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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.

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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.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Dallas Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”