Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from
For many pro basketball fans, last week’s opening rounds of the NCAA tournament might have been their first chance to get an extended look at some of the players projected to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Of course, just about everyone who loves basketball is aware of Zion Williamson. The Duke freshman forward was a YouTube sensation in high school, and his highlights this season have been seen on every video platform known to man.
Zion didn’t disappoint in his first NCAA tournament games, going for 57 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s two victories. He opened up against North Dakota St. by scoring 25 points on 12 of 16 shooting, and followed that up with 32 points and 11 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ thrilling one-point win over Central Florida.
Williamson showed his competitive fire in that nail-biter against UCF, bringing Duke back from a four-point deficit in the final two minutes. The 6-foot-7 285-pound freshman wanted the ball on the closing possessions, and even though he missed a pair of 3-point attempts late, he finally barged to the basket with his team down three for a basket and a foul. Williamson missed the free throw, but teammate RJ Barrett was able to grab the rebound and score on the putback to keep Duke’s national title hopes alive.
Zion’s skill and athleticism were on full display for the nation to enjoy, and whichever team is fortunate enough to win the lottery on May 14 will land a franchise-changing talent who also will be a huge plus for the marketing department.
Similar story with Murray State point guard Ja Morant. Because so few of his games in the Ohio Valley Conference were nationally televised, most fans only knew about him through highlight clips. So, when Morant put together a dominant 17 point, 16 assist, 11 rebound game in the tournament opener against Marquette, the national reaction was interesting to watch. Suddenly, everyone wanted the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Morant running the offense for their favorite NBA team, comparing him to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.
Morant’s tournament run came to an end in a blowout loss to Florida State last Saturday, but he still impressed by scoring 28 points, including five 3-pointers. He figures to go second in the June draft, unless a team with a young point guard already in place like the Cavs, Knicks or Hawks winds up with that selection. In that case, interested teams like the Bulls could explore trade scenarios to move up.
As for some of the other potential lottery picks, the Duke duo of Barrett and Cam Reddish had their moments in the opening two rounds. Barrett scored 26 points in Duke’s blowout win on Friday and followed that up with the clutch rebound basket on Sunday. Reddish combined for 25 points in the two games, and he fits in the modern NBA as a 3-and-D player that just about every team is seeking.
Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver could be cementing his status as a top-five pick with a strong showing in the tournament. Culver combined for 45 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists in the Red Raiders’ two wins, reminding scouts of DeMar DeRozan with his smooth mid-range game.
North Carolina mystery man Nassir Little also improved his stock by scoring 39 points in the Tar Heels’ two wins. Little has been coming off the bench all season, similar to the strategy Roy Williams employed with talented freshman Marvin Williams during North Carolina’s run to the 2005 NCAA title. Williams still wound up being the second overall pick.
Little probably won’t crack the top five, but scouts are intrigued by his potential as an explosive 6-foot-8 athlete with a defensive mindset, similar to Kawhi Leonard during his college career at San Diego State.
Probably the biggest move came from Gonzaga’s high-jumping forward Brandon Clarke, who exploded for 36 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in a win over Baylor on Saturday. Clarke has worked his way up from a second round pick to a late lottery consideration, but he’ll have to prove to NBA scouts he can make outside shots during the combine and individual team workouts.
Around the Association
We’re heading down the stretch of the regular season with a close two-way battle for the MVP award between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. Harden put up a 61-point game on Friday and he’s almost singlehandedly led the Rockets on a late season charge for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have all but wrapped up the best record in the NBA, thanks to Giannis’ all-around brilliance. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6 assists per game while shooting 58.2 percent from the field.
It’s hard to predict which way voters will go in making this tough choice, but my guess is Giannis will come out on top, based on the Bucks’ record and the fact Harden won the award last season.
One of the interesting free agents to watch this summer will be Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker. The 6-foot-1 three-time all-star is having another great season statistically, but the Hornets are about to miss the playoffs again.
Walker expressed his frustration to the front office earlier in the season, and was assured the team will make the changes necessary to build a competitive team around him. But with Walker turning 29 before next season, will the Hornets be willing to make a five-year, $220 million supermax offer to their franchise player? And, will Walker be confident enough to entrust the rest of his career with a middling, small market team?
You can expect the Knicks, Nets and Clippers to explore the Kemba market this summer, but the Bulls are most likely out of the running after giving up their ability to offer a max contract with the Otto Porter Jr. trade.
Long term, the Bulls would be better off by landing a young point guard like Morant, but Walker’s explosive scoring ability will make him an attractive target in free agency.
Former Bulls’ all star Jimmy Butler could be on the move again this summer. First year 76ers GM Elton Brand is on the record saying the team will make every effort to re-sign Butler and Tobias Harris in free agency this summer, but it’s become increasingly apparent Harris is their No. 1 priority.
Harris is four years younger than Butler and is enjoying his best season as a pro. He’s also become a go-to option in Brett Brown’s half-court sets. The 76ers are expected to move quickly to get Harris to commit to a long-term contract once the bell rings at midnight on July 1.
Meanwhile, Butler’s age (he’ll turn 30 before the start of next season) and high usage rate might make the 76ers reluctant to commit to a five-year max deal. Now, this all could change based on how well Philly does in the upcoming playoffs, but it looks like Butler will be exploring interest from other teams this summer, including both New York and both Los Angeles franchises.
Butler could wind up being the backup choice for the Clippers, who are expected to go hard for Kawhi Leonard, and also the second choice for the Knicks if they can’t sign Kevin Durant. It’s hard to imagine Jimmy agreeing to be LeBron’s supporting actor with the Lakers, but as we’ve seen in the past, free agency can lead to some unexpected alliances.
It’s that time of the year again for the Bulls. Though last season’s shutdowns were a thinly veiled attempt to increase their chances at a top-3 pick, this time around injuries to key players have the Bulls taking an overly cautious approach as their campaign winds down.
The Bulls, already without rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison for the rest of the season, will be without Otto Porter Jr. and Zach LaVine on Tuesday against the Raptors. Point guard Kris Dunn, dealing with back soreness, is listed as doubtful and is unlikely to play.
That’s three missing starters – four if you include Carter – against a 51-23 Raptors team. So while a loss is almost certainly on the docket that hardly means there’s nothing to be gained from these final eight games.
“Next man up is the focus,” Lauri Markkanen said Monday. “We’re trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It’s an opportunity for other guys who don’t get to play as much.”
There are a handful of Bulls reserves who will be fighting for a roster spot next season. If we’re to assume that the sure bets – pending any trades – of the Bulls roster will be LaVine, Markkanen, Carter, Porter, Dunn, Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio, plus the Bulls’ first and second round picks, that leaves just three or four openings if the Bulls don’t add anyone in free agency, which seems unlikely.
So with only a few roster spots available next season, and plenty of playing time available this season, the eight-game audition begins Tuesday in Toronto.
The two most important players of these evaluations will likely start in the backcourt. Shaq Harrison will continue to start on the wing while Ryan Arcidiacono will start if Dunn is unable to go. Jim Boylen said he’s undecided on who will start at small forward and likely match up with All-Star Kawhi Leonard, but one of Wayne Selden or Antonio Blakeney would get the call, with Harrison moving to Leonard if the latter started.
“With every injury, there’s an opportunity for someone to step into that role,” Boylen said. “We’ve had guys do that pretty well this year.”
Arcidiacono has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. He had a serious lull in December and January but has rebounded nicely as the season nears an end, shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.
Meanwhile Harrison has averaged a cool 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in nearly 37 minutes over his last three games, all starts. He’s provided outstanding effort on the defensive end and has seen his offensive game improve; just how much that improvement can be sustained over a long stretch will determine his NBA future, but he should get that chance if one or both of LaVine and Porter are shut down.
While Blakeney’s contract is guaranteed for next season, he’s got work to do. He’s shooting just 42 percent from the field this season and is averaging just 0.6 assists per game. After a red-hot start from beyond the arc in October and November (44.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) he’s made just 36 percent since Christmas Day. But the opportunity is there for him to get extended run, as he’s averaged 22.5 minutes over his last three games, the last two of which were his first career starts.
While those players showcase their talents in the backcourt, the injuries could also allow Lauri Markkanen to take the reins and own the final two weeks. Though it's been a roller coaster of a season, the second year forward appears to be closing on a high note. He's averaging 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes and could see his numbers across the board improve as he takes on a high-usage role down the stretch with LaVine and Porter out.
"I’m doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don’t normally start and I talked about it with Coach (Boylen) about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."