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


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.


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.

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.