Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note


Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note

It's just one game, an exhibition at that, but if Tuesday's 93-85 win over the Pacers was any indication, this season's edition of the Bulls won't just be Derrick Rose, his supporting cast and a dominant defense.

On some nights, they'll be a balanced offensive squad that's fun to watch.

Back in the United Center for the first time since losing the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago dispatched last spring's first-round playoff opponent, Indiana, and while it couldn't be called picture-perfect or up to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's impossibly high standards, it was at least a positive sign for the upcoming campaign.

"I thought the whole team played very unselfishly. Everyone made the extra pass," said Thibodeau, whose squad dished out 30 assists in the outing. "We got easy baskets, we got the ball up the floor quickly, we were inside-out, our post guys played very unselfishly--they kicked the ball out--so offensively, I thought it was excellent."

Perhaps learning from their lackluster start in the preseason opener in Indianapolis, the Bulls played high-energy basketball from the outset. Carlos Boozer (24 points, seven rebounds, three assists), in particular, opened the game on a positive note--the power forward made an early impact with his low-post scoring--as did Luol Deng (14 points, seven rebounds), for whom beginning the game with a flourish is a fairly consistent habit.

The team's newest addition, Rip Hamilton (13 points, six assists, four rebounds), gave the home crowd something to look forward to, connecting on his first attempt as a Bull, then sprinting out in transition--ahead of even the speedy Rose (12 points, nine assists, five rebounds), who fed him the ball--for a fast-break layup.

"Probably the first time I ever played with somebody that was faster than me, so trying to keep up with him every time he pushed the ball on the break, it was fun, it was exciting, because I could get so many easy baskets," said Hamilton. "Everything's new. Everything is on the fly. But this is my 13th season and basketball's basketball. Once the ball is thrown up, when you've got good guys on your team like I have here, they helped me through the whole time, so it makes my job a lot easier."

Solid defense, that held the visitors to a paltry 23.8 shooting percentage for the quarter, resulted in a 24-15 Bulls advantage after the opening period.

When backup power forward Taj Gibson picked up three early fouls in the second quarter while guarding Pacers counterpart Tyler Hansbrough (24 points, 13 rebounds), Indiana's primary offensive source, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau re-inserted Boozer, who resumed his productivity as both a scorer and facilitator.

Ronnie Brewer (11 points, four rebounds), despite being relegated again to a reserve role, provided additional firepower, showing he either didn't take the demotion too hard or he didn't mind sacrificing his starting spot for the team's benefit.

Meanwhile, Deng and Pacers go-to scorer Danny Granger (12 points on 4-for-11 shooting) waged their usual small-forward battle--Deng was more efficient, but Granger got hot late in the quarter--and Rose showed his maturity and development by orchestrating Chicago's offense to perfection as a distributor.

"I'm a winner. That's the way that I think of myself. Anything to win and if that's me passing the ball, that's just what it is and being in situations, I know Thibs is going to give me the ball, but I'm not rushing," said Rose, the recipient of a new five-year, 94-million contract extension. "If anything, I love a game like this every night, especially seeing my teammates happy."

Added Thibodeau: "That's what the game was dictating. Derrick can beat you a lot of different ways. He can beat you with scoring, passing, active with his defense, pushing the ball up the floor, getting easy baskets. So, I thought he was real patient. He got into the post one time, so he'll be excited about that, but overall, he played terrific. The way he ran the team, I think his help defensively is vastly improved from last year, so we're encouraged by that."

Following Indiana fighting back from a double-digit deficit when the second unit was in the game, the starters again gave the home team some breathing room, and at the intermission, the Bulls had a 50-42 lead.

Boozer picked up where he left off in the the third quarter, producing points in a variety of fashions--agile post moves, mid-range jumpers and putbacks after offensive boards--and helping the Bulls extend their cushion.

"I think he was very aggressive. In the first game, I thought he played a great floor game. He was posting deep, he passed the ball well, did a lot of good things in that game--he didn't score well and we tend to judge him that way--and this is the way he's been practicing in training camp," explained Thibodeau. "He's done a great job with running the floor and getting deep post-ups. He had good balance, he's in great shape, so I'm not surprised by his play."

Hamilton also showcased his proven scoring ability, while center Joakim Noah (five points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists)--besides Rose, the only starter not to reach double figures by the time Thibodeau began to mix in his reserves--made his presence felt on the defensive end by either altering or outright denying multiple Pacers' shot attempts.

Hansbrough was again a bright spot for the visitors, as was second-year swingman Paul George (14 points, six rebounds), who flashed his talent and versatility, along with an improved perimeter stroke. This time around, however, Chicago's reserves withstood Indiana's push and took a 78-66 winning margin into the final stanza.

Gibson finally got into an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter--his most aesthetically-pleasing play was a dunk off a Hamilton behind-the-back pass--and with Brewer continuing to contribute as a scorer, the Bulls maintained their comfortable double-digit lead. Thibodeau inserted his regulars (sans Boozer, who earned a well-deserved break; he'd eventually replace Gibson later, after his understudy fouled out) back into the contest.

Chicago cruised during the game's stretch run and Pacers head coach Frank Vogel eventually waved the white flag, sending in his deep reserves, although the majority of Bulls starters would play out the string.

After concluding a brief, yet undefeated preseason, the Bulls head to Los Angeles for their Christmas Day season opener Sunday against the Lakers.

"For Thibs, he was in a pretty good mood," Boozer said. "But again, it's preseason and the 25th, things will change."

Rationalized Thibodeau: "You can't get carried away with this. This is preseason. David West is a heck of a player and he's working his way back off an injury. That team is an excellent team. They play hard and they play unselfishly, they're very well-coached. We're not going to get too excited about a preseason win.

"Well, there's still a lot of work to be done. I like the attitude of our team. They're serious-minded, they come to work every day, they strive for improvement and we know we have a long way to go. In this type of season, you have to keep grinding. Sometimes the schedule will be going your way, sometimes it won't," he continued. "But the games will keep coming. We really believe that if we defend, rebound and keep our turnovers down, we'll be in position to win. So, those are three things that we want to do every night and we've got to keep working towards that every day."

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need


Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.

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.”