Bulls

Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo flourishing in unique point guard role

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Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo flourishing in unique point guard role

Teammate Jerryd Bayless said he has “a chance to be really special.” Greg Monroe described his skill set as “pretty rare.” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg already dubbed him “truly one of the superstars in this league.” And now, 21-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo is showing off yet another facet of his ever-expanding game as the Bucks’ point guard.

The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo is hardly a point guard in stature. For the first two-and-a-half seasons of his NBA career his incomparable blend of size, length and quickness allowed him time at shooting guard and both forward positions. But the Bucks’ most versatile player – on a team full of them – the “Greek Freak,” as he’s been aptly nicknamed, is now showcasing his abilities as the team’s main distributor.

And it’s more than just a gimmick, or a desperate move from head coach Jason Kidd to shake up a roster that has fallen short on preseason expectations. Antetokounmpo, the prized jewel of the 2013 Draft, is thriving in his new role, which began two weeks ago. It’s given life to an offense ranked among the league’s worst, freed up shooters on the wings and given Kidd more options to use at his disposal. And the rising star looked the part in Monday’s 100-90 loss to the Bulls, scoring 12 points and handing out 10 assists in 37 minutes.

“Playmaking,” he said when asked what he liked most about running the offense. “Making the right play. Sometimes it’s going to be a shot for me, sometimes it’s a pass for my teammates. That’s what brought me in this league when I was younger. Finding the open guys. I love doing it right now.”

[RELATED: Pau Gasol's triple-double helps Bulls grind out win over Bucks]

Prior to the All-Star break Kidd moved point guard Michael Carter-Williams and center Greg Monroe to the bench. With natural shooting guard O.J. Mayo taking Carter-Williams’ spot in the lineup, it left the Bucks offense without a true point guard. And while Antetokounmpo doesn’t fit that bill, his role as the team’s main facilitator has been pronounced.

From Feb. 22, the night Antetokounmpo logged his first career triple-double, Antetokounmpo has touched the ball an average of 95.4 times per game. That’s fifth in the NBA, and a considerable amount higher than the 59.0 touches per game he received up until that point.

His 70.1 passes per game are 7th in the NBA in that span, up nearly 30 passes since before he took over point duties. He’s averaged 8.9 assists per game as the team’s main distributor, and only the league’s four leading assisters have averaged more in that frame (Rondo, Wall, Westbrook, Paul).

“He has intangibles you can’t teach. As big as he is, the things that he can do, nobody else can really do,” Bayless said. “It’s very rare. You don’t see guys do what he can do. It’s a rare skill set and we’re lucky to have him here.”

The Bucks are just 3-5 since Antetokounmpo’s first triple-double – he’s added two more since then – and are now 12 games under .500 following Monday’s loss. But progress on Antetokounmpo’s part has also yielded dividends for the players around him.

Chicago native Jabari Parker is averaging 20.5 points over his last eight games, including a career-best 36 points on a night where Antetokounmpo logged 11 assists. Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ leading scorer, has averaged 23.5 points. The Bucks’ offense has been more than four points per 100 possessions better since then, a considerable jump for the league’s eighth lowest scoring teams.

"I'm noticing it. Especially Jabari, he's getting more open shots, more open looks. He's getting more open lanes and that's what I'm trying to do. Trying to get other guys to be better (and) have more open looks."

The on-the-fly transition for a kid who celebrated his 21st birthday three months ago Sunday has been aided by one of best tutors he could have asked for. Kidd spent 19 seasons in the NBA as a point guard, ranking second all-time in assists. And the future Hall of Famer has been a major factor in Antetokounmpo’s growth in such a short time.

“Having J-Kidd talking to me at practice, before the game, after the game, it’s great. He’s one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game,” he said. “I don’t feel really comfortable but he talks to me, he gives me tips every day, to improve in spots. Having him is great. It’s like having a cheat code.”

Antetokounmpo’s presence has become a cheat code of sorts for the Bucks. He handed out four assists in the first half to four different Bucks. He finished a pair of highlight reel dunks and, despite the cold shooting night, knew when to distribute, tallying six more assists in the second half. In addition to his new role at the point, he spent his 37 minutes on the other end of the floor guarding just about everyone, from Taj Gibson to Derrick Rose. He finished with three steals and a block.

“I think he’s doing a good job of making the right decisions,” Monroe said. “Knowing when to attack, knowing when to find people. It’s a big adjustment for him probably more than anybody, asked to play a new position, probably the toughest position in the sport.”

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It's a position he'll remain in likely for the remainder of the season. Earlier Monday the Bucks announced that Carter-Williams would miss the rest of the season following left hip surgery. Bayless is more of a shoot-first player, a point guard in position only, and Tyler Ennis has appeared in 28 games. That leaves Antetokounmpo to continue running the Bucks offense, which has ranked 15th in efficiency since Kidd gave the reins to his young forward.

He’s still adjusting to the way defenses are playing time – Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio guarded him on Friday, while Thunder forwards Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka drew his assignment Sunday night in Milwaukee – and is still ironing out the jump shot aspect of his game – he went 1-for-5 on shots not at the rim. And while he still doesn’t feel comfortable in the new role, a role he’s been in for two short weeks, he looks every bit the part for a Bucks team getting a spark from its budding star.

“My teammates and coaches help me every day and show me the right things, talk to me on the court,” he said. “I think it’s coming day by day more naturally and as I move forward I’ll get more comfortable.”

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”