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NBA Draft: Looney's rebounding could prove useful to Bulls

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NBA Draft: Looney's rebounding could prove useful to Bulls

Of the 24 five-star recruits in the Rivals' Class of 2014, 10 were power forwards or centers. Two of those players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, are expected to be the first two names Adam Silver calls on June 25 at the NBA Draft. Two others, Trey Lyles and Myles Turner, should be gone by the end of the lottery.

And yet, perhaps the best one-and-done rebounder from that class may be UCLA's Kevon Looney.

The 6-foot-9 forward's 15 double-doubles were most in the country among freshmen - the next closest was Duke's Jahlil Okafor, who tallied 11 - and fourth most among all players in power conferences. He led all freshman in rebounding (9.2 per game) and complemented his prowess on the glass with stellar defensive work, averaging 1.3 steals and nearly a block per game.

His defensive rating (97.0) and Defensive Win Shares (2.0) were team-bests and ranked top-15 in the Pac-12. Looney certainly has a knack for finding missed shots, though he's also helped greatly by his 7-foot-4 wingspan, which measured fourth longest at last month's combine.

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It was a trait he believed he'd excel in, averaging nearly 13 rebounds per game in his final high school season in Milwaukee. A five-star McDonald's All-American, Looney was ranked No. 10 in the Rivals class and arrived in Los Angeles with high expectations that he by in-large met, thanks to his rebounding and defensive acumen.

"I rebounded really good," Looney said of his lone season at UCLA. "Coming out of high school I played against guys that were smaller so it was like, ‘Can he do that against bigger guys?’ And I did that, so I proved I can do that and can take it to another level."

Now he'll be tasked with doing it at the final level. He's undersized at 210 pounds with a broad-shouldered frame that certainly can - and will - put on weight. The Bruins' roster necessitated Looney playing inside, though he's shown tendencies and natural ability to play on the perimeter. What he lacks for in sheer quickness for a player his size he makes up for with his length and basketball IQ. His offensive numbers - 11.6 points on 47 percent shooting - were helped by his 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, and adding to his offensive arsenal in a more free-flowing NBA offense should help him greatly.

All Looney's traits and potential upside fit with what the Bulls will be looking for this offseason. For all the offensive imperfections that surfaced late in the year, one of Chicago's most critical shortcomings came on the defensive glass. Their fifth-best rebound differential (+2.3) was a bit misleading, as they ranked 19th in defensive rebound percentage in the regular season - Thibodeau's worst mark in five seasons with the Bulls - and were worst among playoff teams that advanced past the first round.

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Pau Gasol led the NBA in double-doubles, Nikola Mirotic's defensive rebounding rate was solid for a player of his skill set, and Taj Gibson was still a plus-defender despite battling through various ankle injuries. But Joakim Noah's status with the Bulls past next year could leave an open spot in the frontcourt, and the Bulls' current wings - specifically Tony Snell and Doug McDermott - are more offensive, perimeter-oriented threats that don't offer much defensive worth, and even less value on the glass.

Looney could be an option for the Bulls at No. 22 if he's still available - Rotoworld's most recent mock draft had Looney going No. 17 to Milwaukee, while Draft Express has him pegged at No. 20 to the Raptors  - despite Fred Hoiberg having more glaring offseason needs, notably backup point guard and center.

Considering the vast differences in skill sets currently in the Bulls' frontcourt, Looney would have three solid veterans to learn from and guide him, as he's still a project offensively and will need to add weight before logging serious minutes in the paint. Still, in Hoiberg's expected up-tempo offense having a player such as Looney who can, at times, handle the ball, pass well (1.4 assists per game) and run the floor would make him a solid fit in Chicago.

Above all, his rebounding can't be overlooked. 

"I have a knack for getting the ball. It comes naturally to me so that’s something I take pride in," he said. "I think I’ll be able to do it on the next level. I don’t know if I’ll do it at the same level I did at UCLA right away, but I think over time I’ll definitely be one of the best rebounders."

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 100 made dunks last season. But that would have been far too long of a video to make, so instead we condensed it down to their six best dunks of the season.

Which one was your favorite?

LaVine slams it home on the blocks leader (Mar. 5)

LaVine had a mini dunk contest in Indiana, but none more impressive than his dunk over Myles Turner. Robin Lopez set a high screen for LaVine, who attacked the rim instantly. LaVine got a step on Turner, who wound up leading the NBA in blocks per game, and flushed home a righty slam to tie the game early in the third quarter. LaVine finished with 27 points in the loss.

Lauri goes lefty on the Pistons (Mar. 8)

What’s more impressive than a 7-footer taking Blake Griffin off the dribble with his off-hand? That same 7-footer finishing a lefty dunk over Andre Drummond. That’s what Markkanen did early in this early March contest. Griffin got the best of Markkanen and the Bulls by the end of the night, but Markkanen started it out with a bang.

Arci saves, Otto oops, LaVine finishes (Mar. 6)

Sometimes the dunker gets the easy part. Ryan Arcidiacono had an incredible save to keep the ball in bounds in the Bulls backcourt. He tipped it right to Otto Porter who turned, took one dribble, and fed a perfect alley-oop to a streaking LaVine, who finished with an impressive one-handed slam. That it came during a nationally televised game (against Jimmy Butler) in a game the Bulls won made it all the more sweet. It was the Bulls’ best team play of the year.

Lauri’s R-rated drive past PG13 (Dec. 7)

Part of what makes Markkanen such an impressive talent is his versatility for a 7-footer. That was on full display against the Thunder in his third game back from his elbow injury. Markkanen set a screen for Zach LaVine and popped out to the 3-point line, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George switching on to him. Markkanen caught George just the slightest bit out of position and took advantage, driving past him and in for a dunk. This one was special because 23 game minutes later, Markkanen won the game with a spinning layup over George and Steven Adams.

LaVine goes 360 for 2 on the Cavs (Nov. 10)

We take Zach LaVine for granted sometimes. There’s nothing normal about a human being so casual jumping into the air, doing a full spin, and dunking a ball through a hoop 10 feet off the ground. But LaVine did just that early in the first quarter against the Cavs. He was still rising as he threw it down for his first two points of the game. LaVine finished with 24 points on just 9 of 22 shooting, but also added eight rebounds and five assists. Don’t let the ease of the dunk fool you: This was his best of the season.

Lauri baptizes Nikola Vucevic (Dec. 21)

You knew we saved the best for last. Markkanen went way up the ladder for his best dunk of the year, slamming one home on Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Making the slam all the more impressive was that the shot clock was winding down – Markkanen caught the ball at the logo with 4.2 seconds left on the shot clock – but he didn’t settle, instead heading straight to the rim where he met Vucevic for the slam. It was part of a monster night for Markkanen facing a defense that finished the season 8th in efficiency. He scored 32 points - at the time a season-high – on 12 of 20 shooting. The technical foul was worth it.

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Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.