Bulls

Bulls: Joakim Noah struggling, unsure of where he fits offensively

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Bulls: Joakim Noah struggling, unsure of where he fits offensively

One more.

That’s all the Bulls truly needed to challenge the Golden State Warriors on their home court, with the dual opportunity to end the champs’ unbeaten streak and become the first team to win at Oracle Arena since they did it nearly a year ago.

It wasn’t one more shot, but another shot creator was needed besides Jimmy Butler considering Derrick Rose was out with his ankle injury.

And although Joakim Noah doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional shot creator, if he were the confident, swaggering Noah who could make plays with everybody around him, it could’ve made things truly interesting.

But as Noah sat in his locker after Friday’s loss, after 17 frustrating minutes that saw him turn the ball over four times along with going scoreless for the second straight game and fifth time overall this season, he looked to be confused—not necessarily at his play but he wonders how he’s supposed to play.

[MORE: Derrick Rose aiming to play Tuesday vs. Trail Blazers]

“I guess be more aggressive. It’s frustrating right now, not being able to help the team win tonight,” Noah said. “Disappointing, but just come back next game and do better.”

When Noah was an offensive hub back in the 2013-14 season, Rose was out with injury after the first 10 games and Butler hadn’t yet emerged as a true No. 1 option. So Noah exemplified making lemonade out of lemons.

No sugar, no sweetener and no ice.

It wasn’t always pretty but it was effective, as he averaged 5.4 assists and had an offensive rating of 111 points per 100 possessions.

Now that Fred Hoiberg has taken the helm and there are a plethora of options offensively, either he hasn’t found a way to best utilize Noah or Noah isn’t comfortable with how he fits in this new scheme—as Noah is averaging 3.5 assists but his offensive rating has dropped to 84 points per 100 possessions.

His down-on-himself demeanor hasn’t gone unnoticed by teammates who believe he’ll get out of this funk soon enough.

“I feed him a little bit,” Rose said after the team's practice at Golden State's facility in Oakland. “When he’s in the game with me, they kinda forget he’s out there when I have the ball. There’s been some plays in the past where I’ve fed him and he’s had a chance to dunk the ball or whatever. Whenever he’s in the play and rolling to the rim, if he’s open I’m definitely gonna give him the ball.”

[RELATED: Bulls hang with Warriors but can't finish them off]

To be fair, Pau Gasol, an offensively wizard for his size if there ever was one, wants the ball to go more inside as opposed to being so perimeter oriented.

So there’s plenty of kinks to be worked out, still, although Noah’s issues seem more front and center because of the sway he holds in the locker room, his contractual status as a free-agent-to-be, and all he’s accomplished in a Bulls uniform.

“The big thing is if you cut and move and screen and do the unselfish things, that stuff takes care of itself,” said Hoiberg, not speaking of anyone in particular. “With Pau, you give him the ball at the elbow and he can make plays. He’s a very good passer. But we can’t stand. That’s where we need to get better. We’ve made improvements from where we were at the beginning of the season. But it needs to continue to get better.”

In training camp, Hoiberg said Noah would flash to the ball almost too quickly from the baseline, something that could muck up the desired spacing on the perimeter considering Noah isn’t a threat to shoot.

What’s happened since is Noah has become far more tentative and unsure of when to exercise his instincts, perhaps in fear of disrupting a rhythm-based offense.

“He made a couple good backdoor passes. Those are the type of plays that Jo can make from out on the top of the floor,” Hoiberg said. “But you have to have movement. If he gets the ball up top, you can’t be stationary. You can’t stand still. That’s with all players but especially with our big guys. You can’t stand and allow them to load on the guy in the middle of the floor.”

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The bigs often screen, then re-screen from a different angle near the perimeter. Rolling to the basket isn’t as prevalent in Hoiberg’s offense, and considering he’s big on the team playing with pace there’s a fine line between being methodical and rushing.

Hoiberg said he doesn’t have to make severe modifications to the offense to fit any one player, but seemed to admit they haven’t put Noah in supreme positions to be successful.

Noah, who struggled through last season after knee surgery following the 2014 playoffs, certainly looks to be in more discomfort mentally than physically.

“I got to be more aggressive offensively and look for my opportunities,” he said before repeating himself. “Right now I’m not really sure where I can get them but when they come I have to be ready.”

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

It's never easy being the third wheel. Ask Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, or more currently Klay Thompson. When Cam Reddish signed his Letter of Intent to play for Coach K at Duke, he was joined by a class that included RJ. Barrett and Cam Reddish. He and Barrett were expected to take on the scoring load and lead a freshman-driven Blue Devils team.

But two months after Reddish, Barrett and Jones signed on officially, Zion Williamson committed to Duke and turned everything on its head. On paper, it made the Blue Devils the No. 1 team in the country. It gave them a fourth five-star prospect and arguably the best player in the country. We all know what happened with Williamson; he turned in one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history and will be selected first overall by the Pelicans in a month. Barrett was excellent, too. The oft-criticized wing was an All-American, led the Blue Devils in scoring and cemented his status as a top-3 pick.

Reddish's freshman campaign couldn't have gone more differently. He was inconsistent throughout, finishing his lone season in Durham averaging 13.5 points on 35.6% shooting and just 33.3% from beyond the arc. Even his 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists were a far cry from what was expected of a recruit many had ranked ahead of Williamson when the season began. He showed flashes, to be sure, like his 22-point effort against Kentucky, his game-winner at Florida State and his 27-point outing against North Carolina in the infamous Zion-shoe-blowout game. But those flashes weren't enough to save a subpar season that saw his draft stock tumble throughout the fall and winter.

Then again, Reddish was the third option behind two of the most profilic scorers in the country. Barrett had a 32.2% usage rate - 25th highest in the country - and Williamson was a focal point every night he stepped on the floor. In a sense that should have created more open looks for Reddish as defenses keyed in on those two, but in reality it limited his opportunities and made it difficult for him to project at how he would be used on game-by-game basis.

Reddit wasn't making any excuses for his poor season when he spoke to the media on Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine. But he did say he's looking forward to opportunities in the pre-draft process to show off his entire arsenal that made him a top-5 prospect and a potential top NBA pick coming out of high school.

"I feel like I can do everything. I feel like I was more of a shooter this year (at Duke). I don’t really want to think of myself as a shooter," he said. "So I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things."

Two key statistics back up Reddish's claim. First, he was excellent on off-the-dribble jump shots, averaging 0.903 points per possession on 62 attempts. That ranked in the 71st percentile nationally. He also dominated in the small sample size of pick-and-roll actions he induced, averaging 1.114 points per possession (91st percentile nationally). It lends credibility to the notion that Reddish is capable with the ball in his hands. Reddish's usage rate was 15th in the ACC, so it's not as though he never touched the ball. But between the Williamson/Barrett combination and the lead point guard in Jones, he was rarely the main (or second) option.

Playing off the ball was certainly new to Reddish, who like so many NBA prospects deal with a new role in not being the go-to scorer once they arrive in the Association. Reddish got a dose of that as a college freshman and struggled to adjust. He was unguarded on 45 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and yet ranked in just the 27th percentile nationally at 0.847 points per possession. Worse, he was in the 33rd percentile on spot-up jumpers on 193 possessions. The looks were there. He rarely knocked them down. He also shot just 51 percent at the rim, a troubling number, and that statistic includes freebies in transition that Duke thrived on during the season.

On talent and potential alone, Reddish is still a top-10 pick. He told reporters Thursday that he's hearing he'll fall somewhere in the 3 to 10 range, which sounds about right (though it'd be a shock to see him go before Barrett at No. 3). He still has prototypical NBA wing size - he measured 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan - and is an above average ball handler. But there's no denying his good traits combined with his poor showing at Duke make him a swing-for-the-fences, boom-or-bust pick.

For the Bulls, it might be time to pull the trigger on that kind of player. Both Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. fell into their laps at No. 7 the previous two seasons - that's not to say they shouldn't be applauded for the picks, just that they were expected. But in this year's draft class, players in the 4-14 range all fall into a similar tier. In the Lottery, there will be safe routes to take (De'Andre Hunter, Rui Hachimura), selections for need (Darius Garland, Coby White) and there will be high-risk, high-reward options (Reddish, Sekou Doumbouya, Jarrett Culver).

But the Bulls could do worse than coming out of this year's draft with a player who 7 shorts months ago was a potential pick to go No. 1. He'd have lower expectations playing on a second unit and could spread his wings a little behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter. Having that freedom on a second unit could be what unlocks that untapped potential that was missing at Duke a year ago.

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

With the majority of mock drafts coming out after Tuesday’s lottery having the Bulls selecting North Carolina point guard Coby White with the seventh overall pick in the June 20 NBA Draft, it had me thinking about whether this might be the year to take a chance on a high risk/high reward pick.

Yes, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson has made it clear he plans to bring in a point guard to challenge incumbent starter Kris Dunn, but with so many options in free agency, are the Bulls still inclined to go in that direction with their first round pick?

Before the lottery, the odds of the Bulls being in position to select either Ja Morant or Darius Garland looked pretty favorable if they stayed in the top-5. But after dropping all the way to No. 7, it’s almost a certainty that Morant and Garland will be gone, leaving White as the highest rated point guard available. White showed tremendous speed and scoring potential in his one season at North Carolina, but he has a lot to learn about directing an offense at the NBA level and will need to get stronger.

If Dunn returns for the final season of his rookie contract, there’s a good chance he moves into a backup role behind a veteran free agent, so maybe this isn’t the year to draft a developmental point guard.

So then, what do the Bulls do at No. 7?

Maybe it’s time to take a flier on a high upside athlete, something they really haven’t done since the infamous LaMarcus Aldridge-Tyrus Thomas draft night deal in 2006. This year’s draft contains a number of players who didn’t live up to expectations in their one collegiate season, but rank high on the athletic testing charts.

I had a chance to talk with a number of players at the draft combine in Chicago, and one who impressed me is USC guard Kevin Porter Jr. Scouts love the athleticism of the 6-foot-4 Porter Jr., but he underperformed in his one collegiate season, averaging just 9.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field in a mostly reserve role.

Porter Jr. missed seven games because of a thigh injury and also had to serve a team suspension for “personal conduct issues.” But he’s not lacking in confidence, telling me he was a top-5 prospect at the start of the season and will be able to work his way up draft boards after teams get a chance to interview him and put him through individual workouts. Porter Jr. also mentioned comparisons to last year’s NBA MVP James Harden, mostly because they’re both 6-foot-4, played at PAC 12 universities and are left-handed.

No one is predicting Porter Jr. will ever come close to the unique scoring talent Harden displays on a nightly basis, but he definitely looks the part of an NBA player with a strong upper body and impressive leaping ability. Don’t be surprised if he winds up being a top-10 pick on draft night.

Other players projected for the late lottery include Indiana shooting guard Romeo Langford, Kentucky SG/SF Keldon Johnson, North Carolina small forward Nassir Little, French forward Sekou Doumbouya and Oregon 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol.

Much like Porter Jr., Little was considered a top-5 pick at the start of the college season, but never earned Roy Williams’ complete confidence at North Carolina, and struggled to find consistent minutes and shot attempts. He shot the ball well at the combine and projects as an elite defender at the NBA level. The Bulls really aren’t in the market for another small forward with Otto Porter Jr. and 2018 first round pick Chandler Hutchison already on the roster, but the wing positions offer the most talent in this draft.

Bol is a fascinating prospect with many scouts saying he’s one of the best pure shooters in this draft as a 7-footer. Problem is Bol suffered a foot fracture early in his freshman season at Oregon, the same type of injury that cost Joel Embiid his first two NBA seasons. Any team that drafts Bol will have to understand the risk of further injury, and the likelihood he won’t be able to contribute much in the 2019-2020 season.

If the Bulls stay at No. 7, White is the most logical pick, but they could go with a player that drops unexpectedly, like Duke forward Cam Reddish or Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver. The Bulls have always been aggressive in scheduling personal workouts and interviews with all the prospects in their draft range, and this year that process will take on more importance than ever.

Remember, Donovan Mitchell was one of the most impressive athletes at the combine two years ago, but stayed on the board until the Utah Jazz worked a trade with Denver to get him at No. 13. Now Mitchell is one of the best young guards in the NBA. Kyle Kuzma also moved into the first round in 2017 with a strong combine showing and is thriving as a productive two-way player with the Lakers.

It’s up to Paxson and his staff to find which player has the most long term upside and maybe come up with their own version of Mitchell or Kuzma next month.

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