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.

Kevin Durant chimes in on Zach LaVine's comments on mid-range shooting

Kevin Durant chimes in on Zach LaVine's comments on mid-range shooting

There is much discussion in the basketball community surrounding the value of the midrange shot following a Sun-Times article from Joe Cowley that discussed the Bulls analytics department wanting Zach LaVine to limit his mid-range attempts, and a segment on ESPN's The Jump, discussing the same topic. On Tuesday morning Matt Moore of the Action Network chimed in, offering up the statistics that clearly support the notion that LaVine should be shooting many, many more 3-pointers than 2s. 

While Moore's points were solid and backed up by the numbers, NBA superstar Kevin Durant offered up his opinion from a player's perspective. Durant backed up LaVine's quote of "sometimes there's nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker's hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want." KD commented that he has seen too many players pass up wide-open midrange shots to force up 3-pointers or contested shots at the rim, with analytics having an influence on the shots that players take, referring the mid-range as "forbidden."

Durant went on to comment and respond to users' comments on the situation. In one response Durant agrees with a user who states that he is teaching his son to work on his mid-range game first and shoot 3-pointers once he is strong enough, stating "that's how I was taught."

Moore had some fun with the response from Durant, stating that when he initially tweeted about the topic, his intentions were not to get into a debate on the value of mid-range shots with an active NBA player who is already among the all-time greats. 

 Moore's original sentiment agrees with what the Bulls' analytics department is trying to accomplish. LaVine has always been a good mid-range shooter but last year alone he shot 35.8% on mid-range shots and 37.4% on 3-point attempts.

It is obvious that players still need to have to players who can hit mid-range attempts, as some of the best teams in the league—including recent NBA champions Toronto and Golden State, who finished second in the league in percentage of points coming from mid-range shots—have relied on players who can generate solid mid-range attempts in high-leverage moments. But Durant's point is important to note too.

Durant stated that you have to be "confident to make any shot" but countered that whatever you work on the most is what you will be best at. He doubled down on that point, saying most primary scoring options in the NBA shouldn't worry about analytics and should play off of feel, rather than numbers. 

Ultimately, there has to be a balance.

As we have seen through the preseason, taking fewer shots from the mid-range has certainly appeared to benefit LaVine's game, as he is currently fourth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 23.3 points per game through three contests. But taking what the defense gives you, especially when you are as confident of a player as Durant or LaVine, still needs to be emphasized. 

In what should be a huge season for LaVine, he will again have a high-usage rate as he looks to lead the Bulls to a bounce-back season and mid-range shots, while limited, will still be a part of his shot profile.

So as far as Chicago Bulls fans should be concerned, this is a win-win. LaVine has clearly taken to heart was the Bulls' analytics department is preaching by shooting fewer mid-rangers but he still understands that that shot is going to be necessary for certain moments. So when LaVine is open from mid-range in 2019-20, the Bulls coaching staff will likely be saying the same thing Durant did on Tuesday morning, "Shoot em Zach."

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Watch Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felício brave a haunted house

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USA Today

Watch Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felício brave a haunted house

Lauri Markkanen is 7-feet tall.  Cristiano Felício is 6-feet-10. It’s safe to say they’re big guys, which would lead you to believe they wouldn’t be scared by much.

In a preseason outing to 13th Floor Haunted House in Chicago, Lauri and Felício showed that height doesn’t mean you’re immune to spooks (especially when Benny the Bull is let loose in the haunted house control room).  

Watch them try to maneuver their tall frames through cobwebs and zombies in the video posted to the Bulls’ Twitter here.

Viewers beware, ghastly ghouls and frightened NBA stars await you.

Despite all the screaming, the Bulls players sounded like they had a fun night. Lauri even responded to video on Twitter saying that while maybe he got scared a little, he ultimately had a good time.

Hey, if they can face-off against monsters and chainsaw mascot maniacs, taking on the other teams in NBA won’t seem so bad!

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