Bulls

Should Bulls worry about Heat's new secret weapon?

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Should Bulls worry about Heat's new secret weapon?

SAN FRANCISCO - Literally across an entire country from Northern California, where the Bulls are currently licking their wounds from Monday night's shocking loss to Golden State, perhaps the most disturbing threat to the chances of Chicago returning to the NBA Finals (let alone a parade down Michigan Ave.) may have emerged Tuesday evening in South Florida: Norris Cole.

Yes, the season is still very young and it might be a stretch to anoint the rookie out of Cleveland State -- though Heat fans serenaded the diminutive point guard, technically the Bulls' original 2011 first-round draft pick, with chants of "M-V-P" -- the next big thing based on a single performance, but what Cole brings to the table can't be ignored. Already appearing to be a potential upgrade from incumbent starter Mario Chalmers, Cole's speed, athleticism, moxie, surprising maturity and maybe most importantly, ability to knock down jumpers, were the difference for the Heat in fending off the Celtics (after surrendering a huge lead) Tuesday.

With head coach Erik Spoelstra reportedly adopting elements of the University of Oregon football team's warp-speed offense, Cole -- along with rugged backup power forward Udonis Haslem -- is a perfect complement to agile, finesse big man Chris Bosh and those two monster athletes Miami has on the wing. In fact, both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James deferred to Cole late against Boston, and with no hesitation, the rookie took over ballhandling duties (matched up with the likes of defensive-minded All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo) and rained in outside jumpers, scoring 14 of his 20 points in a taut fourth quarter, fending off a furious Celtics comeback.

I first became aware of Norris the summer before his senior year at Cleveland State, when he came to Chicago for one of the Nike Skills Academies camps. While pitted against more-ballyhooed peers like Duke All-American Nolan Smith, the little-known prospect wowed the NBA scouts in attendance with his explosiveness and fearlessness, giving him some buzz heading into his final college campaign.

Cole took full advantage of the increased attention, winning Horizon League (the same conference of back-to-back national runner-up Butler, as well as Chicago's own Loyola and UIC) MVP honors and even getting a piece of the national spotlight after a ridiculous 41-point, 20-rebound, nine-assist performance in one game. Still, when draft day came around, some skeptics wondered if, after dominating mid-major competition, whether his lack of size would negate his effectiveness on the next level, if he could make the transition into a traditional point guard and could he consistently hit shots from NBA three-point range.

So far, Cole has answered all of the above and then some, and judging from his even-keeled demeanor down the stretch of his second professional game, justified the trust his star teammates showed they had in him. Now, the pecking order won't be reconfigured to put the rookie ahead of James and Wade or even Bosh, but all of a sudden, coupled with the addition of veteran Shane Battier, still one of the league's better "three-and-D" players, and the low-risk, high-reward Eddy Curry experiment, the Heat are quietly a lot more multi-faceted than a year ago.

And by the way, Bulls fans who read this and saw Cole's Tuesday-night outburst, don't be mad at the front office for not holding onto him. It's not like there's a lot of playing time behind Derrick Rose or a need at the position (maybe not in two seasons, but right now, for his role on the Bulls, C.J. Watson is better than any rookie point guard, including Cole and No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving) and privately, team management is absolutely ecstatic about skilled face-up power forward Nikola Mirotic, who is currently tearing up Spain's high-level ACB league and whom they believe can be an immediate-impact player and possible starter upon arrival in Chicago.

But Cole does affect the Bulls, assuming they have to tangle with the Heat in the playoffs again, in this way: Wade and James no longer have to be Miami's only primary ballhandler (Chalmers is more of a spot-up shooter and occasional slasher, though he's bigger than Cole) and their defense just got even faster, if a bit smaller. Not that Cole is prepared to take on the league's reigning MVP head on, but top Heat executive Pat Riley adding more ammunition -- people around the league weren't unaware of Cole, but with the lockout, no summer league and an abbreviated preseason, the former mid-major star remained an unproven commodity -- to already-loaded Miami is something that, even this early in the season, should have the Bulls' attention.

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

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USA TODAY

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

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Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."