NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates


NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates

Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players may take a step backward late in their careers.

Mark Strotman: I've got to admit, this was much harder to "predict" than the breakout candidates. Maybe that's the optimistic side in me, or it's just a healthy sign that the NBA has plenty more rising stars than fading ones heading into the 2015-16 season.

But why not kick this one off with some controversy? When Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million deal last offseason he was breaking down. He had missed 55 games the previous two seasons, averaged a career-low in points one of those years (2013, 13.7) and averaged a career-low in minutes the other (2014, 31.4). So naturally he comes to the Eastern Conference at age 34 and turns back the clock entirely with arguably a career year in his 14th NBA season.

But he'll surpass 40,000 career minutes sometime in December, returns to a somewhat crowded Bulls frontcourt that won't ask as much of him this season (addition of Bobby Portis, healthy Taj Gibson, progressing Nikola Mirotic) and has the recent string of injuries — even last year he missed Games 4 and 5 against the Cavs despite playing 78 regular-season games. Maybe "breaking down" isn't the right phrase for it, but I don't expect another All-Star campaign or All-NBA Second Team selection. At some point he's got to slow down. My guess is it happens this upcoming year. That being said, as long as he's hitting from 17 feet and grabbing his fair share of rebounds he'll be an important piece to the Bulls' championship-aspiring group. I don't want to make it sound like he's going to fall off the map.

Vincent Goodwill: It’s not earth-shattering to believe the Bulls will scale back Gasol’s usage coming up this season. Gasol just turned 35 in July, and last season served as his turn-back-the-clock year, which means there was considerable doubt as to whether his great days were long gone. Now, he’s efficient around the basket, an adept mid-range shooter and incredibly smart on both ends of the floor. It’s not likely his skills will erode before our eyes, but his body will be a question.

The list of bigs past 35 who posted a season with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 22 (Gasol’s PER was 22.7 last season, 11th in the NBA) read like this: Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. So while it’s not impossible for Gasol to have a repeat performance, chances are the Bulls aren’t wont to put that load on him, so his body is fresher down the stretch.

One player who could take a step back is Nowtizki, who just turned 37 (!) in June and is entering his 18th year. Only Paul Pierce and Vince Carter remain from that draft class in addition to Nowitzki, as Dallas has failed to put a roster around him for him to take a true step back in terms of responsibility. His offensive rating dropped seven points last season, but he still made the All-Star team. Me thinks those days are over, and considering he’ll be playing with the difficult Deron Williams as his point guard, along with the franchise still smarting over the loss of DeAndre Jordan, putting too much on his plate could backfire.

And considering Duncan is the only player known to make a deal with Father Time (me and Roger Goodell have the evidence after a crack investigation), Nowitzki can’t keep this going, right?

MS: Well I'm going to keep our trend of Hall-of-Famers suffering from down years going by picking Tony Parker. Again, I don't think we're saying these guys are going to transform into Nazr Mohammed from one year to the next, but with a lot of these players — as is the case every year — it's more, "It's got to happen at some point, right?"

I believe it happens with Parker in 2015-16. Last year his PER (15.9) was 20th among starting point guards who played at least 50 games, and personally it was his worst mark since the 2003-04 season, when he was 21. His usage went down for a fourth straight season while his assist percentage decreased a third straight season; his turnover percentage was also his worst mark since 2011. In last year's playoffs he was pitted against Chris Paul in the first round and was dealing with multiple injuries, so take this with a grain of salt, but he averaged 10.9 points on 36 percent shooting. It was ugly, and injuries are bound to catch up with him at some point.

The NBA's transformation to a point guard-dominant league is in full motion, and a 32-year-old Parker with nearly 40,000 minutes (and 203 playoff games, or two and a half extra seasons) could get passed by this season. Gregg Popovich will have a plan to make sure Parker is ready for the postseason, to be sure. Still, his arrow is trending down.

VG: Could Dwight Howard be on the downturn? Seems hard to believe, but Howard will be 30 come December and his numbers were down across the board as he battled a right knee injury that caused him to miss half the season.

When healthy, he’s still one of the more impactful pivot men in the league, especially on the defensive end. But he experienced that debilitating back injury his last season in Orlando, didn’t have the impact in Los Angeles many thought he would’ve and is now entering his 12th season. Many don’t realize this, but Howard is the shortest center in the league, standing at barely 6-foot-10. His athleticism and strength enabled him to overcome his vertical limitations but if injuries are starting to catch up with him, his effectiveness will continue to wane.

Despite the game placing more of an emphasis on the swingmen and small guards, if Howard was at his best while playing alongside MVP runner-up James Harden, then the Rockets would be mentioned with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City as title contenders. Instead, they’re a step behind.

He barely played 30 minutes a game last season, so his per-36 minute numbers of 19.0 points and 12.7 rebounds rank right up there with his career averages. But how many big men get healthier past the age of 30? Even Alonzo Mourning’s body began to break down before his kidney disease was discovered before the 2002-03 season. Ewing’s last All-Star appearance came in Year 12. Olajuwon, the rare player who seemed to get better into his 30’s, made his last All-Star appearance in Year 13. Howard is far from done as an impact player, but expecting him to be the feared force every night of the year could be asking a bit much.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need


Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.