulls' big men have to focus on boxing out and not allowing the Magic to get multiple shot opportunities. Robin Lopez played well in the first half on Monday, then didn't see the floor after intermission. His size will be important in this game.

3. More from Dunn and Portis. Both players showed encouraging signs in their first game since late October, combining for 14 points and 8 rebounds in the opening half against Sacramento. Best of all, they showed no hesitation in going all out following their rehabs from knee sprains. Dunn should return to the starting lineup soon where his ability to penetrate will lead to easier shots for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Portis can provide instant offense off the bench, something that's been sorely lacking for most of the season.

Don't forget you can watch Thursday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Sticking with the Mexico City theme, we'll be doing the preame show live on location from Harbee Liquor and Tavern in the Pilsen neighborhood, 1345 W. 18th St. If you're going to be in the area, come on out and say hello to Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Horace Grant and myself. Pregame coverage begins at 8 p.m., with the play-by-play call from Neil Funk and Stacey King at 8:30, followed by Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.