Bulls

Deng, Noah making early cases for All-Star consideration

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Deng, Noah making early cases for All-Star consideration

MIAMI -- The latest voting returns for February's NBA All-Star Game in Houston were announced by the league Thursday. Among Eastern Conference frontcourt players, Bulls center Joakim Noah currently ranks seventh, while teammate Luol Deng is 13th in the recent tabulation.

Neither player is likely to be voted in by the fans as a starter, but as the Bulls remain in the early-season race for the Central Division (entering Thursday, they're a game behind Indiana and a game ahead of Milwaukee), as well as firmly in the middle of the pack in East playoff contention (currently fifth in the conference), it's increasingly more probable that Deng will make a return All-Star appearance and Noah will be honored for the first time.

The Bulls duo might not have the national recognition of some of their peers, but around the NBA, they are highly respected.

In the case of Noah, his health has been the key to his emergence, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau frequently refers to.

Discussed by observers as an early-season candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year, his offensive development as a consistent scoring threat, the more obvious display of his unique playmaking acumen with point guard Derrick Rose sidelined and ability to absorb heavy minutes -- an overlooked aspect of Omer Asik's offseason departure to Houston -- have also been factors in what has thus far been a career-best campaign.

Noahs gotten better every single year, so now hes one of the more complete centers in this league. He's relentlessness on the glass, hes an improved post player, he puts so much pressure on you in the paint and then one of the most underrated things always about him is his passing ability and his vision, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra observed. He makes other players better and now the balls finding him more often with Rose out, where he has to make plays. You cant be surprised by that.

Miami big man Chris Bosh added: Joakim presents a lot of challenges and hes a good basketball player, so any time youre up against other good ballplayers, its a lot of fun.

For Deng, it's largely been more of the same, as he's established himself as perhaps the NBA's premier ironman over the previous two seasons -- two years ago, he led the league in total minutes, while he was the minutes-per-game leader last season, something he's currently on pace to do again -- burnishing that reputation by playing through multiple injuries, not to mention garnering praise for his understated style of play.

But while he's received acclaim for being one of the league's top defenders and most versatile offensive players, in Rose's absence, he's also willingly stepped into the role as the Bulls' go-to scorer.

Explained reigning league MVP LeBron James, whos faced off with Deng since the pair were the top-two players in the same high-school class: Its the same for him. Hes approached the game at a high level each and every night defensively, offensively. It doesnt change for him. He doesnt ever step outside of his box, he plays inside his comfort zone and hes a really good player.

Perhaps thats why Deng still remains an unheralded star, as his consistency has been taken for granted, prompting the likes of Miami's Shane Battier (widely acknowledged as the "fifth starter" for the defending-champion Heat), New York's Amar'e Stoudemire (who only made his regular-season debut this week) and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum (who hasn't played at all for the 76ers) to be ranked ahead of him in fan balloting.

The players above Noah are more predictable -- Miami's LeBron James and New York's Carmelo Anthony far outpace their competition, with Boston's Kevin Garnett holding a lead over the Heat's Chris Bosh, trailed by Knicks center Tyson Chandler for the final starting frontcourt spot and Paul Pierce of the Celtics in sixth place.

Deng, who plays just over 40 minutes a night, is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points per game, along with seven boards, 2.8 assists and a steal per contest. Noah, currently third in the league at 39.2 minutes per game, also sports averages of 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 blocked shots and 1.4 steals a night.

More significant than their numbers, with Rose out of the lineup, the duo has truly kept the Bulls afloat, raising their level of play and despite being selfless players, taking on more of the offensive burden. Noah has long been regarded as the heart of the Bulls, but has developed into more of a mature leader, while Deng, the longest-tenured player, has become more vocal.

They took the responsibility to shoulder a little bit more, Spoelstra said. Thats what great players do.

However, if theyre not selected to the game which isnt a lock, as Noah has to deal with the removal of the center designation, giving way to three frontcourt starters; otherwise, hed be in the running to be a starter and the trickle-down effect impacts Deng they wont be overly concerned. At least they wont show it publicly, as neither professes to be playing for that type of recognition, though one can be sure it would fuel their fire in the second half of the season.

Still, as Bosh who trails future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett for the final frontcourt starting nod in the East, despite the fact that the Heat big man has superior statistics and Miami has a far better record than underachieving Boston said Friday, when asked about his own chances: Its a popularity contest. Im not running for President.

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

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USA TODAY

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

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USA TODAY

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."