Bulls

Paul George adds another chapter to comeback tour with Pacers

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Paul George adds another chapter to comeback tour with Pacers

It was almost a year ago when Paul George spoke to reporters for the first time since suffering a gruesome broken leg during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas months earlier. At the time George, a two-time All-Star, had been limited in his brief rehabilitation to stationary shooting and running on a treadmill in a pool. There was no timetable for his return, and while George said then he had "no doubt" he'd be "coming back better," no one could be sure given the severity of the injury, an open tibia-fibula fracture in his right leg.

Monday night George made yet another convincing argument that he's all the way back. His comeback tour added another chapter, with the 25-year-old forward scoring 26 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out five assists against the Bulls. His efforts came up just short in a 96-95 loss, as his fadeaway jumper at the buzzer was blocked by Jimmy Butler, but George's ability to lead the short-handed Pacers to nearly overcoming a 15-point deficit on the road against a division foe was another step in his resurgence among one of the NBA's elite.

Monday marked the seventh consecutive game George has eclipsed the 26-point mark, the longest stretch of his career. Five of those opponents were ranked in the top-12 in defensive efficiency, including Boston (twice), Cleveland, Miami and Orlando. Monday night posed yet another challenge. Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls entered the game with the league's No. 5 defensive efficiency, and George was shadowed much of the evening by Butler, a reigning All-NBA Defensive Second Team member.

But in a battle of Most Improved Players - George earned the award in 2013 and Butler won it in 2015 - George was zoned in from the opening tip, not worrying about what stood in front of him.

"In this league I have the most confidence in myself that this is the way I should be playing," George said after the game. "Regardless of team or who’s guarding me."

[MORE: Butler saves Bulls win, but Rose leaves with ankle injury]

In George's 39 minutes, tied for a season-high, he was relentless. He attacked Butler, forcing the Bulls swingman into five personal fouls, connected on four 3-pointers as he and C.J. Miles (19 points, five 3-pointers) worked as a two-man show to keep the Bulls close in the first half. When Monta Ellis (20 points) took over in the third quarter, scoring eight points, it set the stage for George to perform as the closing act. And he almost succeeded.

George hit his last triple of the night to pull the Pacers within five after the Bulls had pushed the lead to eight and were ready to run away with it. He scored five straight to get Indiana within two, with an Ellis layup tying the score 93-93 with 2:11 to play the next trip down. George also guarded Butler, who went 1-for-6 in the final frame, the majority of the final period, showing off his length and quickness on both ends as the Pacers, playing without guards George Hill and Rodney Stuckey, fought back.

Hill's absence at the point didn't allow the offense to function as well as it could have, but there were also glimpses of Frank Vogel's spread offense functioning at a high level. Much like the Bulls, the Pacers are transitioning this season from a more traditional structure to a quicker-paced, free-flowing offense. It's meant more time at the power forward spot for George, a natural small forward, though he and Butler guarded each other most of the night, with C.J. Miles guarding a man up; at times Vogel also used George at small forward as Hoiberg's Bulls went with bigger lineups. Vogel countered with a combination of Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill.

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The Pacers shot just 40 percent from the field and committed 12 turnovers, but George reiterated that he's pleased with how his teammates are responding to both the new offensive structure as well as his addition to the rotation. The Pacers are playing two possessions per game faster this season, and in stretches like the end of the third quarter there were obvious signs that it's something the roster is built for.

"We’ve played enough games now, we’ve been together long enough now, to kind of get a feel for one another and better chemistry going on on the court," George said.

George's numbers this early in the year have come as a bit of a surprise, given the time he spent off the court — not including the forgettable six-game stretch he had at the tail end of last season — and he has the Pacers looking like a team ready to get back to the playoffs after missing out on a tiebreaker to the Nets a year ago. The Pacers still have won six of their last eight following an 0-3 start, and the offense will only get better as it settles into a groove with George pacing the way.

From stationary shooting a year ago to transition 3-pointers. From running on treadmills a year ago to using spin moves to drive baseline on one of the league's best defenses, George showed once again that he's put his injury behind him. He vowed to be better than he was prior to the devastating injury, and the early returns are proving he was spot-on in his assessment.

"I had a whole year off and then a big summer to really get better and get back to work to help this team win," George said. "Spent a lot of hours working on my game, working on myself, so it’s no surprise to me. I guess it’s just a surprise, people didn’t think I’d get off to this start considering the injury. But I’ve worked toward this."

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t come to the NBA Draft Combine with the boastful statements made by his peers, refusing to declare himself the best player in a loaded draft.

But it doesn’t mean he lacks for confidence.

Carter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects in next month’s draft, even though he doesn’t come with the heavy fanfare of what many expect to be the top three picks.

One of those top three players was Carter Jr’s teammate at Duke, Marvin Bagley III, relegating Carter Jr. to a supporting role of sorts in his lone collegiate season. He couldn’t turn college basketball upside down as a freshman; He didn’t have the opportunity to, still averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 29.1 minutes last season.

“Bagley's a phenomenal player. He came into college basketball, did what he was supposed to do,” Carter Jr. said. “My role changed a little bit but like I said, I'm a winner and I'll do what it takes to win.”

Like he said, considering it was the fifth time he patted himself on the back, describing his positive attributes. It didn’t come across as obnoxious, but more an affirmation, a reminder that his willingness to sacrifice personal glory shouldn’t overshadow his ability.

“I'm pretty versatile as a player,” Carter Jr. said. “I'd just find a way to fit into the team, buy into the system. I'm a winner. Do whatever it takes to win.”

When asked about his strengths, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s “exceptional” at rebounding and defending, certainly things teams would love to see come to fruition if he’s in their uniform next season.

Playing next to Bagley and not being the first option—or even the second when one considers Grayson Allen being on the perimeter—forced him to mature more in the little things.

“It was (an adjustment) at first,” Carter Jr. said. “I knew what I could do without scoring the ball. I did those things. I did them very exceptional. I found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

“I think it did do wonders for me. It definitely helped me out, allowed me to show I can play with great players but still maintain my own.”

If he’s around at the seventh slot, the Bulls will likely take a hard look at how he could potentially fit next to Lauri Markkanen and in the Bulls’ meeting with Carter Jr., the subject was broached.

“Great process. I was just thinking, me and him together playing on the court together would be a killer,” he said with a smile.

“I know they wanna get up and down the court more. The NBA game is changing, there's no more true centers anymore. They wanna have people who can shoot from the outside, it's something I'll have to work on through this draft process.”

An executive from a franchise in the lottery said Carter Jr’s game is more complete than Bagley’s, and that Carter Jr. could be the safer pick even if he isn’t more talented than his teammate.

It’s no surprise Carter Jr. has been told his game reminds them of Celtics big man Al Horford. Horford has helped the Celtics to a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in no small part due to his inside-outside game and ability to ably defend guards and wings on the perimeter.

Horford doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s matured into a star in his role after coming into the NBA with a pretty grown game as is. Carter Jr. has shown flashes to validate those comparisons.

“Whatever system I come to, I buy in,” Carter Jr. said. “Coaches just want to win. I want to win too. Whatever they ask me to do. If it's rebounding, blocking shots, setting picks, I'm willing to do that just to win.”

He was also told he compares to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge, two disparate players but players the Bulls have had a history with in the draft. The Bulls passed on Green in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Marquis Teague, and in Aldridge’s case, picked him second in 2007 before trading him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas.

As one can imagine, neither scenario has been suitable for framing in the Bulls’ front office, but whether they see Carter Jr. as a the next versatile big in an increasingly positionless NBA remains to be seen.

“I definitely buy into that (positionless basketball). I'm a competitor,” Carter Jr. said. “Especially on the defensive end. Working on my lateral quickness, just so I could guard guards on pick and roll actions. Offensively I didn't show much of it at Duke but I'm pretty versatile. I can bring it up the court. Can shoot it from deep, all three levels.”

His versatility has come into play off the floor as well, deftly answering questions about his mother comparing the NCAA’s lack of compensation for athletes to slavery.

Carter Jr’s mother, Kylia Carter, spoke at the Knight Comission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently and made the claim.

“The only system I have ever seen where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation … The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place is slavery and the prison system, and now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that.”

As if he needed to add context to the statement, Carter Jr. indulged the media members who asked his opinion on the matter—or at least, his opinion of his mother’s opinion.

“A lot of people thought she was saying players were slaves and coaches were slave owners,” Carter Jr. said. “Just the fact, we do go to college, we're not paid for working for someone above us and the person above us is making all the money.”

As sensible as his comment was, as direct as his mother’s statements were, he still finds himself in a position where he has to defend his mother. In some cases, teams asked him about her—but that’s not to say they disagreed with her premise.

“My mom is my mom,” Carter Jr. said. “She has her opinions and doesn't mind sharing them. In some aspects I do agree with her. In others...you'll have to ask her if you want to know more information.”

“I never thought my mom is ever wrong. But I think people do perceive her in the wrong way. Some things she does say...that's my mom. You have to ask her.”

The versatility to handle things out of his control, as well as understanding how his season at Duke prepared him for walking into an NBA locker room should be noted.

There’s no delusions of grandeur, despite his unwavering confidence.

“I'd come in and try to outwork whoever's in front of me,” Carter Jr. said. “That's the beauty of the beast. You come into a system, There's players in front of you 3-4-5 years and know what it takes.”

“I would learn those things and let the best man win.”

After historical season at Oklahoma, Trae Young ready to make immediate impact in NBA

After historical season at Oklahoma, Trae Young ready to make immediate impact in NBA

There once was a period in NBA Draft history when leading the country in scoring all but guaranteed a top-5 draft pick. All-Americans were the talk of the class, and if he could pass, too, all the entire better. And if that player was a freshman? Forget about it.

But there’s never been a time in history when a player led the country in both scoring and assists. And it was done by a freshman, all of 19 years old. And yet for all Oklahoma point guard Trae Young accomplished in 32 games, doubters remain. He’s not the consensus top pick in next month’s NBA Draft. He might not even be a top-5 pick. He could even fall out of the top 10.

And that’s because the draft has become a science, of sorts. Position-less basketball is taking over, multiple ball handlers are on the floor for a team more time than they’re not, and height/length/wingspan and the rest of those Jay Bilas buzzwords mean more than ever.

And that is Young’s shortcoming (no pun intended). We’ll get the negatives out of the way before telling you why the Sooner is built perfectly for today’s NBA. He measured just under 6-foot-2 and weighed in at 178 pounds, which he told reporters was 10 pounds heavier than he was five weeks ago. His 6-foot-3 wingpsan was the smallest of all NBA Draft Combine participants, as was his 8-inch hand length.

So it’s reasonable to understand why he isn’t a slam dunk option at the top of the draft. But there’s also a number of reasons this 6-foot-2, defensive liability could also hear his name called in the top 5. And it’s because he’s the most dynamic offensive player college basketball has maybe ever seen. And, for the third time, he’s 19 years old.

“I think I’m the best overall player in the draft," he said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine. "My main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft. My motivation is to be the best player in the NBA and that’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

Young, a five-star recruit from Norman, Okla., double-doubled in his first collegiate game. He double-doubled in his second game. In games 3-8 he scored between 28 and 43 points, all while leading unranked Oklahoma to an unlikely 7-1 record. Then December 16 happened. And over the course of the next eight games Young took college basketball by storm.

In a span of one month, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, Oklahoma went from unranked to No. 4 in the country. Young’s numbers in that eight-game stretch? 31.4 points, 11.3 assists, 4.9 made 3-pointers and 1.6 steals in better than 34 minutes per game. His lowest scoring output in that time frame was 26, and in that game he handed out 22 assists, which tied an NCAA record. He had double-doubles in seven of the eight games, and had to settle for 29 points and five assists on the road against West Virginia, one of the country’s top defenses.

Young’s Sooners went into a nosedive after that, going 4-10 to finish the regular season and putting them close to the bubble, especially after a loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. Young, the catalyst and only real option for the Sooners, posted modest 24.5 points and 7.5 assists, but wasn’t able to get a hold of the runaway train. The Sooners lost their opening round matchup to Rhode Island, a game in which Young scored 28 points.

But the roller coaster season is in the rear-view mirror. Young’s game is pretty straightforward: he’s a pick and roll nightmare for defenses, has the best range of anyone in the country and finds open shooters with ease. He’s a do-it-all offensively, and has naturally drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry.

“I love the comparisons. He’s a two-time MVP and a champion,” Youg said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young, that’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing.”

Young will make his presence felt wherever he winds up on June 21. Though he needs to continue adding weight to withstand the physical nature of the NBA (as well as an 82-game season) his skill set was built for today’s game. Though his shooting numbers came at a rather inefficient clip – 42 percent shooting, 36 percent from 3 – those will improve as he’s asked to take fewer shots at the next level.

His passing numbers should also improve; despite the 8.7 assists per game he wasn’t exactly paired up with knockdown shooters in Norman. If a team is able to pair him next to a stout defender – not unlike Isaiah Thomas playing next to Avery Bradley in Boston – his offensive game will cancel out any defensive deficiencies.

“My main focus is going to the right team,” he said. “It’s all about the fit for me and whether that’s (No.) 1 or whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and ready to make an impact and that’s what they’re going to get.”

That impact will be felt. Young opted against naming teams – he has met with the Bulls, he said – but mentioned that he has looked at teams picking in this year’s Lottery and knows the playoffs are a possibility if he enters the mix and leaves his imprint on a team in Year 1.

“There are teams in this draft that I think are one piece away, two pieces away from being a team that’s in the Lottery this year but not next year,” Young said. “There’s been some teams that I’ve met with I feel like if I’m on that team that I can make a big impact for them.”

He made that impact at Oklahoma, and despite his measurements there’s nothing to dislike about his game. He set records, carried a team for four months and dealt with adversity. That, as well as a lethal jump shot, will have him ready for the next level and whatever team selects him in six weeks.