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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."

Bulls take tunnel vision approach to Charlotte for opener vs. Hornets

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USA Today

Bulls take tunnel vision approach to Charlotte for opener vs. Hornets

The significance of his first opening night as head coach? Jim Boylen wasn’t biting.

Opening with four of five games against teams that didn’t make last season’s playoffs, including Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C.? Boylen steered clear of that.

Addressing the goal stated on media day to make the playoffs? Lauri Markkanen added a qualifier.

“No promises,” he said. “But that’s the goal, for sure.”

The Bulls officially closed training camp Tuesday with a one-game-at-a-time and bunker mentality that would make any fan of clichés proud. They’re focused on the Hornets---and nothing of greater significance for now.

“We don’t talk about playoff team, non-playoff team. We’re talking about Charlotte,” Boylen said. “We’re going to play as hard as we can against Charlotte. That’s what we can control. And then we’ll move on.”

Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are scheduled to start. Chandler Hutchison, who increased his on-court work but has yet to practice because of a hamstring issue, is the only injured player. Boylen said he’d announce his other inactive player besides Hutchison Wednesday.

“I just want to help the team,” Boylen said, elaborating on the significance of his first opening night as head coach. “As a head coach, sometimes you help them and sometimes you let them help themselves. I want to be there for them, support them. Hopefully we honor our principles. We do our basics better, the best we can, and see what happens.”

Boylen wouldn’t touch the subject. But even with all four games against last season’s non-playoff teams coming on the road, getting off to a fast start is essential.

Beyond the fact it will continue the good vibes that began with a widely praised offseason and through voluntary September workouts, the Bulls are relatively healthy. And the close to their schedule offers some brutal tests, so building a cushion early would bolster playoff talk.

“That’s what we’re trying to do---start off strong,” Markkanen said. “That sets the pace for the rest of the year. We’re going one game at a time, but it’s really important for us to get these.”

The Bulls visit Memphis to face a rebuilding Grizzlies team and No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant on Friday. They will navigate the two-game trip following a preseason in which they played at a faster pace than last season and averaged 39.4 3-pointers per game. That ranked ninth in the league after finishing 27th with just 25.9 attempts last season.

“I think we get a ton of open looks,” Markkanen said. “I’ve had good looks and my teammates have as well. We’re playing unselfish basketball, sharing the ball, making the extra pass. I think it’s going to help us.”

Despite all the optimism and addition of 12-year veteran Thad Young, the Bulls remain young, the league’s second-youngest team behind the Suns. Questions about depth and defensive efficiency are legitimate.

The tests start for real Wednesday.

“I’ve seen a group of guys that want to do the right things,” Boylen said. “It’s a high character group. It’s a willing group. Our care factor is high and I expect for us to care for each other, play for each other, sacrifice for each other. I think we’ll do that well.” 

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Bulls sign guard Max Strus to a two-way contract

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USA Today

Bulls sign guard Max Strus to a two-way contract

The Bulls announced today they have signed guard Max Strus to a two-way contract. Strus went undrafted during the 2019 NBA Draft before being signed by the Boston Celtics during preseason. He played in four preseason games for the Celtics, averaging 5.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 1.5 assists.

The Celtics waived Strus to make way with athletic wing Javonte Green on the final roster.

Max Strus is a Chicagoland native, growing in Hickory Hills and attending Amos Alonzo Stagg High School. Strus played college basketball at Lewis University in Romeoville before playing for the DePaul Blue Demons.

Standing at six-foot-five and 215 pounds, Strus was named to the All Big-East Second Team after averaging 20.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 35 games during his senior 2018-19 season. As a senior he played 29-straight games with double-figure scoring and set DePaul season records with 113 3-pointers and 311 3-point attempts. His career scoring average of 18.6 points per game with the fourth best in DePaul history.

We’re excited to have Strus back in Chicago and ready to see what he brings to the Bulls when their season starts tomorrow against Charlotte.

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