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NBA Draft: Kentucky's Devin Booker could be hidden gem

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NBA Draft: Kentucky's Devin Booker could be hidden gem

There's a hidden gem in the 2015 NBA Draft.

The expected top two picks, Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke's Jahlil Okafor, have superstar potential, while a host of other players like Justise Winslow, D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay have the traits to be future franchise players.

Looking outside the expected top five or seven picks, the draft's youngest player has all the tools to become a critical piece to a championship puzzle.

Kentucky's Devin Booker, who won't turn 19 until Oct. 30, arrived in Lexington as part of John Calipari's most recent heralded recruiting class. Ranked No. 29 by Rivals, he was the Wildcats' fourth best recruit behind Towns (5), Trey Lyles (13) and Tyler Ulis (21). His role was a distinct one: to provide mismatch problems at shooting guard with his 6-foot-6 frame and provide valuable outside shooting on a team stacked with five-star big men and average returning outside shooters in Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

[RELATED - NBA Draft Profile: Kentucky G Devin Booker]

Even the most casual basketball fan could assume that Booker did just that. On a Kentucky team that won its first 38 games - an NCAA record - Booker played the role of sharpshooter, connecting on better than 41 percent of his 141 3-pointers, finishing with the SEC's fourth best true-shooting percentage (60.0 percent) and best among all guards in the conference. As was the case for all Wildcats, which played a 10-man rotation, Booker deferred to the Harrison twins and Ulis and was never relied upon too heavily, only logging more than 25 minutes in a game six times.

That distinguished niche off the bench earned him SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors, finishing with 10.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.5 3-pointers in 38 games.

"We were surrounded by a lot of talent at Kentucky so I found my niche, and that’s what we needed to do," Booker said at last month's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "We had plenty of ball handlers out there with Tyler (Ulis) and Andrew (Harrison), so I felt I could show a little more (at the Combine), create for others. And I’m trying to become a two-way elite player."

The final part of Booker's quote may be the only hesitation. He mentioned multiple times during his availability that he's focusing his efforts in pre-draft workouts on improving his defensive game, which admittedly lacked and was covered up by the Kentucky bigs; opposing teams who got by Booker and any other UK guards were met by the country's tallest and most talented frontcourt.

Booker's 6-foot-8 wingspan helped make up for some of his lateral quickness deficiencies. That won't cut it at the next level guarding the likes of James Harden, Jimmy Butler and other two-guards with lightning-quick first steps. It's why he's also dedicated himself to studying film, specifically Golden State shooting guard Klay Thompson. Thompson was a more complete draft prospect and better defender in 2011, though he was also a junior when he was selected No. 11 by the Warriors.

[ROTOWORLD: NBA Mock Draft]

Initially known for his shooting and scoring prowess, Thompson has transformed into a lockdown defender on the NBA's best defense and arguably the best two-way defender in the NBA.

"You watch Klay Thompson and that’s what he’s become," Booker said. "He has the respect of defenses, and I’ve been working on my quickness. That’s what I’m going to keep working on."

Booker's shooting will be his calling card, at least initially. He needs to prove he can play off the dribble and, more importantly, defend at the next level. He's undoubtedly a project, but has all measurables NBA teams are looking for in their shooting guards. He's got the athleticism, his shooting will translate at the next level and has plenty of room to grow. It doesn't hurt, either, that he's coming from a Kentucky program that has churned out one-and-done talent for years.

"I was expecting to stay there two to three years, but it’s crazy when you focus on a team concept and the team has success the personal success comes with it, and it just comes back to hard work," he said. "There was a lot of talent at Kentucky and I found my way to fit in."

Soon enough he'll do the same at the next level.

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."