Bulls

Can Hawkeyes' Aaron White translate his game to the next level?

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Can Hawkeyes' Aaron White translate his game to the next level?

Being a good college basketball player doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good professional basketball player.

But it sure can’t hurt.

Aaron White’s NBA future might be a bit of a question mark — many mock drafts have him going late in the second round — but there’s no doubting that decision-makers have to be impressed with what he did during his senior year at Iowa.

Coming off a junior year that saw his Hawkeyes stumble mightily down the stretch and make a rapid exit from the NCAA tournament, White entered this past season as the team’s leader, with head coach Fran McCaffery calling it “Aaron’s team” even before the season began. And White showed it, putting Iowa on his back throughout the season.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: NBA Draft Profile: Iowa F Aaron White]

White averaged better than 16 points and seven rebounds a game, scoring from everywhere on the floor and showing off a terrific ability to get to the free-throw line. Under his leadership, the Hawkeyes reversed the trend and finished the season strong, winning six straight and eight of 10 to close the regular season, then surprising many with a 31-point rout of Davidson in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament. And through it all, White was sensational. He averaged 22.5 points per game over the team’s last eight contests (including a Big Ten Tournament game and two NCAA tournament games), scoring 21 points or more in six of those. He grabbed double-digit rebounds four times over Iowa’s final 10 games. He earned First Team All-Big Ten honors.

White finished his college career with a bang, and he did it in a conference that he called the next best thing to playing in the NBA.

“I think it’s one of the best conferences,” White said at the NBA Draft Combine. “The competition level that we played against, the scouting reports and coaches that you go up against, obviously it’s not the NBA, but it might be the next best thing in terms of how to prep yourself for the next level. So I think a lot of stuff that I learned in my four years at Iowa will help me going forward.”

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Jerian Grant could be the Bulls' next 'veteran' gem]

There’s a lot to like about White’s game. As mentioned, he can score in a variety of ways and is great at getting to the basket and the charity stripe. The question becomes whether he can do that at the next level. Even in the Big Ten, a conference known for its bruising battles, opposing defenses are a lot smaller than in the NBA. It’s easier to get through the Illinois Fighting Illini — who White scorched for 29 points on Feb. 25 — than it is to get through the Chicago Bulls.

But White feels he can bring plenty to an NBA team, be it versatility, scoring ability or something purely intangible.

“Playing the 3 and the 4. Just being able to play hard, play with a good motor, bring energy and do all the little things to help a team win. That’s what I’m kind of prepping myself to do,” White said. “Whatever a team asks me, I’m going to try to do to the best of my ability. If a team selects me, I’ll represent that organization in a great manner.”

Regardless of where he ends up getting picked, White is enjoying the process. He raved about being at the NBA Draft Combine, an event he said he’s watched on TV since he was a little kid. He was stunned by some of the faces in the crowd watching him play.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Will Frank Kaminsky turn college success into NBA greatness?]

“I’ve been watching the Combine since I was a little kid,” White said. “Obviously I watched it really intently last year when (former teammate Roy Devyn Marble) was here, and I’ve always followed the coverage on NBA TV or ESPN or whoever’s covering it. This is a great honor to be here. You see Larry Bird sitting courtside, you see big-name guys sitting courtside. This whole process is a blessing, it’s something I’m very fortunate to be in a position in.”

One of those faces sitting courtside, though, was a very familiar one. McCaffery was at the Combine, too, and White said he’s been thrilled to have his now former coach be a big part of his NBA Draft process.

“He’s given me great confidence in myself not only in my four years at college but throughout this process just telling me to be myself and let my character show through and my work ethic show through,” White said. “I couldn’t ask for a better coach to play for, and I appreciate him coming out and supporting me.”

He might not hear his name early on draft night, and there might be questions to be answered about his game and how it translates to the next level — though NBA teams likely won’t be shying away from 6-foot-9 220-pounder. But one certain thing is that White will appreciate the opportunity immensely. And if his play in college showed anything, it’s that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make something happen for his team.

“I’m just looking forward to not only these next two months before the draft, the next month and a half, but my career going forward,” White said. “This is my dream, to play basketball for a living, and I’m just so lucky and fortunate to be in this position. It’s been great so far, and the future looks good, as well.”

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.