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NBA preseason primer: Breakout candidates

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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.

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.

Deadline passes as Bulls, Bobby Portis fail to reach agreement on contract extension

Deadline passes as Bulls, Bobby Portis fail to reach agreement on contract extension

The Bulls and Bobby Portis were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension by today’s deadline, which will make the power forward a restricted free agent next offseason.

According to The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson, Portis’ agent Mark Bartelstein and Gar Forman had “lengthy face-to-face negotiations” on Monday prior to the deadline. The two sides weren’t able to come to an agreement.

The negotiations – and lack of a deal – come after a summer and training camp in which Portis continued to show progression. After beginning the preseason coming off the bench Portis quickly played his way into the starting lineup alongside rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Portis finished five preseason games averaging 17.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 22.4 minutes.

Portis, the 22nd pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, has seen his role increase each of his three seasons. He made a jump last season in Year 3, averaging 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in 22.5 minutes. He was one of three players, including DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love, to average 21 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 3-pointers per 36 minutes.

Though the Bulls certainly had the room to sign Portis to an extension, there were obvious reasons on both sides to wait on a deal. For starters, the Bulls will still be able to match any deal Portis receives in free agency next July, much like what happened with Zach LaVine and the Sacramento Kings. The Bulls maintain their abundance of cap space for the 2019 offseason, when they’ll be able to offer a max contract to the top-tier free agents, and they get to see if Portis makes another jump.

For Portis, it’s a case of him betting on himself. If the Bulls came in with a number he wasn’t satisfied with – to help keep their max cap space – he now finds himself on a contract year playing for his next contract. Still only 23 years old, Portis should cash in in July.

Two players from Portis’ draft class were able to cash in. Pacers center Myles Turner signed a reported four-year, $80 million extension and Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. agreed to a four-year, $45 million deal. Portis likely would have fallen somewhere in between those two deals had an agreement occurred.

The Bulls are hardly in an easy situation with Portis. Though they value the versatile power forward, Lauri Markkanen is entrenched at the position for the foreseeable future and the team just spent last year’s No. 7 overall pick on center Wendell Carter Jr. Portis realistically is stuck behind both those players, though he certainly has starting level NBA talent.