Bulls

For the first time Jahlil Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong

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For the first time Jahlil Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong

Jahlil Okafor is in unfamiliar territory.

He received his first scholarship in 8th grade. The top high school prospect in the country had his choice of colleges after winning a state championship and Mr. Basketball in Illinois as a senior. He was named an All-American before ever playing a game at Duke. And after he arrived in Durham, all he did was win 35 games and a national championship for the Blue Devils. He was touted as the best low-post prospect in nearly two decades, a can't-miss prospect destined for the same greatness he had exuded at each of his stops along the way.

For the first 18 years of his life everyone wanted Okafor. He was on top.

Until Thursday night.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Bobby Portis a 'unanimous selection' for Bulls' front office]

Okafor watched from the NBA Draft's green room in New York City as the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on him for the versatile, New-age forward Karl-Anthony Towns. And after a month of speculation that the Lakers would select him, Okafor was forced to wait five more minutes as Los Angeles swung for the fences in selecting combo guard D'Angelo Russell.

It's not often the third overall pick -- tank-master Sam Hinkie and the Sixers selected Okafor -- is considered to have slid, but for a player who has spent his entire life at the top of his sport, Thursday night was a major disappointment for the Chicago native.

He said all the right things speaking with the media late Thursday night -- "I can't be disappointed, I'm in the NBA living my dream" -- but this isn't the result he wanted. He could have been paired up with budding star Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota. He could have been the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles while playing for one of the league's most stories franchises. Instead, he joins a Sixers franchise already flush with interior talent -- Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, lottery picks the last two seasons -- and not focused on winning anytime soon.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Check out every pick of the 2015 NBA Draft]

Perhaps it was because Okafor had been at the top of his class for years, or because his absurdly polished offensive game forced critics to nitpick other areas of his game that aren't as NBA-ready, but in the final weeks leading up to the draft it seemed as though no player was more scrutinized than he.

Suddenly Okafor's conditioning was an issue. His defensive struggles appeared amplified because of Towns' star potential on that end of the floor. The Warriors' championship run engineered by small ball meant a back-to-the-basket scoring big like Okafor was a dying breed. He shot just 51 percent from the free throw line, another apparent red flag as the Hack-a-Shaq defensive strategy made its return in this year's playoffs.

"It's easy to shoot at somebody when they're at the top of the hill," Okafor said when asked about his critics. "I've been at the top pretty much all throughout high school, all throughout college. So I'm expecting it."

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Bulls draft hat right here]

For the first time in his basketball career Okafor is tasked with proving critics wrong. The good news is he's still an ultra-talented 19-year-old confident. His abilities and being given the reigns to a Sixers team that will give him more freedom than Minnesota or Los Angeles would have. There's positives here. He would have played second fiddle to Wiggins up north, or deferred to Bryant and a potential big-time free agent on the West Coast. Instead, Okafor will attempt to be the foundation of Hinkie's rebuilding project while proving his deficiencies, unfairly magnified or not, don't come close to outweighing his scoring prowess inside.

This is Okafor's situation now. It's not what he expected, and probably not what he wanted. But just as he's done at every level, he'll take his sky-high expectations (and unfamiliar criticism) in stride and make the most of his new opportunity to get back to the top.

"I'll just go in and work as hard as I can," he said. "I'm very excited."

We've officially found the biggest Michael Jordan fan ever

We've officially found the biggest Michael Jordan fan ever

There are diehard Michael Jordan fans.

And then there's this guy.

Forget anybody getting a tattoo of their favorite team's championship trophy. Forget the people who wait for hours in terrible weather just to catch a glimpse of their favorite player.

This dude has a constant, 24/7 reminder of "His Airness":

Yep, that is a full tattoo of a Jordan "23" jersey on his back, complete with a Michael Jordan "autograph" in the middle of the "2." 

Dedication at its finest.

Couple questions: 

A) Does it carry over to the front at all? And if not, is that a plan for the future?

2) Will one of his buddies get a "45" Jordan jersey tattoo or are we just gonna continue to pretend that era never happened?

D) What will that tat look like in a few years? That guy better stay away from the Doritos...

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

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AP

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.