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.

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

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USA TODAY

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.”