Bulls

Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

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Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

The Bulls had offseason visions of an early spring rematch against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with playoff implications on the line.

And at the time, the thought of Brazilian rookie Cristiano Felicio making a significant impact in such a game would have been just as unlikely as the Bulls’ playoff chances being on life support in the final week of the regular season.

But that’s the situation the Bulls face, still needing what Fred Hoiberg described as a “miracle” in the season’s final four days to make the postseason. But for at least one more night they staved off elimination, and the little known Brazilian suddenly making a name for himself was a major reason why.

Felicio scored a career-high 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting, blocked two shots and played the final 15 minutes as the Bulls topped the Cavaliers, 105-102, which also kept Cleveland from securing the top seed in the East.

“You could argue he was the player of the game,” Hoiberg said of his rookie center.

Felicio was part of a Bulls bench unit that outscored the Cavs’ reserves, 44-11, on a night when each of the Bulls’ starters finished with a negative rating – each of the Cavs’ starters subsequently finished with a positive rating.

With Taj Gibson sidelined a sixth consecutive game, Felicio again found himself thrust into the rotation behind Pau Gasol. He ran the pick-and-roll offense without flaw in the first half, finishing all three of his shots at the basket, including a thunderous dunk of an alley-oop from Aaron Brooks.

[MORE: Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs]

And while he had logged double-digit minutes in each of the last six games, on Saturday night Hoiberg stayed with the 23-year-old in crunch time. He played all but the final two seconds of the fourth quarter. He produced during the Bulls’ decisive 13-2 run early in the final period, finishing on a dunk, blocking a Kyrie Irving layup and adding two more points on a layup that helped give the Bulls a 97-84 lead midway through the period.

He was strong in pick-and-roll defense against the Cavs’ small ball lineup, and when Cleveland cut the deficit to six with a 12-5 run, Felicio responded with an up-and-under layup off a feed from Jimmy Butler, who finished with 21 points and six assists.

Felicio got too aggressive in the final minute attempting to grab an offensive rebound, fouling J.R. Smith and sending him to the line where he cut the deficit to two. But on the whole he was part of a defense that held the Cavs to 33 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“I haven’t been playing games like that for a couple of years now, and of course it’s different to be playing crunch time in the NBA, and it was a great experience for me,” Felicio said. “I made a couple of mistakes there but it was good for me to know what I had to do, and keep improving from that.”

Felicio spent much of the season buried behind the guy who was buried on the Bulls’ frontcourt depth chart, first round pick Bobby Portis. But injuries to Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol have given the 23-year-old center his chance to shine, and he’s made good on his opportunity.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

He made just five appearances in the Bulls’ first 50 games, logging no more than four minutes in each. His first real opportunity and the blossoming of his confidence came just after the All-Star break. With Mirotic still out, he scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds in 14 minutes against the Raptors.

Since then he’s been given additional minutes in the absence of Gibson, and he’s grown each game. In his last seven contests, Felicio has averaged 6.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 14.6 minutes.

“I think if you give anybody confidence, and he’s a very confident player, that they can show they can play,” Butler said. “He’s here to stay. He works incredibly hard and I’m happy for him. I really am.”

Felicio only started playing basketball in Brazil when he was 13 years old. The 6-foot-10 center became too big for soccer – he quit when he was told he’d have to play goalie – and he spent the last three seasons playing for Flamengo in his home country. He also helped Brazil win a pair of FIBA tournaments in 2014.

He joined the Bulls’ Summer League team in 2015, where he averaged 3.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in six games. That was enough for the Bulls to sign him in July, and they decided to keep him on the regular season roster. Felicio said no other teams had shown interest in him, and if the Bulls released him after the preseason he would have gone back to Brazil.

It won’t be enough to bring the Bulls back into playoff contention – one Bulls loss or Pacers win ends the Bulls’ chances – but could hold weight when the team begins to plan its offseason.

Noah will be an unrestricted free agent. Gasol is expected to opt out of his contract, and his future in Chicago is still a question mark. Felicio is under contract for one more season, and while he’s still a raw talent that projects as an asset off the bench next season, the flashes he’s shown in the last two weeks should have him competing for minutes in the fall.

Where Felicio fits in and how his continued improvement may change the direction the Bulls take in the offseason will be determined later. For now, for one night, Felicio played the role of unlikely hero and kept the Bulls’ slim playoff hopes alive.

“I tried to go there and play as hard as I can, and my teammates are always with me and talking with me. Tonight was a good night for me,” he said. “I hit a couple layups that got me going and after that continued to play as hard as I could, and I was able to help the team win the game.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls trade up or down in the draft?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls trade up or down in the draft?

Mark Carman, Hub Arkush, Phil Rogers and Will Perdue join Kap on the SportsTalk Live Podcast.

The guys start by discussing Brandon Morrow's injury that he sustained while taking off his pants... what's the craziest cause for an injury the guys can remember?

Plus, should the Bulls move up or down in Thursday's NBA Draft? Does it make sense to take on a bad contract in a potential deal?

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

Over the past several weeks, the Bulls have been heavily rumored to be selecting Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although the 6-foot-7 Hutchison had a stellar four-year career with the Broncos, and was regarded as a top-100 national prospect coming out of high school, his background is relatively unknown compared to many of his first-round counterparts. Not many recruiting gurus watched Hutchison in-depth in high school. The same could be said about draft analysts watching Hutchison's career unfold at Boise State.

Part of the reason Hutchison has flown under the radar for so long, despite being a first-round talent, is his unique basketball upbringing. Many elite high school players opt to transfer to big-time basketball schools while playing in high-exposure shoe-company leagues during the spring and summer. Instead of the normal path, Hutchison chose to stick with the people that he trusted.

Playing for a small, independent grassroots program in high school known as Team Eastbay, Hutchison started showing special gifts as a sophomore in before blossoming into a top-100 national prospect towards the end of high school. Hutchison's trainer and coach with Team Eastbay, Perry Webster, saw that Chandler had the ability to be a big-time player.

"I walked into the gym and saw this 15-year-old kind of gangly kid. And he just moved different than anybody else. I thought he had a chance to be a pretty good player," Webster said of Hutchison.

As Hutchison developed more of a reputation in the Southern California basketball scene, becoming a starter at Mission Viejo High School his junior season, he started to draw more attention from local and national recruiting analysts — including former ESPN recruiting insider Joel Francisco, Scout.com's Josh Gershon and SoCal recruiting analyst Devin Ugland.

"You saw during his junior year that he was a legitimate Division I prospect. During the spring he started blossoming," Francisco said. "He had the ball skills and the prototypical length and things like that. And he was finishing plays. He had a good IQ for the game. It was a matter of strength and he had to fill out to become a more complete player."

By the end of summer going into his senior season, Hutchison had established himself as a potential Pac-12 recruit, as schools like Oregon and USC started to show heavy interest. But it was mid-major programs like Boise State, Saint Mary's and UC-Irvine who had long been involved in Hutchison's recruitment.

Knowing that Hutchison was a unique wing with a high IQ and passing skills, Webster, a former Division I player at Cal State Fullerton himself, advised that his star player take a close look at the programs that would put him in position to succeed right away.

"Every AAU program in Southern California was trying to get him for their team. Free ride this, free shoes. The kid stayed really loyal to me. I was very hard on him," Webster said. "I demanded a lot of him. I screamed at him, I yelled at him. And he looked me in the eye and took it. I realized, this kid is pretty special because he's not running away from what he is. He knows what his limitations are. That's not something he's afraid to address.

"Not everybody was sold on him. Joel [Francisco] was. Joel was one of the proponents of him. But being that he burst on the scene late, and that he didn't play for the big shoe companies, we kind of came to the decision that we wouldn't be so enamored by the Pac-12. He realized he had ability but he still had a long way to go." 

Hutchison eventually decided to sign his National Letter of Intent with Boise State before his senior season started as assistant coach Jeff Linder acted as his lead recruiter. Even though his collegiate future had been decided, Hutchison continued to evolve into a major prospect during senior year as he flourished at Mission Viejo.

Even with his strong senior season, skepticism remained about Hutchison since he hadn't played with and against many of the major names in Southern California. Ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect in ESPN's final Class of 2014 national recruiting rankings, Hutchison was viewed as the seventh best player in his own state. While Francisco pushed for Hutchison to be ranked in the top 50, he had to settle for him being a back-end top-100 talent.

"They're like, hey, he's going to Boise State, he's not on a major shoe company team. How good can he be? But if he can play, he can play. It doesn't matter if he's not on the adidas circuit, he's not in the EYBL," Francisco said.

Francisco wasn't the only major recruiting analyst to take notice of Hutchison's play. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi also labeled Hutchison as a potential breakout player at Boise State. Hutchison was even placed in the Rivals national recruiting rankings, ending up at No. 98 overall, after his senior season. Bossi was on vacation with his family during spring break and he happened to see Hutchison play during his senior season. But Hutchison's strong effort, along with some research, convinced Bossi that he was worthy of a top-100 ranking, even with only one serious viewing. 

"I decided to go watch some regional California high school playoff stuff. And it just so happened to be that Chandler's high school team was one of the teams I was seeing," Bossi said. "I knew he was on the team and committed to Boise State. But then when I watched him play I was like, 'Holy cow, what an incredible get for Boise State. Like, this dude's legit.' He had great size for a wing. He could handle the ball, he could really pass and I thought he could defend multiple positions at the next level when it was all said and done. I thought he was a versatile, well-skilled, well-rounded basketball player. So, based on that, I thought he was top-100. I wish I had seen him more."

Even as a former top-100 national prospect, it took some time for Hutchison to gain traction at Boise State as he didn't put up big numbers during his first two seasons. Although Hutchison played plenty of minutes and started a healthy amount of games, he often took a back seat to talented all-conference players like Anthony Drmic and James Webb III.

When those players eventually moved on from the Broncos, Hutchison was given his chance to shine, as his ascension into all-conference player and future first-round pick came with an intense work ethic that continually developed during workouts in college.

Hutchison also became a consistent three-point threat — something he had been lacking during his development — as he became a hot name in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his unorthodox basketball background.

"He's always been competitive. I think the big thing is reps. And it still will be as he continues to play in the league," Webster said. "He wasn't a bad shooter in high school, but I think the big adjustment for him getting to college, it's hard to put up good percentages in college. I think some of it is mental. But I think he's a good shooter and I think that he'll prove that." 

It's hard to predict if the Bulls will end up with Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick on Thursday night — especially given all of the chaos that can occur on draft night. But if Hutchison does end up in Chicago, he won't be fazed by having to prove himself after already doing so at the high school and college level.