Bulls

Arizona's T.J. McConnell eyeing NBA success by accepting his role

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Arizona's T.J. McConnell eyeing NBA success by accepting his role

You might not hear too many athletes confess that they’re not the best, that they don’t have what it takes to be a superstar in their sport.

But hearing that can be pretty refreshing at times. T.J. McConnell hopes it’s refreshing to the ears of NBA executives.

The guard, who’s looking to get selected in this month’s NBA Draft after wrapping up his senior season at Arizona, talked about his approach at last month’s NBA Draft Combine, making it clear that he’s looking to do anything that will get him on a roster.

“I’m here to be a team guy, a locker-room guy. I’ll know my role. I’m not going to try to come into a team and be something that I’m not," McConnell said. "I’ll come in and run a team, play hard and hit open shots.”

[MORE NBA DRAFT: NBA Draft Profile: Arizona G T.J. McConnell]

He also said that being the type of player who wants to be a superstar can be detrimental to certain guys. Sure, there are those who have the ability to be one of the league’s top stars. But every championship team needs role players, too.

That’s what McConnell wants to bring.

“I think sometimes players get lost in the shuffle because sometimes they don’t accept their role. It kind of messes with their head," he said. "But for a guy like me, I know I’m not going to be superstar kind of guy. I’m going to go in and do what my team needs me to do and play hard.”

Don’t let McConnell’s humble approach fool you, though. He isn’t just some guy you’ll run into at your local rec center.

McConnell spent two years in Tucson and served as point guard, running the show on a team that made back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. Each time, the Wildcats lost to the Final Four-bound Wisconsin Badgers, but that shouldn’t tarnish the accomplishments of a team that won Pac-12 regular-season championships in each of the past two seasons.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Looney's rebounding could prove useful to Bulls]

McConnell himself, though surrounded by great talent, stood out, as well. He was an all-conference selection this past season and had a terrific NCAA tournament, averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds in four tournament games. His 19- and 17-point performances in NCAA tournament wins over Ohio State and Xavier, respectively, were his third- and fourth-highest scoring outputs of the season.

In addition to taking a team-first attitude toward his NBA future, prospective employers ought to like the fact that McConnell has not just played on basketball’s big stage but that he’s thrived there.

“I think in the NBA, every game’s a big game," McConnell said. "The NCAA tournament is the biggest of big in the NCAA, so those Elite Eights and Sweet Sixteens really prepare you for the type of games you’re going to be playing in the NBA.”

McConnell might not be superstar material, but he’s not trying to be. Fellow Arizona alums Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, Sean Elliott and Jason Terry might not have ever been the best players on their NBA teams. But they all have NBA championship rings, 10 of them between the four, to be exact.

See? Championship teams need role players, too.

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

Bleacher Report named Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season. The list included five players whose expectations have exceeded what author Grant Hughes, felt is realistic for this upcoming season. It is not entirely shocking for LaVine to make this list, and his defense was the main reason he was included. But the potential for his offensive output to get even better was somewhat overlooked. 

Per Hughes:

In 2016-17, he ranked 441st out of 468 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric. Last year, he was 490th out of 521. According to Basketball Reference, he's never posted a defensive box plus-minus in positive territory. He topped out at minus-2.0 in his abbreviated 2017-18 season.....It's hard to justify rotation minutes for a player like that, let alone $78 million.

Hughes’ critique is harsh, but based off of statistics that are hard to argue with. LaVine has indeed been one of the worst defenders in the league for the entirety of his NBA career, and his netting of the $78 million falls hand-in-hand with Jabari Parker’s comments on players not being paid to play defense. But for the Bulls to take the leap from lottery-to-playoff contender, at least a league-average D will have to be cobbled together. But that responsibility will not fall solely on his shoulders, and that is why I am skeptical on the idea of LaVine being “overhyped”. 

The post goes on to elaborate that even if LaVine was to recapture the magic of his solid 2016-17 season, he still would be a player who gives up more points on defense than he gets his team on offense. That is a strong possibility, but with the addition of Wendell Carter Jr. as another rim protector, capable of at least providing a hard hedge (if not an outright switch), there is a possibility that LaVine becomes a more aggressive defender out on the perimeter. But that is unlikely, and a much more realistic outcome is LaVine’s offensive value surpassing what is expected.

LaVine’s strength last season was his ability to get to the free throw line. Despite coming off a major ACL injury, he was able to get 4.5 free throw attempts per game, a mark that would’ve had him sandwiched between players like Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo had he qualified (LaVine only played in 24 games). It was the highest free throw attempt rate of his career, and assuming he expands on that in a year where he should be completely healthy, he will be one of the best in the league at getting to the line. 

His efficiency will be helped by players like Parker and Lauri Markkanen, who will draw attention off of him. LaVine’s 3-point percentage last season was 34 percent, a number that was more of a reflection of that fact that he was still working his way back into game shape. That 3-point percentage will soon trend more towards the 38 percent mark he shot the previous two seasons. And his 3-point attempts were also down, another mark that is sure to trend upwards, especially with Parker’s inclusion as a scorer who does most of his half-court work in the mid-post area. 

The way the 2018-19 Bulls are built, there is little behind Kris Dunn in the way of a reliable backup point guard, though there is belief internally that Cam Payne can develop into that player. But there is a strong possibility that LaVine will be used as a backup point guard to free up minutes for one of Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine or Chandler Hutchison. And in his rookie year, playing point guard, LaVine had an assist rate of 24 percent, but also an incredibly high turnover percentage. Since making the full-time switch to shooting guard, he has not posted a turnover rate above 10 percent. So, if he can adjust to the fact that there are other players capable of scoring 20 points on the floor—like he did in Minnesota—it is entirely possible for LaVine to be a player capable of getting you 20 points and five assists per game while scoring efficiently and avoiding turnovers. Even if his defense continues to be dreadful, a player who can keep the offense running well from either guard spot is definitely valuable in today’s league. 

In his last season with Minnesota, LaVine had a usage rate of 21.7 percent, a number much lower than his extremely high 29.5 usage rate last season with the Bulls. And while many think of LaVine as a high-volume shooter, his usage rate last year was likely a result of him forcing the issue to try to prove he was worth a significant investment. With his shiny, new contract in tow, LaVine should be focused on making the team better, and get one step closer to his Timberwolves self. On that squad, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each scored 20+ points per game, while LaVine was averaging 18.9 points per game. And the team finished in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive rating.

It is not crazy to think the Bulls could have their own high-scoring trio in LaVine, Markkanen and Parker. And if that is the case, then the expectation is for LaVine to be a efficient scorer who can occasionally spot the open man. Hyped? Yes. But overhyped? No one is banking on him being an All-Star, though it remains in the realm of possibility. The idea that he is overhyped is based on the fact his new contract is $78 million and he is poor at defense, but this is overlooking the fact that LaVine has proven he is a player capable of having a large role on a top-10 offense. September 30 can’t get here fast enough.  

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

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USA TODAY

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.