Bulls

Deng's valiant season should give him pass for the future

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Deng's valiant season should give him pass for the future

PHILADELPHIA - Fighting back his emotions on the podium when talking about Thursdays Game 6 defeat to the 76ers, playing in pain throughout the season and his teammates, when the subject turned to his injured wrist and the upcoming Summer Olympics in London, Luol Deng turned defiant.

No, he said, voice steady and unwavering. Im going to play in the Olympics.

Before letting his own words explain the reasoning behind it just moments after the his season ended at the hands of an eighth-seeded team think about this: Deng, a native of South Sudan - a nation in its infancy - and his family were exiled when he was a child. After a stint in Egypt, he ended up in London for his formative years, the city where he began to excel at basketball, leading to him coming to a prep school in New Jersey, developing into one of the nations top high school prospects, starring at Duke for a season and then coming to the Bulls, where he reached All-Star status this season. And in his mind, he traces that journey back to emigrating to England.

Its expected that Deng will join Derrick Rose on the injured list to start next season, since hell play for host country Great Britain in the Olympics, meaning that surgery for torn ligaments in his left wrist, something hes played with all season, will be postponed. To some, that might seem selfish, but its not just about the glory of playing on the big stage for the 27-year-old.

I just know that Im looking forward to playing the Olympics. Im excited about it, something I wanted to do since I was a kid and Im going to prepare myself for it, he explained. Ive got to see how my wrist feels throughout the Olympics, how it feels from now going into the Olympics and right after the Olympics, Ill make the decision, whether my wrist is good enough that I dont need the surgery or if I need it, so I havent really ruled out not getting the surgery or getting it. I just havent made that decision. Just know that Ive got the Olympics ahead of me. Since I was a kid growing up, its something I always wanted an opportunity to be a part of and the fact that its in my hometown that I grew up in, in a country that gave me the opportunity to even be here, Im looking forward to it.

But just because he might decline surgery doesnt mean that it isnt still bothering him. However, the sacrifice it took to play through the injury, to Deng, was its own reward.

Honestly, my whole career, its the toughest thing Ive done and I look back at it, and Im glad I did it. I really hope, in the long run, its going to make me a better player, he said. I learned a lot of things to be capable of doing that in the NBA, but Im glad I made the decision. We had the best record and we were going into the playoffs with the best team, so it was definitely a great decision. Unfortunately, other things happened.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, arguably Dengs biggest fan, understands and appreciates the versatile players importance to the team, perhaps even more so after this series, in which, the last two games at least, he did everything humanly possible to give his undermanned squad a chance. Thats what hes not putting any pressure on him to make a decision.

You can never overlook this: Luol is a terrific player. To play a majority of the season with torn ligaments says a lot about him. He couldve chosen to sit out. Hes a great leader with great toughness. He does whatever is necessary to help you win. I thought he improved a lot from last year. Even though his scoring dipped a bit, his all-around game was terrific, said Thibodeau. I really havent talked to him yet about next year. I want to have a chance and sit down and see what his thoughts are. I know he has given us everything that he has. I have a lot of respect for that. Well come up with a plan.

That plan, whatever it is, should be respected.

With Rose already sidelined to start next season, Deng will be missed if hes also shelved at the beginning of the campaign. But what he gave up this season, even if it didnt manifest itself in the teams ultimate goal due to other calamities, gives him the right to make a choice. And if that isnt enough, his significant connection to the country hes representing in the Olympics pushes it over the hump.

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

You never know what you might see on a given night in the G League.

Wednesday’s game at the Sears Centre offered a match-up of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol in his Windy City Bulls home debut against one time hot prospect, 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

In case you’re not familiar with Thabeet, he was the second overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2009 NBA Draft after capturing the attentions of scouts and executives with his play in the high profile program at Connecticut. Thabeet was viewed as a can’t miss prospect whose size and athleticism would translate into making him a defensive force at the NBA level.

Problem is, Thabeet did miss. Questions about his low motor and work ethic surfaced and he struggled to get consistent playing time in Memphis. Stops in Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City would follow, and Thabeet found himself out of the league in 2014. He played a total of 224 NBA games, averaging 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

The native of Tanzania bounced around the G League and played in Japan for a time before returning to the U.S. looking for one more chance at the NBA. Thabeet invited teams to watch him work out last summer, but with little interest, he wound up back in the G League with Fort Wayne for the 2019-20 season.

At 32 years old, Thabeet is still an impressive looking athlete, and in Wednesday’s game against Windy City, he flashed at times with 4 blocked shots and a powerful baseline drive and dunk. But he also labored to change ends of the court, and put up a modest stat line of 6 points, 2 rebounds and 4 blocks in 18 minutes. Down the stretch, the Mad Ants decided they were better off with Travin Thibodeaux at center in a close game.

With NBA teams now looking for mobile centers with 3-point shooting range, it’s hard to imagine Thabeet getting another chance to make it to the league.

Meanwhile, Windy City unveiled it’s newest addition Bol Bol, a two-way player for the Denver Nuggets who needed a team to continue his development since the Nuggets don’t have their own G-League affiliate.

Bol only played nine games in his lone collegiate season at Oregon before suffering a foot injury that dropped his draft stock. He averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds a game at Oregon, showing an uncanny long range shooting touch for a 7-footer. Matter of fact, some talent evaluators viewed him as the best shooter available in the 2019 NBA Draft. But because of concerns about the foot injury and his slender build, Bol fell to the the second round, eventually selected 44th overall by Miami, then traded to Denver on draft night.

With the Nuggets featuring one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, there wouldn’t be any developmental minutes for Bol, so he was assigned to Windy City, a team that had a need for another big man.

Bol was impressive in his 20 minutes of playing time on Wednesday, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Right now, Bol is on a minutes restriction to protect him from further injury, but you can see the potential is there for him to be a contributor at the NBA level in time.

Bol has a feathery soft shooting touch, and will be comfortable spotting up at the 3-point line in drive and kick offenses and as a weak side option on pick and roll plays. He also showed more aggressiveness than I expected in attacking the offensive glass, following up his own initial miss for rebound baskets on a few occasions against Fort Wayne.

Windy City general manager Josh Kreibich has put together a very competitive roster that features another Nuggets’ two-way player, P.J. Hairston, Bulls’ two-way players Max Strus and Adam Mokoka, and former Loyola University star Milton Doyle.

The Bulls’ G League affiliate is off to a 4-1 start under first year coach Damian Cotter with hopes of making a second straight playoff appearance. Still, player development is priority number one in the G League, which means every player on the roster will get the opportunity to showcase their skills during the course of the season.

Bol’s NBA rights belong to Denver, but the fans at Sears Centre on Wednesday were thoroughly entertained watching the son of former NBA center Manute Bol show off a unique game that will almost certainly land him a spot in an NBA team’s rotation before long.

Windy City’s first two homes games brought former No. 4 overall draft pick Dragan Bender and Thabeet to Sears Centre, and on Nov. 29, 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall will be in Hoffman Estates with the Maine Red Claws. If you want to take a break from your Black Friday shopping to watch the Bol-Tacko duel, it’s a 5 p.m. tip-off.

After all, you never know what you might see at a G League game.

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Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this — in 1980 — nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard — and I guess well at times — is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

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