Bulls

First-time All-Star Deng appreciative of honor

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First-time All-Star Deng appreciative of honor

CHARLOTTE Just sat there like its a regular thing, said Luol Deng, though his smirk betrayed his even tone. It happens every day.

Never one to be consumed with individual accolades, Deng said all the right things about debut All-Star Game selection, deflecting the credit to his teammates and coaches, reasoning that it just wasnt his time in past seasons. But all along, it was obvious that he was nearly bursting at the seams with pride.

Its a great honor. Im really happy. Its good to see. I dont really have the words for it, except the fact that Im really happy. I just want to go around and thank all my teammates because of the way were playing and the record we have is why Im getting the opportunity, he explained prior to the Bulls Friday-morning shootaround at Time Warner Cable Arena. I think you get a certain feeling that youre going to make it. I had a feeling, I dont know why. I was still surprised to see it. Youre sitting there, youre watching it and youre just kind of relieved a little bit that you made it. But this year kind of felt different going into it. I think theres a few years that Ive watched it that I thought that I might get in, but this year, for some reason, I just thought it was going to happen.

Honestly and I dont want to go too much into it; dont get me wrong, its an honor and its a great accomplishment theres years in the past, where I felt like I played like an All-Star, but maybe some guys had a better year that year and made it over me. Its good to see. Its really been an up-and-down kind of career and to be there, a lot of people would see it as your best year. Thats just the way people see it because of the credit that you gain and I really think Im having a great year. I think its one of the best years that I had.

Statistically, that might not be the case, as Deng has put up gaudier numbers than he has this campaign. But now, with the Bulls recognized as a true title contender, while much of the spotlight falls on reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, Deng is finally getting the appreciation he deserves.

Its a great honor for him. Hes certainly earned it, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau who might be joining Deng and Rose in Orlando for the event, though he typically downplayed that notion, saying, I dont even think about it. Im just thinking about us being ready to play Charlotte when asked about the possibility. I thought it would happen. The one thing about Lu, if you really look at his career, I think each year that hes been in the league, hes gotten better and better, and I think thats a sign of how serious he is, how he approaches the game and hes obviously a very well-rounded player. Theres not anything that he doesnt do well and obviously hes very significant for us, in terms of us winning.

I think that he certainly had a great year last year. I think this year he picked up right where he left off. If you look at his entire career, each year hes gotten better and better, so his experience, the way he studies, the way he prepares for each season, it lends itself to improvement and hes one of those guys who I think will continually get better throughout his career, and for us hes invaluable. Theres so many intangibles that he brings to our team unselfishness, hard work, cares about nothing but winning and how he can help and hes a great teammate, hes very coachable and theres nothing that he doesnt do well. He plays great defense, he moves without the ball, he shares the ball, he can hit threes, he can put in on the floor, he slashes, he can post. But its his leadership, its the way he approaches things every day, the example he sets. You cant say enough about him, he went on to say. Its great. I think its a byproduct of winning. We have a couple other guys who are deserving, as well, and hopefully the more you win, the more recognition the team receives.

Added Deng himself: It depends, really, from who. It depends who youre talking about. I think, to be a coach in this league, youve got to know the game and I think everyone has their own opinion. Coaches select every year and I think coaches appreciate what I do, and the way I play. I think maybe in the past years, whether its team record or some other guys had a better year, maybe thats the reason Im left out, but I always get a lot of compliments and talking to a lot of coaches around the league who appreciate the way I play, and to me, my coaching staff, my teammates and those who know the game, I think they see it. Im not so much caught up in people who dont know the game, who just want to see the flashiness.

Deng joked that he wouldnt reveal when or how he learned of the honor he said he found out from watching it on television, like everybody else, though people he trusted, wouldnt really joke about certain things if they dont know, indicated he would make the East team as well as his immediate reaction to it, but after raising his expectations in previous seasons only to be disappointed, he now finds himself having to figure out what to do while in Orlando, as he hasnt participated in an All-Star event since the second season of his career, when he played in the Rookie-Sophomore Game.

I think Im going to talk to Derrick about that, honestly. Since my rookie year, my sophomore year, which is way different, I dont know what youre supposed to do, I dont know how it goes, quipped Deng, who also joked that hopefully I wont get a breakaway layup, as hes not known for the high-flying aerial acrobatics that fans have come to expect in All-Star contests. Its the honest truth. I really dont know. Ill find out the schedule. Am I supposed to play D? I dont know. Well just see how it goes.

One thing is for sure: Deng, if Thibodeau is indeed coaching, is unlikely to play the high-minute totals he does for the Bulls.

I doubt it, he laughed. Coach is big on rest, so well use that right.

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.