Bulls

NBA preseason primer: Rookie of the Year candidates

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NBA preseason primer: Rookie of the Year 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 have the best chance to earn Rookie of the Year honors for the upcoming season.

Mark Strotman: Last year's rookie class was an absolute mess. Tabbed by many as the best incoming crop of players since 1996 - hell, they got the '96 SLAM cover treatment - they were decimated by injury. Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle all suffered season-ending injuries (the latter two didn't play a single game) while Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel (2013 Draft) and Nikola Mirotic salvaged an otherwise poor showing from the rooks - I'd also toss Elfrid Payton in there.

2015 appears to be a rookie class where opportunity will be ample. And no one will be thrown into the fire as quickly or given a larger role than Chicago native Jahlil Okafor. With Embiid on the pine for a second straight year, Okafor will be tasked with improving a Sixers offense that had an abysmal 93.0 offensive rating last year, far and away worst in the league. We've debated on Okafor's ceiling in the league, but there's no argument against him being ready to contribute from Day 1 offensively. His low-post game is as NBA-ready as we've seen in years, and I could see him having similar numbers as DeMarcus Cousins' rookie year (14.1 points on 43 percent shooting) with an uptick in his shooting percentage. Some of his glaring defensive deficiencies will be covered by Noel's prowess, which will only help Okafor's case. The fact that he'll be rolled out there at center every night as the main option for Brett Brown makes him the easy favorite to bring home Rookie of the Year honors.

Vincent Goodwill: Not to think this would have a Chicago bent to it, but Okafor is tagged with the stink of playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, the worst professional franchise in sports (no exaggeration).  So either he’ll get hurt or play well enough to get traded for future draft picks.

[MORE: MVP candidates for upcoming season]

As for another candidate, consider this: Since Derrick Rose’s rookie year (2008-09), five of the seven Rookie of the Year award winners have been point guards or in Tyreke Evans’ case in 2010, a lead guard.

Andrew Wiggins and Blake Griffin are the anomaly’s, and rightfully so. But Lakers rookie guard D’Angelo Russell, the player chosen ahead of Okafor, appears to have “star” written all over him.

He’ll have to share a backcourt with the retiring (?) Kobe Bryant while Jordan Clarkston won’t just cede into the background. Sharing the ball with the ball-dominant Bryant isn’t the easiest task in the world, ask Steve Nash.

But if Bryant accepts a lesser role and allows Russell to flourish, he could be special. He has exceptional court vision and his jump shot is set up by a handle that will embarrass more than a few defenders.

And, let’s be honest. The Lakers will stink. Julius Randle and a few other pieces are just learning at this level. So he’ll have plenty of freedom to play through mistakes and since there aren’t championship expectations, he can play loose.

[SHOP: Buy a Bobby Portis jersey]

He’s been compared to Jason Kidd coming out of college and although the production can’t be predicted yet, his handle and jumper are worlds ahead of Kidd’s at this formative stage.

MS: And it makes sense that point guards have hogged Rookie of the Year honors lately; teams in need of a floor general put him to use right away. There's two wings and two frontcourt positions, but just one point guard. If your team is lacking at the spot, prepare to go against live fire from Day 1.

It's the same reason I really believe Emmanuel Mudiay is in a great position. We discussed it a little with our potential breakout players, but a lot of the time Rookie of the Year comes down to guys who simply got the minutes to log volume numbers. Well, with Ty Lawson off to Houston the depth chart in Denver is Mudiay, Jameer Nelson and Erick Green. Seriously.

We don't know as much about Mudiay and how his game will translate after a year in China, but we do know he's lightning quick in transition - good for the Western Conference - is an excellent passer - good for Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari - and a stout defender at 6-foot-5, which will come in handy against the lethal West point guard class.

There are concerns about his jump shot and whether he'll hit the ground running at 19 years old, but with a rock-solid head coach in Michael Malone, a decent supporting cast and a distinct role as the future of the Nuggets, I wouldn't be surprised if Mudiay puts together a Rookie of the Year campaign averaging 30+ minutes a night.

[ALSO: Potential new playoff teams this year include....Jazz?]

VG: Mudiay comes with the Larry Brown stamp of approval, considering he was slated to play for the Hall of Fame coach before going to play in China for a year. If you don’t go to college, it’s like you don’t exist for a segment of fans, i.e. Brandon Jennings. But Mudiay would’ve turned the college world on its ear last season and he happens to be drafted by the Nuggets, another team with low expectations, setting up an easy situation to excel.

But when I think about a player who did attend college and turned it on its ear, I’m thinking of the guy who inexplicably slipped in the draft, Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow. Winslow was lost in the Duke shuffle last season, the ensemble cast that won the national championship. His stats didn’t overwhelm many but his play certainly did, which is why it was so shocking to see him drop to 10th in the draft.

He won’t be starting, considering Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are the starting swingmen for the Heat. But when you talk skill level and pro readiness, he’s at the top of the list. Winslow plays with a control and a maturity to his game that’s beyond his years. He won’t overwhelm you athletically, which could be a big impediment in the college-to-pro transition. But his ball handling skills and ability to get to the lane with his perimeter footwork will translate well. And if Miami has any injury issues, he’ll step right in, and will have major minutes anyways.

He won’t have the best stats but if the Heat rise back near the top of the East after missing the playoffs last year and Winslow is a big part of it, he’ll receive a groundswell of support for the award—and could wind up as the best non-big in the draft regardless.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Hub Arkush (670 The Score/Pro Football Weekly), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Lauren Comitor (The Athletic) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Manny Machado Mania continues in Chicago. Do the Cubs even need to trade for him to win the World Series this year?

Ricky Renteria has to bench another player for not hustling. Is this becoming a problem on the South Side?

Plus, Lauri Markkanen is named to the All-Rookie team. Could he be the centerpiece of a trade if the Bulls want to acquire a superstar or move up in the draft? 

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

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USA TODAY

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

Bulls Twitter went on high alert after last week's national report that the front office had made a "promise" to draft Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison if he was still on the board at No. 22 in the first round. Weren't the Bulls supposed to be interested in SF prospects like Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges with their own first round selection? Did a "promise" to Hutchison mean the Bulls would go with Wendell Carter, Trae Young or Collin Sexton at No. 7?

The simple answer is the Bulls haven't made any final decisions on either pick. They still plan to bring the top prospects in for workouts and interviews before June 21 and will continue to take a close look at players likely to be available in the 18-30 range.

And, like any professional sports franchise, the Bulls aren't about to confirm or deny they've made a commitment to Hutchison or any other player. Drafts are fluid, and invariably players will rise and fall throughout the workout/interview process as teams try to get their boards lined up for the big night.

The main reason a team will make a "promise" to a player is to eliminate his incentive to work out for other franchises. In the case of Hutchison, he's obviously received assurances from a team or teams that he will be drafted in the first round. Hutchison cancelled his plans to participate in last week's NBA Draft Combine, and most likely will only work out for teams drafting ahead of the franchise that said they would select him.

Jerry Krause would famously try to hide his interest in players he coveted in a particular year and persuade them not to work out for other teams. The best example came in 1987 when a little known player from Central Arkansas named Scottie Pippen became an obsession for Krause, and the Bulls GM tried everything in his power to keep Pippen under wraps. Problem is, Pippen did attend the scouting combine and quickly became the hot topic among NBA scouts and executives. It took some intense work on Krause's part to arrange for the draft night trade that brought Pippen to Chicago for Olden Polynice. Krause also added Horace Grant later in that same draft, and the foundation was built for the Bulls' first three championship teams.

So, the idea of a team making a "promise" to a player they like is certainly nothing new. What's important to understand is that doesn't guarantee the team will follow through on that promise when they're on the clock. Back in 2013, the Bulls got word to Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng they were interested in taking him with their No. 20 pick in round one. But when the Bulls were on the clock, the front office decided they would rather have New Mexico swingman Tony Snell who was ranked higher on their draft board. The Bulls drafted Snell, much to Dieng and his agent's surprise. Dieng wound up going to Utah with the next pick and was traded to Minnesota. He's still with that franchise today, although in a reduced role after the Timberwolves signed Taj Gibson as a free agent last summer.

With so much uncertainty in this year's draft, it seems unlikely the Bulls would "promise" to select Hutchison five weeks before the selection process was going to begin. Hutchison and his agent most likely received assurances from NBA executives that he would be drafted in the 20-30 range, and that was enough to get him to drop out of the combine. But just like in 2013, if the Bulls see a player ranked higher on their draft board fall to 22, that's the player they're going to take.

Hutchison is a good prospect, a 3-and-D player who would fit well with the team the Bulls are building. But he's also a 22-year-old senior without the upside of some of the younger prospects who might be available with the Bulls' pick late in Round 1. Both Hutchison and the Bulls have to reserve the right to protect their own best interests. Hutchison will most likely agree to work out for teams drafting earlier than 22, and he'll have to understand if the Bulls decide to go a different direction on draft night, no matter what kind of previous discussions his agent may have had with the front office.

At this point in the pre-draft process, a "promise" can only be seen as a team's legitimate interest in a given player and an indicator of how the first round is likely to play out. But a lot can and will change before Phoenix goes on the clock on June 21.

Combine notes

Since most of the projected first round picks do little or nothing at the combine, it's left to the second-round guys to try to improve their draft stock with a strong showing in the scrimmage games. Last year, it was Kyle Kuzma working his way into the first round with a dazzling performance at the combine, and this year, the big winner might be Villanova shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo.

The NCAA Tournament hero impressed everyone with his athleticism on both ends and his ability to knock down open shots. DiVincenzo told me his 31-point performance in the title game against Michigan convinced him he had what it takes to apply for early entry, and his strong showing last week probably convinced him to hire an agent and remain in the draft.

Much like Kuzma, DiVincenzo had been projected as a likely second-round pick before the combine. Now he's looked at as a probable first rounder, going somewhere in the 20-30 range, which means he's likely headed to a good team that can ease his transition to the pro game. Not bad for a guy who came off the bench most of the season for the eventual NCAA champs and probably never imagined he would be leaving early for the NBA until that magical night in San Antonio.

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Other players who improved their draft stock last week include USC combo guard De’Anthony Melton, Maryland swingman Kevin Huerter, Tulane shooting guard Melvin Frazier, Cincinnati swingman Jacob Evans and another Villanova product, point guard Jalen Brunson.

Brunson didn't play in the scrimmages in Chicago, but he showed well in the physical testing, displaying the kind of athleticism every team is looking for at the point guard position. It looks like Brunson will definitely be a first round pick.

Similar story for Evans, who averaged a modest 13 points a game for a top 10 Cincinnati team, but impressed the NBA execs at the combine with his tenacious defensive play and offensive potential. Evans could be a possibility for the Bulls at 22.

Maryland's Huerter showed scouts he's more than just a standstill 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just under 15 points a game last season, shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range. Huerter's solid play at the combine gives him a chance to be drafted at the end of Round 1.

Frazier also showed enough in games last week to have his name called among the top 30 picks. At 6-foot-6, he has excellent size at the shooting guard position. Frazier averaged just under 16 points a game during his junior season at Tulane, shooting almost 56 percent from the field.

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But the most interesting story involves Melton, who was held out by USC last season because of his connection to the FBI's investigation of corruption in college basketball. Melton maintained his innocence all along, and said the university was just doing what it had to do, fearing additional trouble with the NCAA over allegations a friend of Melton's had accepted money to try to steer Melton to an agent.

Still, even without playing competitively last season, Melton probably cemented a first round selection with his play at the combine. The 6-foot-4 combo guard flashed on both ends, scoring 15 points in a game last Friday playing alongside DiVincenzo in the backcourt.

Melton told USA Today he compares himself to other two-way standouts like Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard and Avery Bradley. That's some pretty impressive company. Melton might be worth the investment of that No. 22 pick by the Bulls.

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Kudos to all the players who took part in the two days of media interviews last week. Almost all of them came off poised and well prepared. Among the top ten picks, I was especially impressed with Michael Porter Jr., who patiently answered all the questions about his back surgery and confidently said he considered himself the best player in the draft without sounding cocky.

Of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young also proclaimed themselves the best player in the draft, and projected top 10 picks Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton also came across as supremely confident.

The latest Basketball Insiders Mock Draft has the Bulls taking Bamba at 7 and Chandler Hutchison at 22, which would make the front office and a lot of Bulls fans very happy. But just to show you the wide range in how draft experts are evaluating the top prospects, Basketball Insiders currently has Jackson Jr. going 11 to Charlotte, and it's hard for me to imagine him staying on the board past four.

Brace yourself for all kinds of wild speculation over the next four weeks.

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Finally, May 22 turned out to be quite a day for Lauri Markkanen. Not only is Markkanen celebrating his 21st birthday, but he found out he was voted to the NBA's All-Rookie first team after averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Markkanen joined Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma from the extremely talented 2017-18 rookie class.

And the second team isn't bad either with Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Given Markkanen's talent and work ethic, it's very easy to see him making multiple All-Star Game appearances down the line. The Bulls can only hope they come up with another foundation player like Markkanen when they draft seventh for the second year in a row.