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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."

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”