Bulls

2017 NBA Draft Profile: UCLA PF T.J. Leaf

2017 NBA Draft Profile: UCLA PF T.J. Leaf

As part of our coverage leading up to the 2017 NBA Draft we will provide profiles of more than 30 of the draft's top prospects.

T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA

6'10" | 220 lbs. | 20 years old

2016-17 stats:

16.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.4 APG

Projection:

Lottery to mid-first round

Does the Bulls' offense need more pick-and-roll possessions?

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USA TODAY

Does the Bulls' offense need more pick-and-roll possessions?

Last season Zach LaVine was a great pick-and-roll scorer for the Bulls, finishing in the 70th percentile among pick-and-roll ballhandlers. He scored 0.90 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, with that play type accounting for 40.2% of his possessions. That has decreased to 32.8% of his possessions this season, despite his efficiency (0.94 points per possession in pick-and-rolls in 2019-20) improving. 

In traditional stats, LaVine shot 43.9% on 7.2 attempts per game out of pick-and-roll plays and that is down to 5.8 field goal attempts per game, though again, his field goal percentage on pick-and-roll shots is up to 46.1%.

So what is the reason for the drop in this play type for LaVine and could a reverse in this trend improve the Bulls struggling offense?

The first thing to tackle here is why is LaVine shooting less out of the pick-and-roll, and my best guess here would be it is a general part of the new system's goal of creating looks for everyone and keeping the ball from sticking. The Bulls, however, are only 23rd in the league in passes made, the same ranking they had last year while actually making fewer passes per game than they did a season ago.

Since the decrease in pick-and-roll plays isn't helping the Bulls pass more, is it helping their intended goal of getting up more 3-pointers? The short answer here is a very strong yes.

The Bulls are taking 35.5 3-point attempts per game (through 13 games) as compared to 25.9 attempts per game last season but even so, the Bulls offense has actually taken a step back, with a 102.9 offensive rating, compared to a 104.5 offensive rating last season. 

LaVine's usage rate has only decreased slightly from 29.8% to 29.1%, so the breakdown of plays he uses would have to be the main culprit in his slight drop in offensive efficiency. LaVine's 32.8% usage of pick-and-rolls is lower than similar players such as Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Andrew Wiggins (sorry Bulls fans), or even Portland youngster Anfernee Simons.

Now, of course, the Bulls play—as we have heard extensively at this point—a style of play more akin to the Houston Rockets than assistant coach Chris Fleming's former Nets squads, as the majority of their 3-point attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety and usually come off of drive and kick action rather than players running off of screens. 

The Bulls roster is not exactly comprised of a bunch of players who can easily beat their man off the dribble, so it would behoove the Bulls to allow not just LaVine, but the entire roster to work out of pick-and-roll more. LaVine himself touched on how pick-and-roll is his go-to for when he absolutely needs to make a play, especially in situations late in the shot clock. 

"I try to call a pick-and-roll most of the time when that happens and then if nothing comes from that, I'm going to take the shot or pass it. I'm definitely going to at least get a shot on the rim...  If I get it at the top of the key with eight, nine seconds left on the clock, I'm going to try to make a play."

The Bulls roll men have been underwhelming so far this season, with only Wendell Carter Jr. averaging over a point per possession (1.09 PPP, 46th percentile). Carter and Lauri Markkanen have both seen a decrease in their offensive efficiency in pick-and-rolls and the fact that the frequency of which they use pick-and-roll plays has decreased has a lot to do with it.

In 2018-19, Carter scored 1.17 PPP on pick-and-rolls and averaged 2.3 screen assists per game (5.3 screen assist points) and this season that is up to 4.5 screen assists and 10.2 screen assist points per game. No one on this year's steam outside of Carter is averaging more than 1.4 screen assists per game and that is largely a byproduct of the Bulls "five-out" offense, which encourages everyone to spot up for 3-pointers and (usually) has a lone big man to corral offensive rebounds and kick them out to the perimeter.

Last year Markkanen averaged a robust 1.20 PPP on pick-and-rolls and that figure is down to 0.98 PPP in 2019-20. He is by no means an extremely physical player but even he is helped out by the simple threat of a screen to opposing defenses. Even when he makes minimal contact on his screens—a recurring issue—the simple act of a screen and roll, or "slip" provides Markkanen, who has a suspect handle, a more clear path to attack smaller players trying to guard him. 

This is a key reason the Bulls need to implement more screen and roll into their offense. Chicago is second in the league in FGA at the rim coming into Monday night, yet dead last in field goal percentage.

They are getting to the basket plenty, but the fact that they are not converting means they need to scheme up different ways to get these many, many looks at the rim. Playing rookie Daniel Gafford more—or at all for that matter—will likely help remedy this issue as well, as he has excelled in the NBA G League in terms of putting pressure on opposing defenses as a devastating rim-runner. 

And the simplest way to get easy baskets at the rim when your team is not finishing well is to run more pick-and-roll, allowing clear avenues to the basket. The Bulls need to force opposing defenses into rotation more so that they can attack a defense that is scrambling rather than a set one and increasing their pick-and-roll frequency is one of the easiest ways for them to give defenses something different to think about.

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Rims beware: Daniel Gafford is back with the Bulls, and likely to see action against the Bucks

Rims beware: Daniel Gafford is back with the Bulls, and likely to see action against the Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are in town, and reinforcements are on the way.

Those reinforcements take the form of Daniel Gafford, who was recalled from Windy City in the wake of Luke Kornet undergoing a procedure to address a sinus obstruction. 

"I'm excited for him," Jim Boylen said — with a smile — pregame, of Gafford. "He's just my kind of guy."

He certainly fills the archetype of a Boylen favorite: hard-nosed, athletic, defensive-minded — but in his time with Chicago this season, most of his playing time has come in garbage time (he's played 12 total minutes over four games this season). Boylen wasn't specific about how much run Gafford would see in his first game back, but committed to a four-big lineup (with Gafford sliding into the Kornet spot) and said the rook would likely see action in the first half.

"Just play hard, man," Boylen said when asked what he'd like to see out of Gafford in this stint. "Just run somebody over, knock somebody down, play hard."

Boylen went on to not only praise the skills Gafford brings to the table as a rim-protector and rim-runner, but also the positive attitude he maintained in the face of a tumultuous start to his rookie season. In three games across multiple short stints with the Windy City Bulls this year — playing in an offensive scheme that Boylen said closely aligns with the Bulls' own — Gafford averaged 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while shooting a mind-bending 80.6% from the field.

"I went down there, did what I had to do, went for rebounds, basically did all the dirty stuff," Gafford said of his assignment. "I was trying to be a team guy, energy guy — my game."

That philosophy is like to come in handy against a long, rangy and supremely physical Bucks team that outscored the Bulls 70-32 in the paint when the two squared off in Milwaukee last Thursday. These are two of the highest-volume three-point shooting teams in the league, but Gafford knows his role will be that of an enforcer.

"Just coming in and being an energy guy, getting rebounds. Put pressure on the rim to where, 'Hey, you can't come in and just get anything easy,'" Gafford said of his role with the team.

The Bulls have struggled in all of those departments early in the 2019 season — they enter tonight the worst shooting team at the rim in the NBA, 28th in rebounding rate and 28th in blocks per game.

But tonight... Rims, basketballs, Bucks players and everyone and thing in between: Beware. Daniel Gafford is here, and he's taking names.

"You either gonna get hit, I'm gonna block the shot, or you're gonna have to dunk on me," Gafford said on visitors to the painted area he'll inhabit tonight. "If you dunk on me, I'll give you props, and we'll go down and get a bucket on you."

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com

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.