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NBA Draft: Hollis-Jefferson wants defensive chess match at next level

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NBA Draft: Hollis-Jefferson wants defensive chess match at next level

Wing defenders have never been as important as they are in today's NBA.

With LeBron James playing at an unprecedented level at the position and the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George and Jimmy Butler all entering the primes of their careers, obtaining a lockdown perimeter defender has become both a priority and necessity.

A handful of teams have already found that player; Kawhi Leonard, Tony Allen and Butler top the short list of the league's best defenders, earning All-NBA Defensive Team honors this past season. Trevor Ariza, Klay Thompson and DeMarre Carroll aren't far behind, while Draymond Green and James, though more accurately power forwards as far as defensive schemes are concerned, are widely considered two of the game's best defenders who are more than capable of defending small forwards.

As offenses continue to churn out points at a record rate - half the teams in the NBA averaged more than 100 points per game this year - defense can't be ignored. Golden State led the league in defensive efficiency, while Cleveland entered the NBA Finals having allowed a playoff-best 45.1 percent effective field goal defense. Bulls fans know all too well what a difference having that shutdown defender can do for a team, having watched Luol Deng and now Butler go toe-to-toe with LeBron James.

It's the reason why a player like Arizona sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite his offensive deficiencies, is a first-round lock and why he believes he can make a major impact at the next level.

"Immediately I know I can come in and play defense. If coach needs me to, I know I can defend a team’s best player, a team’s second best player, and so on," he said at last month's NBA Draft Combine. "I can bring that impact, I can bring energy."

A five-star recruit from Chester, Pa., Hollis-Jefferson made his mark defensively at Arizona. In helping the Wildcats to a pair of Elite Eights and Pac-12 regular-season titles, Jefferson ranked in the top-5 in Pac 12 defensive rating both seasons and compiled 72 blocks and 72 steals in 76 career games. As a sophomore he ranked in the conference's top-10 in numerous defensive categories, including steals, blocks, defensive rebounds and Defensive Win Shares.

[NBA MOCK DRAFT: Bulls unlikely to find immediate help at No. 22]

The 6-foot-7 wing is helped out immensely by his 7-foot-2 wingspan, chiseled 211-pound frame and a lightning quick first step to stay in front of opposing players. At the combine Hollis-Jefferson recorded a lane agility time of 10.51 seconds, fastest among small forwards and third fastest for all players, behind only SG Devin Booker (10.22) and PG Keifer Sykes (10.50). His 3/4 sprint at the Combine (3.12) was second fastest among all players.

And as if his measurables alone weren't enough to make him an elite defender, Hollis-Jefferson is regarded as one of the hardest workers with one of the highest motors in the class. With a deep frontcourt surrounding him Hollis-Jefferson made the most of his 29 minutes per game, hounding opposing players and coming up with high-energy plays to swing momentum.

"I feel like if a team needs me to do something, I’m the guy that’ll do it, whether it’s dive on the floor for loose balls, get a stop, get a fast-break layup," he said. "I think I’m that dude that’ll come in and be able to make the energy and made the spark the team needs."

[NBA DRAFT PROFILE: Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson]

His laid-back attitude has made him a favorite among his teammates, and he has no off-the-court issues. So why is the class's top perimeter defender not a lock for the lottery?

He only connected on eight 3-pointers in two seasons, making just 20.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He also doesn't create much offense, with the majority of his scoring coming on the break or via the 2.1 offensive rebounds per game he averaged. He didn't create much for others, either, and had as many turnovers (59) as he did assists in his sophomore season. There's certainly room for him to grow on that end of the floor, seeing as he won't turn 21 for another six months, and he gave the usual prospect response that he's working on his weaknesses in the pre-draft process. But in the short-term he'll be penciled in as a defensive stopper and not much else.

Still, that's an important role. Potential destinations for the sophomore wing include Atlanta at No. 15, Toronto at No. 20, Dallas at No. 21 or Chicago at No. 22, all playoff teams from a year ago and three of which will have to go through LeBron James to reach the promised land. In the West it'll be a similar path, just with Leonard or Durant in place of James.

That's not to say Hollis-Jefferson will be thrown into the fire immediately, going from guarding Pac-12 wings one night to NBA All-Stars and MVPs the next. But it's what his calling card is going to be at the next level, and he feels as though he's already got the mental edge to succeed.

"Right now I would say I’m a couple steps ahead of my generation (defensively)," he said with a smile, noting he could one day be considered a "defensive genius."

"I would say I’m playing chess out there and a lot of guys are playing checkers."

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

Bulls' public address announcer Tommy Edwards is already getting his familiar introduction ready for next season. "Froooooom CHICAGO, a 6'8" forward, Jabari Parker!

Not sure if Parker has the resume to be introduced last for Bulls' home games this season, but there will be plenty of fanfare regardless of where he falls among the starting five. After all, Parker was a part of four straight state championship teams at Chicago's Simeon H.S., earning national prep player of the year honors along the way. And, he's been recognized for his tireless charitable work, including an essay in the Player's Tribune proclaiming his desire to be a factor in creating a safer environment in his hometown. 

Parker is articulate and driven to succeed, which will make him a go-to guy for members of the Chicago media during the upcoming season. Question is, can he succeed where so many other Chicago prep stars have failed? You know the names. Derrick Rose, Eddy Curry, Dwyane Wade, Hersey Hawkins, Dave Corzine, Cazzie Russell and even our own Kendall Gill. All Chicago area high school stars looking to replicate that greatness playing for the Bulls. But none of them were part of an NBA championship team in their hometown.

So, what will expectations be like for the 23 year old Parker? The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft has already come back from two separate ACL tears in his left knee, which effectively removed him from the list of young players projected as future All-Stars. Still, Parker was averaging over 20 points a game for the Bucks before his second ACL injury in February of 2017, and he came back this past season with his trademark explosiveness at the rim still very much intact.

It's obvious playing for his hometown Bulls has always been a goal for Parker, but will the fit on the court be as good as his fit in the Chicago community?

Parker, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are all at their best with the basketball in their hands, which means the coaching staff will have to be creative in finding ways to feature all three of those players, plus the frontcourt duo of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. 

The best solution will be to push the pace to get early shot clock scoring opportunities. Parker is at his best running the floor for fastbreak lay-ups and dunks, and you can the bet the Bulls’ coaches are excited to see Dunn pushing the ball upcourt with Parker, LaVine and Markkanen running the wings. Fred Hoiberg wants to see his players get into a flow offense coming out of the initial attack in transition and when Carter Jr. is on the floor, the Bulls will have five athletic players, 24 years old or younger to get into secondary actions. 

Defense will be the biggest issue in the upcoming season. Parker and LaVine ranked near the bottom of the league among wing defenders in the analytics breakdowns from last season, and their ability to stay in front of talented shooting guards and small forwards will be a nightly key to the Bulls' success. Carter Jr. showed tremendous potential as a shot-blocker during Summer League games, but he can't be expected to block everything if opposing wings are getting straight line drives to the rim. 

So, where does this new-look Bulls team figure in the East? It's hard to project a win total for a team as young as the Bulls, but it's clear they have enough talent on the roster to see a double-digit increase over last season's 27 victories. 41 wins could be good enough to grab the last playoff spot in the East, so if everything comes together for the Bulls next season, they should be playing meaningful games in March and early April. 

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
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Did you see LeBron James show up at the Vegas Summer League wearing a $500 pair of Lakers' customized shorts? I guess James wanted to make sure everyone knew he had switched teams this summer, and those shorts are now the hottest items in L.A. sports merchandise shops. 

As for the basketball fit, James has already met with Lakers' coach Luke Walton and seems satisfied with the jumbled roster he'll be leading in the upcoming season. James isn't expected to speak publicly on his latest move until the end of the month, but apparently he's been assured the Lakers will be bringing in another superstar at some point, either in the trade market or 2019 free agency. 

Magic Johnson must be confident he can sign Kawhi Leonard next summer, but after watching Paul George state his desire to join the Lakers, then change his mind and re-sign in Oklahoma City, Lakers' fans will be understandably cautious about projecting him as LeBron's running mate for the 2019-20 season. 
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Maybe that other All-Star caliber player is already on the Lakers' roster. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are versatile forwards who have the potential to become 20 points per game scorers in the league, while Lonzo Ball could be an elite facilitator at the point guard position. And, the Lakers' other 1st round pick from the 2017 draft, Josh Hart, was just voted Summer League MVP, an honor that went to Ball a year ago. 

Hart is a 6'5" shooting guard who averaged 7.9 points as a rookie, connecting on 47% of his shots from the field and 40% from the 3 point line. He poured in 37 points Monday night to lead the Lakers to an overtime win over Cleveland in the Summer League semi-finals. The former Villanova star will compete with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson for minutes at the shooting guard position opposite the point guard tandem of Ball and Rajon Rondo.

It's an odd roster put together by Magic and GM Rob Pelinka, but adding James to the mix should almost guarantee 50 wins and a top five seed in the West. 
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Here's a look at the All-NBA Summer League team voted on by media members in Las Vegas.

Wendell Carter Jr.  (BULLS)
Josh Hart                 (Lakers)
Collin Sexton           (Cavs)
Kevin Knox              (Knicks)
Christian Wood       (Bucks)

Top five draft picks Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were voted to the 2nd team. 

We've already told you about Carter Jr. and Hart, but Sexton impressed all the NBA people on hand in Vegas with his speed in the open court and his ability to get to the rim. There was some discussion in the Bulls' draft room about possibly taking Sexton with the No. 7 overall pick, and he was quickly snapped up by the Cavs after Carter Jr. went to the Bulls.

In the post-Lebron, post-Kyrie era in Cleveland, finding a dynamic point guard to run the show was absolutely crucial for GM Koby Altman and it looks like the Cavs have their man in the ultra-competitive Sexton, who famously almost beat the University of Minnesota by himself when his Alabama team was forced to play three-against-five during a Thanksgiving tournament game last season. 

Cleveland will be looking to shed some of the bad contracts on the roster like Tristan Thompson, George Hill and J.R. Smith, and veterans Kevin Love and Kyle Korver could be on the move as well. Sexton is a quality piece to start the rebuild, but I don't think the Cavs should count on winning the No. 1 overall pick three times in four years like they did the last time LeBron left.
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Finally, don't put too much stock into the Sporting News report listing the Bulls as one of the teams showing interest in free agent center Jahlil Okafor. The former Whitney Young H.S. star worked out for four teams in Las Vegas last week, but the Bulls were not in attendance. Okafor will probably have to sign for the NBA minimum this season to re-establish some value around the league.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft is in great shape and is trying to prove he's more than just a low-post scorer. Okafor played sparingly in Brooklyn after he was acquired in a mid-season trade with Philadelphia. He's averaged 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds over his three-year NBA career. 

The Bulls are already overloaded at the center position with Carter Jr., Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Omer Asik. 

Bulls interested in Jahlil Okafor?

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USA TODAY

Bulls interested in Jahlil Okafor?

A report via Sporting News writer Sean Deveney surfaced early on Tuesday morning, stating that the Bulls possibly have interest in free agent big man Jahlil Okafor. 

Deveny stated:

According to sources, Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, worked out for four teams last Wednesday in Las Vegas, and remains hopeful of signing with a team ahead of training camp next fall.

The Pacers were listed along with the Bulls as teams that could be looking at Okafor, though neither team was at his summer workouts in Las Vegas.

From a public relations standpoint, the Bulls could sell the idea of having a roster with multiple IHSA champions. It would be a feel-good story, with Okafor and Parker joining a young and developing core. But from an on-court perspective, the move makes little sense.

Chicago has a clogged frontcourt rotation that includes Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and No. 7 overall pick Wendell Carter Jr. And while Parker is likely going to play the majority of his minutes on the wing, he will see time at the four and possibly five as well in spot minutes. Okafor has proven to be a capable low-post scorer and little else at this stage in his career.

Okafor has averaged 12.9 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game, but has only played 131 games over three seasons. He struggled to get minutes last year with the Sixers or the Brooklyn Nets (12.6 minutes per game in 2017-18). His continued poor defense and lack of rebounding prowess were the main reasons why.

He had a 59.3 true shooting percentage in his 26 games with the Nets, as well as 18.2 points per 36 minutes. But his defensive rating of 110 points given up per 100 possessions would do little to help a Bulls team that currently lacks established defensive centers sans Lopez. Even on a minimum contract, an Okafor signing would likely signal a forthcoming trade from the Bulls. In today’s NBA, having four centers on your roster would be ridiculous, no matter how good the narrative is.