Bulls

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

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USA TODAY

Why the Bulls should draft Deandre Ayton if they win the Lottery

Something special occurred on the campus of Oregon University in late February. The Arizona Wildcats were in town, 24 hours removed from an ESPN report that claimed head coach Sean Miller had discussed paying $100,000 to land blue-chip prospect Deandre Ayton. The report shook the college basketball world, Miller took a leave of absence from the team and the Wildcats, ranked 14th in the country, became the lead story on sports talk shows for all the wrong reasons.

And the 19-year-old Ayton found himself at the center of the turmoil. Heading into Eugene, a place the Ducks were 31-3 at over the last two seasons, the Oregon student section mercilessly heckled Ayton all night, chanting “wi-re tap” and “hun-dred thou-sand” at the freshman star. The 7-foot-1 Bahamian could have crumbled in the moment. No one would have blamed him if he had.

Instead, Ayton dominated. He took over the game for 44 minutes, resting for 66 seconds in the first half before playing the final 26:37 of the overtime thriller. His final line – 28 points, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks – somehow didn’t do the performance justice. He made 11 of 15 shots, including 17-foot jumpers, offensive rebound put-backs, low-post moves and transition dunks. In a season of extraordinary for the Pac-12’s eventual Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year, that Saturday night may have been his most impressive, all things considered.

And it’s one of many reasons why, if that 5.3 percent chance becomes reality, the Bulls can’t pass on Deandre Ayton with the first pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Let’s begin with the raw stats. Ayton joined Duke’s Marvin Bagley as the only freshmen since 1993 to average 20 points, 11 rebounds and shoot 60 percent from the field. What’s more, only 10 others – regardless of year – had accomplished the feat, last done by Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in 2009. Four of those 10 were drafted first overall (Michael Olowokandi, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Griffin). So, spoiler alert, there’s precedent for a dominant big man being selected first overall. Ayton certainly could join that list, which we’ll note has a respectable success rate.

Those offensive numbers were compiled in impressive fashion. Ayton has been blessed with a remarkable skill set for a 19-year-old. Per Synergy, his 1.16 points per possession (PPP) ranked in the 98th percentile, and he did while playing out of position most of the season; Miller insisted on playing Ayton alongside 7-footer Dusan Ristic, which clogged up the offense at times. He’ll have more freedom in the NBA.

There’s no denying the 260-pound Ayton was a force around the rim, using his NBA-ready frame to overpower opposing frontcourts; he shot 76 percent from inside 5 feet (200 of 263) and ranked in the 90th percentile in post-up situations (1.05 PPP). But his game, like his frame, is NBA-ready, too. Ayton displayed an above-average jump shot, shooting 38 percent on 104 possessions; Kentucky’s Anthony Davis shot 34 percent on just 67 possessions in 2012. Ayton also spent more time as a pick-and-roll roller (14.6% of his possessions) than Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid in their respective college years.

He also expanded his game out to the 3-point line, attempting 35 triples in 35 games. That may not seem like much in “today’s game,” but consider: Joel Embiid (1-for-5), Karl-Anthony Towns (2-for-8) and Anthony Davis (3-for-20) combined for fewer made and attempted 3s than did Ayton in one year; Towns shot 42 percent from deep this past NBA season, Embiid made 66 triples with the Sixers and Davis has increased his made 3s each of his first six NBA seasons. Shooting can be taught, and Ayton is already ahead of schedule, even if he’s going to earn his money 15 feet and in. Ayton will jell in an NBA offense from Day 1. His game was made for the NBA.

That physically imposing frame made him a terror around the rim. Ayton stands 7-foot-1 and weighs 260 pounds; only six NBA players were listed at that size or taller/heavier. Ayton is as physically ready a rookie as we’ve seen in a handful of years.

It also makes some of his defensive metrics perplexing. Ayton’s block percentage, per KenPom.com, was 6.1%; Towns, Davis and Embiid all had double-digit block percentages. Ayton was also a liability defending the post, ranking in just the 34th percentile (allowing .919 PPP). And though some of these ugly numbers can be attributed to playing out of position, his motor has come into question and he looked out lost at times on that end of the floor. It’s certainly an area he’ll need to improve upon; it’s not enough to say he’ll roll out of bed and score 20 points. He’s got the easy part down, standing 7-foot-1 with a 40+-inch vertical. A strong defensive-minded coach will do Ayton wonders early in his career.

So why the Bulls? Well, as you’ll read a lot in this series, the team needs an injection of talent. Team need isn’t going to come into play much after Cristiano Felicio averaged 17.8 minutes per game. The Bulls need talent, and Ayton defines that. It also fits that Ayton would make for a near-perfect 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkanen, a fellow Wildcat. Ayton saw significant time as the “hi” man of Arizona’s hi-low sets with Ristic. With Markkanen maneuvering the perimeter, Ayton would be free to work 15 feet and in where he’s at his best. Having Robin Lopez as a mentor for a year would only improve Ayton’s game, and his pick-and-roll numbers would improve with Kris Dunn, who made even Felicio look serviceable.

Ayton is the best prospect in the class. There isn’t much else to say. As the series progresses we’ll need to make stronger arguments for prospects, but not with Ayton. He’s the best center prospect since Karl-Anthony Towns, and his offensive game is ahead of any frontcourt prospect with two eyebrows the last decade. Prospects like Ayton come along once every few years (Towns, Embiid, Davis) and he’s as close to a sure thing as there is in this draft. If, 10 years after the Lottery gods smiled down on the Bulls, lightning strikes twice, Deandre Ayton is the man to lead the Bulls back to contention in the Eastern Conference.

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

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USA TODAY

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

By now you probably know the story of Michael Porter Jr.'s back. Right as his college basketball career was starting—two minutes in to be exact—he had to sit out with back pain, which eventually developed into Porter undergoing a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs. The general consensus has been simple: if Porter's medicals are clean then he is a potential top-five pick, but if there is a lack of medical information or any indication that lingering issues persist, he will be available at picks six through the late lottery. Regardless of how his medical records look, what we do know is that Porter was the top-ranked player in his high school class before the eventual re-classification of Marvin Bagley. With this in mind, any team in need of serious star power—hello Bulls!—should have no problems spending a high pick on Porter, and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen is a big reason why.

In July of 1988, Pippen has disc surgery following a rookie season that was plagued by constant back pain. During that rookie season Pippen played just over 20 minutes a night and played in a total of 79 games.

While the late 80's didn't have the help of NBA Twitter to breathe doubt into fans, there was still a running sentiment that Pippen may not be effective as he was during his initial NBA season. But in his sophomore NBA year, he almost doubled his scoring total while raising his free throw percentage from 57.6 percent to 66.8 percent. On top of this, Pippen also increased his workload by playing 33.1 minutes per game. Altogether he increased his field goal and free throw percentage each of his first four seasons in the league, all following his rookie year back surgery.

This however, should not come as a shock. In an interview with SB Nation, Dr. Charla Fischer, a spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health, stated: "Most patients tell me they feel at least 50 to 80 percent better immediately after the surgery." 

Players typically take two seasons to return to form following herniated disc surgery, and that is right in line with Pippen's first All-Star appearance in 1990, about one and a half seasons following his procedure. When you relate this back to Porter, a clearer picture of what to expect forms. Because Porter has already missed an entire season of basketball (at Missouri), it figures to take about a year for him to totally regain the explosivness that he showcased at the high school level. 

Pippen averaged 14.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, along with a combined 1.9 stl/blks per game in the season following his back procedure. Now it would be unreasonable to expect Porter to come into the NBA performing at that level, but more so because of his lack of all-around polish more than anything else. And that is what makes Porter such a conundrum. He is a player whose game—as of now—is totally based on scoring, and his scoring is directly tied to how close he is to 100 percent. So again, developing the rest of his game in terms of passing and defense will take on everlasting importance, regardless of if he ends up with Chicago or another team. 

And while it is true that Pippen's injury history eventually caught up with him, leading to another back surgery in 1998, this was six NBA championships later. Pip went on to play six more seasons following his 1998 procedure. This included four seasons with Portland where the team routinely won around 50 games, and had a legendary battle with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

So no matter what, Porter's first year should be looked at as one very, very long training camp. He will be in the best position to succeed if he is selected by a team willing to look at him as a long-term piece, rather than a 6-foot, 11-inch savior.

 

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

With a number of national writers and broadcasters forecasting an active trade market in the hours leading up to Thursday's NBA Draft, the whole idea of a mock draft might just be an exercise in futility at this point. Still, we have learned quite a bit about which players are coveted by teams drafting in the top five after sorting through the smokescreens of the individual workouts.

So, with that in mind, here's my final stab at how Thursday's lottery  picks could play out.

1. Suns: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona.  An absolute no-brainer here. Ayton combines the size and power of an old school center with the athleticism and shooting touch of a new-age "stretch five".

2. Kings: Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke.  Vlade Divac shouldn't risk his good fortune at moving up to the No. 2 slot by taking a risk on Michael Porter Jr.'s health. Remember the Kings already have a rehabbing teenager in one of their first round picks from last season, Duke F Harry Giles. Bagley should be a 20-10 guy in the NBA for the next decade.

3. Hawks: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Michigan St.  This will be the first spot to look for a possible trade. The Hawks reportedly like Trae Young and might consider offers to move down and draft him later in the top 10. If they stay at No. 3, Jackson offers the rim protection and 3-point shooting ability Atlanta desperately needs.

4. Grizzlies: Luka Doncic, G-SF, Slovenia.  The Grizzlies should run to the podium if Doncic is still on the board at No. 4. The 19-year old wunderkind gives Memphis a secondary shot creator to go along with Mike Conley.

5. Mavericks: Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri.  Mark Cuban is looking for his next big star with Dirk Nowitzki entering what is most likely his final season. The Mavs reportedly are also high on Mo Bamba, but Porter's potential as a 20 ppg scorer will probably win the discussion in the war room.

6. Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma.  Good chance of another trade at this spot involving a team that really likes Bamba. Orlando could move down a few spots and still get one of the three top-rated PG's, Young, Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Magic stay at No. 6, Young's quick-strike scoring and box office potential are likely to win the day.

7. BULLS: Mo Bamba, C, Texas.  Yes, John Paxson said the Bulls’ biggest need is a defensive-minded wing, but Bamba's ability to dominate at that end of the court is too great to pass up. Bamba is incredibly raw offensively, but he's been working on his low post skills and shooting form since the college season ended. The Bulls were not a good defensive team last season, and adding a shot-blocking threat like Bamba should improve them immediately.

8. Cavs: Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky.  Knox is one of the big risers after the individual workout season, impressing teams with his combination of athleticism and shooting ability. Knox can play both forward spots and could develop into a big-time scorer, replacing you-know-who as the Cavs start to build for an uncertain future.

9. Knicks: Wendell Carter Jr., PF-C, Duke.  The Knicks will be thrilled to add a versatile big like Carter, especially considering Kristaps Porzingis could miss most or all of next season rehabbing an ACL tear. Eventually, Porzingis and Carter could form a nice inside-outside tandem as the Knicks try to build toward playoff contention.

10. 76ers: Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova.  Another perfect fit for a team on the rise. Bridges' defense-first mentality and improving offensive game should blend in well on a Sixers team that's looking to take the next step after losing to Boston in the conference semi-finals. And, his mom already works for the franchise in the human relations department!

11. Hornets: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan St.  Charlotte whiffed on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd overall pick a few years ago, and Nic Batum has battled injuries since coming over from Portland. Miles Bridges is another combo forward who should thrive in the pro game with his ability to run the court and finish with authority at the rim.

12. Clippers: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama.  The Clippers will be thrilled if Sexton falls this far, giving them a dynamic young option at point guard to go along with veterans Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. Sexton could go as high as No. 6 to Orlando or No. 8 to the Cavs. He'll be one of the interesting names to watch on draft night.

13. Clippers: Robert Williams, PF-C, Texas A&M.  The Clippers are still waiting to see if DeAndre Jordan exercises his player option for next season, but if he decides to test the free agent market, Williams would be a perfect replacement. The athletic 6-foot 10-inch big man is a classic rim runner who should be able to finish off alley-oop passes just like Jordan.

14. Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky.  Don't be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander goes even higher than this after a strong finish to his freshman season. Scouts love his 6-foot 6-inch frame and ability to get to the basket. In Denver, he could come off the bench initially behind young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

22. BULLS: Chandler Hutchison, SF, Boise St.  So, the Bulls may or may not have made a "promise" to select Hutchison with the No. 22 pick they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. Either way, if the Bulls get Bamba at No. 7, Hutchison would be a great addition as the "3-and-D" small forward Paxson talked about in his end of the season news conference. The 6-foot 7-inch swingman improved his 3-point shooting during his senior season at Boise St., and is considered to be an excellent wing defender. Personally, I'd love to see to Bulls draft NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova if he's still on the board at No. 22. 

Around the Association:

While we wait for the draft drama to unfold, NBA Twitter has already been taken over by speculation over where the next super team will be formed. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been plotting for over a year on how to restore the Lakers' franchise to its past glory, and it looks like they'll be swinging for the fences this summer.

If the Lakers are able to find a taker for Luol Deng's contract or renounce the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle, they should be able to create two max contract slots once the free agent market opens for business on July 1st. The obvious targets are LeBron James and Paul George, but Magic doesn't plan on stopping there. He's hoping to find a way to convince the Spurs to trade unhappy All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers as well, giving L.A. a super-team that will rival what James put together in Miami.

The Lakers have the assets to get a Leonard trade done with draft picks and young players on rookie contracts (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart), but would Gregg Popovich actually make a deal with one of his long-time rivals? 

You can bet Pop will do everything he can to convince Leonard to accept a five-year, $219 million super max contract extension this summer and spend his prime years in San Antonio. But if that face-to-face meeting goes sour, Pop will make the deal that's best for the Spurs, preferably to an Eastern conference team he'll only have to face twice a season.

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Initial reports out of Houston indicate that free agent point guard Chris Paul plans to re-sign with the Rockets and will do everything in his power to recruit good friend LeBron James. Problem is, Houston has no cap space, so they would have to get the Cavaliers to agree to a trade. And in order to make the money work, the Rockets would want to include high-salaried players like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, neither of which would hold much interest for Cleveland with the team in rebuild mode.

Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey is one of the league's most creative executives, but trying to find a way to fit James into his bloated payroll will be the biggest challenge he's ever faced. Morey also has to deal with the restricted free agency of breakout center Clint Capela, who could draw a big offer sheet from another team.

Chris Paul and LeBron might be good friends, but the logistics could make it next to impossible to join forces in Houston.