Bulls

NBA preseason primer: Breakout candidates

victor-oladipo-0910.png

NBA preseason primer: Breakout 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 are poised for breakout campaigns after showing flashes of it last season.

Vincent Goodwill: Breakout players are usually hard to project, especially if they’re not on winning teams but I have two, albeit at different levels of their development, Victor Oladipo (Orlando Magic) and Zach LaVine (Minnesota Timberwolves).

Starting with Oladipo, spending more time at shooting guard with the drafting of Elfrid Payton opened the door for him to attack more off the ball while still being able to create. After the All-Star break, Oladipo performed at nearly a 20-5-5 clip, shaking off a sluggish November-December where he looked out of sorts. Now he could be ready to truly elevate, especially since his long-range shooting has become respectable (34 percent from 3-point range last season).

His athleticism is well-documented, as evidenced by showing during the dunk contest at All-Star weekend last season. His offensive rating jumped from 94 points per 100 possessions to 101 points last season, but his defense dropped a bit too, perhaps from going against bigger shooting guards (or concentrating too much on offense).

The natural progression, one would think, would be scoring near 20 points a game while still getting to the glass and shooting near 45 percent. Playing for the slow-building Magic certainly puts a damper on his personal accomplishments, but if they are to climb from the Eastern Conference cellar, Oladipo’s play will be a huge reason why.

Mark Strotman: Oladipo's situation certainly follows the trend of last year's top two breakout players. Both Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green saw increased roles - Butler became the go-to guy as Derrick Rose was worked back slowly from his knee injury du jour, and Green entered the starting lineup when David Lee went down in preseason - and had the right supporting cast around him. I can't get enough of Orlando's young core; their five leading scorers last season are 24 or younger. Twenty-four! Somewhere Sam Hinkie just soiled himself.

In that same light, I love what the Timberwolves are putting together. You mentioned LaVine, and he'll team up with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio to form another excellent young core. But the guy I'm looking at to really break through this season is Gorgui Dieng.

He may not make a jump like Butler or Green did, making an All-Star team and All-NBA squad. But I loved what Dieng did after the All-Star break in 2015, averaging 10.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 20 games. He shot 55 percent in those games - up more than 6 percentage points pre-ASB -  before a concussion cost him the Timberwolves' final nine games. His arrow is pointing up, and unless Towns entirely steals the frontcourt spotlight in Year 1 (a possibility) Dieng is going to have an excellent third NBA season.

Are you nervous at all that Rubio is going to hurt LaVine's growth in Year 2? The Timberwolves paid him last year and he appears ready for camp after a 22-game campaign in 2015. His salary isn't all that trade-able, and I'm not convinced LaVine can play off the ball full-time just yet.

VG: As for Hinkie soiling his pants, man can someone take his job? He’s an embarrassment to the sport, but I digress.  And so much of breakout players stepping up is birthed by maturity combined with opportunity, such as the case with Butler last season. Would Butler have thrived if Luol Deng were still with the Bulls? Or heck, would he have seen an opportunity to step up if Derrick Rose didn’t have such an unreliable history of availability?

As for LaVine, I’m not so impressed by his athleticism as I was by his last month of the season, when he started playing 30 minutes a game. Putting up 21 points, nearly seven assists and six rebounds in April could be written off as a late-season anomaly, but in 40 games as a starter he averaged 14 points and five assists on a young team with loads of talent and loads of time to figure it out.

Playing with Rubio will only enhance the unselfish nature, considering there won’t be many players that adept at creating their own offense naturally. The ball movement will be plentiful, even if the young and tender Wolves won’t win many games.

The lone argument against LaVine is on his own roster: that otherworldly Andrew Wiggins, who’s probably the one sure-fire franchise player out of these last two drafts. Wiggins plays better at shooting guard in terms of shot opportunities and efficiency than he does at small forward, and what’s good for Wiggins is good for the franchise (especially as that was figured out after the All-Star break).

But if they can find a way for both young wings to play together without draining the other, LaVine could be a true diamond from the 2014 late lottery.

MS: It's also worth noting with Butler that Chicago was about to break the bank for Carmelo Anthony. Imagine a black hole in Anthony taking shots away from Butler AND no Pau Gasol? Gar Forman owes Phil Jackson dinner sometime in the near future. I chose Dieng as a guy who I believe can make a significant jump - but not necessarily stardom - next season. That's not the case for my feelings on Bradley Beal, who I believe makes that All-Star-jump we saw from Jimmy Butler a year ago in his fourth season.

Beal's already ahead of where Butler was in Year 3 because of that aforementioned opportunity - Beal has started from Day 1 in Washington - but he hasn't really taken that final step. He certainly looks to be trending toward it in last season's playoffs, when he averaged 23.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in two series against the Raptors and Hawks. But he looked solid in the 2014 playoffs, too, and didn't really transfer it to the 2015 regular season - he's certainly been good, just not great.

But that fourth year, a contract year, could be it. John Wall is a year older and the Wizards refuse to really do anything behind Beal that would take many minutes away from him. That scary leg injury that's popped up each year of his career (Beal has missed 54 games in three seasons) is always going to be a concern, but if he can play 70+ games I've got that feeling we're going to see a more matured, polished player who fights for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Everything's there for him.

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

Bleacher Report named Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season. The list included five players whose expectations have exceeded what author Grant Hughes, felt is realistic for this upcoming season. It is not entirely shocking for LaVine to make this list, and his defense was the main reason he was included. But the potential for his offensive output to get even better was somewhat overlooked. 

Per Hughes:

In 2016-17, he ranked 441st out of 468 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric. Last year, he was 490th out of 521. According to Basketball Reference, he's never posted a defensive box plus-minus in positive territory. He topped out at minus-2.0 in his abbreviated 2017-18 season.....It's hard to justify rotation minutes for a player like that, let alone $78 million.

Hughes’ critique is harsh, but based off of statistics that are hard to argue with. LaVine has indeed been one of the worst defenders in the league for the entirety of his NBA career, and his netting of the $78 million falls hand-in-hand with Jabari Parker’s comments on players not being paid to play defense. But for the Bulls to take the leap from lottery-to-playoff contender, at least a league-average D will have to be cobbled together. But that responsibility will not fall solely on his shoulders, and that is why I am skeptical on the idea of LaVine being “overhyped”. 

The post goes on to elaborate that even if LaVine was to recapture the magic of his solid 2016-17 season, he still would be a player who gives up more points on defense than he gets his team on offense. That is a strong possibility, but with the addition of Wendell Carter Jr. as another rim protector, capable of at least providing a hard hedge (if not an outright switch), there is a possibility that LaVine becomes a more aggressive defender out on the perimeter. But that is unlikely, and a much more realistic outcome is LaVine’s offensive value surpassing what is expected.

LaVine’s strength last season was his ability to get to the free throw line. Despite coming off a major ACL injury, he was able to get 4.5 free throw attempts per game, a mark that would’ve had him sandwiched between players like Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo had he qualified (LaVine only played in 24 games). It was the highest free throw attempt rate of his career, and assuming he expands on that in a year where he should be completely healthy, he will be one of the best in the league at getting to the line. 

His efficiency will be helped by players like Parker and Lauri Markkanen, who will draw attention off of him. LaVine’s 3-point percentage last season was 34 percent, a number that was more of a reflection of that fact that he was still working his way back into game shape. That 3-point percentage will soon trend more towards the 38 percent mark he shot the previous two seasons. And his 3-point attempts were also down, another mark that is sure to trend upwards, especially with Parker’s inclusion as a scorer who does most of his half-court work in the mid-post area. 

The way the 2018-19 Bulls are built, there is little behind Kris Dunn in the way of a reliable backup point guard, though there is belief internally that Cam Payne can develop into that player. But there is a strong possibility that LaVine will be used as a backup point guard to free up minutes for one of Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine or Chandler Hutchison. And in his rookie year, playing point guard, LaVine had an assist rate of 24 percent, but also an incredibly high turnover percentage. Since making the full-time switch to shooting guard, he has not posted a turnover rate above 10 percent. So, if he can adjust to the fact that there are other players capable of scoring 20 points on the floor—like he did in Minnesota—it is entirely possible for LaVine to be a player capable of getting you 20 points and five assists per game while scoring efficiently and avoiding turnovers. Even if his defense continues to be dreadful, a player who can keep the offense running well from either guard spot is definitely valuable in today’s league. 

In his last season with Minnesota, LaVine had a usage rate of 21.7 percent, a number much lower than his extremely high 29.5 usage rate last season with the Bulls. And while many think of LaVine as a high-volume shooter, his usage rate last year was likely a result of him forcing the issue to try to prove he was worth a significant investment. With his shiny, new contract in tow, LaVine should be focused on making the team better, and get one step closer to his Timberwolves self. On that squad, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each scored 20+ points per game, while LaVine was averaging 18.9 points per game. And the team finished in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive rating.

It is not crazy to think the Bulls could have their own high-scoring trio in LaVine, Markkanen and Parker. And if that is the case, then the expectation is for LaVine to be a efficient scorer who can occasionally spot the open man. Hyped? Yes. But overhyped? No one is banking on him being an All-Star, though it remains in the realm of possibility. The idea that he is overhyped is based on the fact his new contract is $78 million and he is poor at defense, but this is overlooking the fact that LaVine has proven he is a player capable of having a large role on a top-10 offense. September 30 can’t get here fast enough.  

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

lauri.jpg
USA TODAY

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.