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."

Brotherly love: Justin and Jrue Holiday will walk NBA prospect Aaron cross stage at draft

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USA TODAY

Brotherly love: Justin and Jrue Holiday will walk NBA prospect Aaron cross stage at draft

Here's a cool story to get your week started off right.

Per Yahoo's Shams Charania, the NBA for the first time will have its green room invitees walk across the stage with two family members prior to the draft.

For UCLA guard Aaron Holiday, his brothers will accompany him.

Aaron, a 6-foot-1 guard, is projected to go off the board sometime late in the first round. It's pretty neat that his brothers will be in attendance, both Justin of the Bulls and Jrue of the Pelicans.

And there's a chance Aaron gets to play with Justin. The Bulls hold the 22nd pick in the first round (ironically from Jrue and the Pelicans) and Scott Phillips has Aaron as one of the five players the Bulls should look at with the 22nd pick.

Writes Phillips:

Aaron Holiday, G, UCLA: This potential pick would already have ties to the Bulls as Aaron's older brother, Justin, is currently on the roster. After three stellar seasons with the Bruins, Aaron is now hoping to become the third Holiday brother in the NBA (brother Jrue is with the Pelicans).

Smaller than his older brothers at 6-foot-1, Aaron makes up for his smaller size at the point with an absurd 6-foot-7.5 wingspan that enables him to play bigger on the defensive end. A talented perimeter shooter who never shot below 41 percent from 3-point range during his three years in Westwood, Holiday has shown that he can run a team on the ball or play as a shooter off of the ball. It should also be pointed out that Holiday was a selfless teammates at UCLA. Opting to come off the bench his sophomore season so Lonzo Ball could start, Holiday was great as both a starter and a sixth man during his college career.

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?

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USA TODAY

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard.

Let's get that out of the way before continuing on.

At this stage in their rebuild the Bulls are interested in acquiring pieces - they dealt a Kawhi-like Jimmy Butler 12 months ago for three core parts - and have two picks in next week's NBA Draft.

The Spurs will have myriad options on where to send Leonard, the two-time All-Star and 2014 Finals MVP, and offers will pour in from everywhere. Leonard could also dictate where he plays next season, as he has one year remaining on his deal and will be a free agent after the 2019 season. Certainly a team giving up the assets required to get Leonard would want to know their All-Pro intends on staying.

So that's why. Whichever team deals for Leonard (assuming he is dealt) will be able to put together a more enticing package than the Bulls could (think Boston, the Lakers, Philadelphia). Leonard also reportedly prefers to play in Los Angeles or New York. No mention of Chicago.

But! It's Friday afternoon and we can only churn out so much draft content before our own heads begin spinning. So we figured we would put together the best deal the Bulls could offer for Leonard.

First off, the Bulls would need a gaurantee from Leonard that he intended to re-sign. Like Butler, Leonard wouldn't be able for the supermax extension if he leaves the Spurs. Instead, Leonard could sign a five-year, $188 million max deal with the Bulls, averaging $37.6 million per year.

The Bulls would get a 26-year-old All-Pro just about to enter the prime of his career. Make no mistake about it: Kawhi Leonard is a superstar. It's easy to forget because he played in just nine games last year, but Leonard is just a year removed from a season in which he averaged 25.5 points on 48 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals in 33.4 minutes. Oh, and he's won two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016.

The Bulls would have Leonard through his age 31 season and would give the Bulls a souped-up version of Jimmy Butler, and perhaps one that could get them closer to contention in an Eastern Conference that may be without LeBron James.

The price would be steep. All-Rookie Lauri Markkanen would be the centerpiece of any deal. The Spurs have utilized versatile, small-ball lineups well in the past and adding Markkanen would be like a cheat code for Gregg Popovich. He'd slot in well next to LaMarcus Aldridge, who played 62 percent of his minutes at center last year, according to Basketball Reference. That was the most minutes he had played at center since his rookie season.

The Bulls would also have to include the 7th and 22nd picks in next week's draft, which only makes the deal more unlikely (from 0.01 percent to 0.005 percent). San Antonio could pursue a wing like Mikal Bridges or Kevin Knox and add him to a core that would include Dejounte Murray, Markkanen and Aldridge. The Spurs also have the 18th pick, so they could conceivably have five core players (Markkanen, Murray, 7, 18, 22) 21 years or younger to complement the 32-year-old Aldridge, who bounced back in a big way last season (ironically without Leonard).

Adding Justin Holiday's $4.615 million salary to the deal makes the money work and gives the Spurs another perimeter shooter.

What would the Bulls look like? Well, needless to say they would have found their wing.

Building around Leonard would include Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. With Markkanen gone, Portis would be in line for a significant contract extension and a much larger role in the offense; his per-36 numbers were on par with Kevin Love's and Joel Embiid's a year ago.

PG: Kris Dunn
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Bobby Portis
C: Robin Lopez

Alas, this deal is not happening. We can only hope to have angered some of you at this hypothetical, fun mock trade.