Bulls

Emotional setting for Isaiah Thomas in wake of sister's death

Emotional setting for Isaiah Thomas in wake of sister's death

The emotion was palpable when Isaiah Thomas took the floor with his Celtics teammates for Game 1 of their playoff series with the Bulls at TD Garden in the wake of his sister’s death just 24 hours earlier.

Whether he was fighting back tears in the warm-ups or looking exhausted on the sidelines after an emotional day, there wasn’t a moment where you didn’t realize Thomas was dealing with real life instead of just the opener of a playoff series.

Having Jimmy Butler guard him for long stretches pales in comparison to the shocking, tragic news of his sister’s death in a car accident in Washington early Saturday morning.

Nobody knows how he made the decision to play, or how he felt when the roar of the Garden crowd reached deafening decibels when his name was introduced in the starting lineup, but from his eyes to his feet the signs were there of a man feeling powerless in an environment that relies on him being powerful.

Thomas’ shoes had his sister’s name, Chyna, written in black marker along with “I love you” on another part of his shoe. When a moment of silence for Thomas was announced before the national anthem, the big brother’s eyes turned red as the best reality show sports can offer provided a reality far too real and perhaps, slightly intrusive for the situation.

“Obviously, it's tragic circumstances that he and his family are going through right now. Our thoughts are first and foremost with all of them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think his intention is to play. We talked a little bit last night and then again today about as he goes through it and feels like he needs to not, then whatever he wants.”

“I think one of the things I've learned having been through situations in the past is there's really no right or wrong answers. Whatever is right for him. That's what we've encouraged him and he's really hurting. It's a tough situation.”

Stevens took the appropriate tone and all others followed suit, as players with varying degrees of relationship with Thomas were asked how to deal with approaching him or competing against him, as if there’s a manual to this.

“Isaiah’s a great teammate, Isaiah’s a great husband, a great father,” Stevens said. “A great guy, son and brother. I think ultimately we just all try to do our part and let him know we’re thinking about him and anything we can all do to help, we do. We’re a family and this particular situation with his family takes precedence over everything that’s going on. We’re here for him if he needs us.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg echoed Stevens’ sentiments.

“You know, obviously it's a horrible tragedy,” said Hoiberg before the game. “I know I speak on behalf of the entire organization when I say we offer our thoughts and prayers to Isaiah and the entire Thomas family. He just seems like such a great kid, obviously he's one of the great competitors that we have in our league. He seems like such a good kid. And it's just awful, what happened. So again, our thoughts and prayers are with Isaiah during this tough time.”

Having been embraced by the Boston fans for his big plays and bigger swagger during his short time, Stevens knew the support would be overwhelming.

“I don’t think there’s any question people have a great affinity for him. Even in my short time here, you see the really tough things that happen, the community really rallies around,” Stevens said. “You can already feel that. You can already feel, as I was in church this morning, people were coming up to me and wanted to know how he was doing and all talking about it. When you get here, that’s all people talk about. It’s gonna be really emotional but that’s part of what makes this place really special, is they get it and they really appreciate Isaiah and I know Isaiah really appreciates everybody here.”

The box score suggests that his 31 points were of his usual nature but seeing him through the game says otherwise. At times, he looked close to passing out, lifted up only by the Garden crowd that cheered his every move when he touched the ball to start the game. When Avery Bradley hugged him after an early run, he held him a little tighter, a little longer.

“Isaiah, to me, he’s family. We grew up in the same area,” Bradley said. “I know it’s tough for him. It says a lot about him. He’s a true competitor. I know tonight he was playing for his sister.”

When he scored 13 points in the first quarter, and then took over a stretch in third where he got two consecutive three-point plays, it seemed as if he would lift the Celtics to a magical ending.

But even if he had, the reality would never leave him, and it won’t leave him as the process of dealing with such a loss is only just beginning.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

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.