Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

When national writers and broadcasters were asked for their preseason predictions, most of them didn’t have the Bulls among their eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The reasoning was pretty consistent: A lack of 3-point shooting threats would allow opposing defenses to pack the paint against Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, making it tough for the Bulls to score against the better teams in the league. Plus, many national observers wondered how much Wade had left in the tank at age 34 and if he would be able to hold up physically throughout the 82-game NBA marathon.

Well, through the first three games of the season, the Bulls are showing detractors just how productive their offense can be, leading the league with an average of 113.7 points a night. With Rondo pushing the pace, the Bulls are getting easy baskets in transition and creating wide-open opportunities for their 3-point shooters by making the extra pass. They’re averaging more than 28 assists a game, compared to 14 turnovers, and they’re also controlling the boards, grabbing an average of 53 rebounds per game.

Granted, they caught the Celtics and Pacers on the second night of back-to-back games, and Brooklyn might just be the worst team in the league. But we should learn a lot more about the Bulls over the next few nights, when they face rematches against Boston and Indiana on the road plus a home date against Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the Knicks on Friday night. No one should ask the Bulls to apologize for taking advantage of their favorable opening-week schedule, and their style of play should translate against tougher opponents to come.

It’s obvious Fred Hoiberg took the lessons learned from his first season as an NBA head coach and came back with a new approach for Year 2. Hoiberg was much more demanding during training camp, only giving the players a couple days off during October while insisting on proper execution and practice habits. Butler commented Tuesday in Boston about the changes in Hoiberg’s approach and how he probably made a mistake in judging him too quickly last season.

The changes to the roster are even more significant. It became clear last season time had run out on the Bulls’ core group, so Rose was traded to the Knicks for Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant, Mike Dunleavy was dealt to Cleveland to free up cap room to sign Wade, and Noah, Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks were allowed to leave in free agency. The Bulls drafted a versatile college star in Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, then added accomplished veterans Wade and Rondo in free agency, the two of them combining for four NBA championships and 16 All-Star game appearances in their careers. And just before the season began, the Bulls acquired former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee for Tony Snell, who had completely fallen out of the rotation. Carter-Williams will miss the next four to six weeks after suffering a left knee bone bruise in the win over Brooklyn but should return in plenty of time to be a valuable contributor this season.

All of the roster changes made the Bulls a younger and more cohesive team. Already, players are talking about the great atmosphere in the locker room and how much fun the guys are having playing with their teammates. Never underestimate the value of team chemistry over the course of a grueling six-month schedule. The Bulls lost too many games to sub-.500 teams a year ago, ultimately keeping them out of the playoffs. The unselfish play we’ve seen so far should help them avoid some of those head-scratching losses and give them the 45-plus wins they’ll need to finish among the top eight teams in the East this season.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Around the Association

It’s been a fascinating opening week in the NBA, starting with Chicago native Anthony Davis dropping 50 and 45 points in his first two games for the Pelicans. And how about Russell Westbrook’s one-man show in Oklahoma City? The Thunder have won all three games so far, with “Angry Russ” averaging 38.7 points and 11.7 assists. Westbrook & Co. will be in Oakland on Thursday for their first look at long-time Thunder star Kevin Durant in a Warriors’ uniform. Durant says he still considers Westbrook to be a friend and believes they’ll talk through any issues that might exist over the way he left Oklahoma City in free agency, but I’m still looking for Russ to try to put up one of those 50, 15, 15 stat lines against the Warriors. Don’t be surprised if Westbrook becomes the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-73 for the old Kansas City Kings.

In the East, the defending NBA champion Cavs look as strong as ever with LeBron James taking dead aim at a fifth MVP trophy. J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup after finally signing a new contract late in training camp, and Dunleavy should provide another capable 3-point shooting threat off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Cavs also add a veteran backup point guard at some point like James’ former Miami teammate, Mario Chalmers, who’s working his way back from an Achilles' tendon injury last season.

Atlanta lost Al Horford to Boston in free agency and traded point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, but Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the league and he’s got the Hawks off to a fast start with Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and Dennis Schroder running the point. Power forward Paul Millsap figures to put up big numbers in a contract year, and the Hawks still have plenty of 3-point shooting in Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It’s probably safe to pencil Atlanta in for another trip to the playoffs.

The Bulls will play against Rose and Noah for the first time Friday night when the Knicks invade the United Center. Noah only averaged 20.5 minutes over the first two games, with Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek choosing to go small with either Kyle O’Quinn or Kristaps Porzingis at center. You have to wonder how long it will take Phil Jackson to regret giving Noah a four-year, $72 million contract over the summer. Rose is averaging 31 minutes and scoring 15 points a game, but only two assists, despite the fact he says he’s now a mature, pass-first point guard.

Toronto and Boston are expected to battle it out for the No. 2 seed in the East behind Cleveland, and after that it figures to be a log jam with the Bulls competing against the likes of Atlanta, Detroit, Indiana, Charlotte, Washington and possibly the Knicks for spots three through eight. But as we’ve learned over the years, injuries and the emergence of young players can dramatically change the fortunes of any team. At this point, the Bulls will try to stack up as many wins as possible while monitoring Wade’s minutes to put themselves in the best possible position for the stretch run.

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t come to the NBA Draft Combine with the boastful statements made by his peers, refusing to declare himself the best player in a loaded draft.

But it doesn’t mean he lacks for confidence.

Carter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects in next month’s draft, even though he doesn’t come with the heavy fanfare of what many expect to be the top three picks.

One of those top three players was Carter Jr’s teammate at Duke, Marvin Bagley III, relegating Carter Jr. to a supporting role of sorts in his lone collegiate season. He couldn’t turn college basketball upside down as a freshman; He didn’t have the opportunity to, still averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 29.1 minutes last season.

“Bagley's a phenomenal player. He came into college basketball, did what he was supposed to do,” Carter Jr. said. “My role changed a little bit but like I said, I'm a winner and I'll do what it takes to win.”

Like he said, considering it was the fifth time he patted himself on the back, describing his positive attributes. It didn’t come across as obnoxious, but more an affirmation, a reminder that his willingness to sacrifice personal glory shouldn’t overshadow his ability.

“I'm pretty versatile as a player,” Carter Jr. said. “I'd just find a way to fit into the team, buy into the system. I'm a winner. Do whatever it takes to win.”

When asked about his strengths, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s “exceptional” at rebounding and defending, certainly things teams would love to see come to fruition if he’s in their uniform next season.

Playing next to Bagley and not being the first option—or even the second when one considers Grayson Allen being on the perimeter—forced him to mature more in the little things.

“It was (an adjustment) at first,” Carter Jr. said. “I knew what I could do without scoring the ball. I did those things. I did them very exceptional. I found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

“I think it did do wonders for me. It definitely helped me out, allowed me to show I can play with great players but still maintain my own.”

If he’s around at the seventh slot, the Bulls will likely take a hard look at how he could potentially fit next to Lauri Markkanen and in the Bulls’ meeting with Carter Jr., the subject was broached.

“Great process. I was just thinking, me and him together playing on the court together would be a killer,” he said with a smile.

“I know they wanna get up and down the court more. The NBA game is changing, there's no more true centers anymore. They wanna have people who can shoot from the outside, it's something I'll have to work on through this draft process.”

An executive from a franchise in the lottery said Carter Jr’s game is more complete than Bagley’s, and that Carter Jr. could be the safer pick even if he isn’t more talented than his teammate.

It’s no surprise Carter Jr. has been told his game reminds them of Celtics big man Al Horford. Horford has helped the Celtics to a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in no small part due to his inside-outside game and ability to ably defend guards and wings on the perimeter.

Horford doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s matured into a star in his role after coming into the NBA with a pretty grown game as is. Carter Jr. has shown flashes to validate those comparisons.

“Whatever system I come to, I buy in,” Carter Jr. said. “Coaches just want to win. I want to win too. Whatever they ask me to do. If it's rebounding, blocking shots, setting picks, I'm willing to do that just to win.”

He was also told he compares to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge, two disparate players but players the Bulls have had a history with in the draft. The Bulls passed on Green in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Marquis Teague, and in Aldridge’s case, picked him second in 2007 before trading him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas.

As one can imagine, neither scenario has been suitable for framing in the Bulls’ front office, but whether they see Carter Jr. as a the next versatile big in an increasingly positionless NBA remains to be seen.

“I definitely buy into that (positionless basketball). I'm a competitor,” Carter Jr. said. “Especially on the defensive end. Working on my lateral quickness, just so I could guard guards on pick and roll actions. Offensively I didn't show much of it at Duke but I'm pretty versatile. I can bring it up the court. Can shoot it from deep, all three levels.”

His versatility has come into play off the floor as well, deftly answering questions about his mother comparing the NCAA’s lack of compensation for athletes to slavery.

Carter Jr’s mother, Kylia Carter, spoke at the Knight Comission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently and made the claim.

“The only system I have ever seen where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation … The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place is slavery and the prison system, and now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that.”

As if he needed to add context to the statement, Carter Jr. indulged the media members who asked his opinion on the matter—or at least, his opinion of his mother’s opinion.

“A lot of people thought she was saying players were slaves and coaches were slave owners,” Carter Jr. said. “Just the fact, we do go to college, we're not paid for working for someone above us and the person above us is making all the money.”

As sensible as his comment was, as direct as his mother’s statements were, he still finds himself in a position where he has to defend his mother. In some cases, teams asked him about her—but that’s not to say they disagreed with her premise.

“My mom is my mom,” Carter Jr. said. “She has her opinions and doesn't mind sharing them. In some aspects I do agree with her. In others...you'll have to ask her if you want to know more information.”

“I never thought my mom is ever wrong. But I think people do perceive her in the wrong way. Some things she does say...that's my mom. You have to ask her.”

The versatility to handle things out of his control, as well as understanding how his season at Duke prepared him for walking into an NBA locker room should be noted.

There’s no delusions of grandeur, despite his unwavering confidence.

“I'd come in and try to outwork whoever's in front of me,” Carter Jr. said. “That's the beauty of the beast. You come into a system, There's players in front of you 3-4-5 years and know what it takes.”

“I would learn those things and let the best man win.”

After historical season at Oklahoma, Trae Young ready to make immediate impact in NBA

After historical season at Oklahoma, Trae Young ready to make immediate impact in NBA

There once was a period in NBA Draft history when leading the country in scoring all but guaranteed a top-5 draft pick. All-Americans were the talk of the class, and if he could pass, too, all the entire better. And if that player was a freshman? Forget about it.

But there’s never been a time in history when a player led the country in both scoring and assists. And it was done by a freshman, all of 19 years old. And yet for all Oklahoma point guard Trae Young accomplished in 32 games, doubters remain. He’s not the consensus top pick in next month’s NBA Draft. He might not even be a top-5 pick. He could even fall out of the top 10.

And that’s because the draft has become a science, of sorts. Position-less basketball is taking over, multiple ball handlers are on the floor for a team more time than they’re not, and height/length/wingspan and the rest of those Jay Bilas buzzwords mean more than ever.

And that is Young’s shortcoming (no pun intended). We’ll get the negatives out of the way before telling you why the Sooner is built perfectly for today’s NBA. He measured just under 6-foot-2 and weighed in at 178 pounds, which he told reporters was 10 pounds heavier than he was five weeks ago. His 6-foot-3 wingpsan was the smallest of all NBA Draft Combine participants, as was his 8-inch hand length.

So it’s reasonable to understand why he isn’t a slam dunk option at the top of the draft. But there’s also a number of reasons this 6-foot-2, defensive liability could also hear his name called in the top 5. And it’s because he’s the most dynamic offensive player college basketball has maybe ever seen. And, for the third time, he’s 19 years old.

“I think I’m the best overall player in the draft," he said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine. "My main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft. My motivation is to be the best player in the NBA and that’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

Young, a five-star recruit from Norman, Okla., double-doubled in his first collegiate game. He double-doubled in his second game. In games 3-8 he scored between 28 and 43 points, all while leading unranked Oklahoma to an unlikely 7-1 record. Then December 16 happened. And over the course of the next eight games Young took college basketball by storm.

In a span of one month, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, Oklahoma went from unranked to No. 4 in the country. Young’s numbers in that eight-game stretch? 31.4 points, 11.3 assists, 4.9 made 3-pointers and 1.6 steals in better than 34 minutes per game. His lowest scoring output in that time frame was 26, and in that game he handed out 22 assists, which tied an NCAA record. He had double-doubles in seven of the eight games, and had to settle for 29 points and five assists on the road against West Virginia, one of the country’s top defenses.

Young’s Sooners went into a nosedive after that, going 4-10 to finish the regular season and putting them close to the bubble, especially after a loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. Young, the catalyst and only real option for the Sooners, posted modest 24.5 points and 7.5 assists, but wasn’t able to get a hold of the runaway train. The Sooners lost their opening round matchup to Rhode Island, a game in which Young scored 28 points.

But the roller coaster season is in the rear-view mirror. Young’s game is pretty straightforward: he’s a pick and roll nightmare for defenses, has the best range of anyone in the country and finds open shooters with ease. He’s a do-it-all offensively, and has naturally drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry.

“I love the comparisons. He’s a two-time MVP and a champion,” Youg said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young, that’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing.”

Young will make his presence felt wherever he winds up on June 21. Though he needs to continue adding weight to withstand the physical nature of the NBA (as well as an 82-game season) his skill set was built for today’s game. Though his shooting numbers came at a rather inefficient clip – 42 percent shooting, 36 percent from 3 – those will improve as he’s asked to take fewer shots at the next level.

His passing numbers should also improve; despite the 8.7 assists per game he wasn’t exactly paired up with knockdown shooters in Norman. If a team is able to pair him next to a stout defender – not unlike Isaiah Thomas playing next to Avery Bradley in Boston – his offensive game will cancel out any defensive deficiencies.

“My main focus is going to the right team,” he said. “It’s all about the fit for me and whether that’s (No.) 1 or whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and ready to make an impact and that’s what they’re going to get.”

That impact will be felt. Young opted against naming teams – he has met with the Bulls, he said – but mentioned that he has looked at teams picking in this year’s Lottery and knows the playoffs are a possibility if he enters the mix and leaves his imprint on a team in Year 1.

“There are teams in this draft that I think are one piece away, two pieces away from being a team that’s in the Lottery this year but not next year,” Young said. “There’s been some teams that I’ve met with I feel like if I’m on that team that I can make a big impact for them.”

He made that impact at Oklahoma, and despite his measurements there’s nothing to dislike about his game. He set records, carried a team for four months and dealt with adversity. That, as well as a lethal jump shot, will have him ready for the next level and whatever team selects him in six weeks.