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Why Hamidou Diallo could be the splash the Bulls are looking for

Why Hamidou Diallo could be the splash the Bulls are looking for

A mini-NBA Combine broke out on March 24 in Memphis. It came in the form of a Sweet 16 showdown between Kentucky and UCLA. The two teams squared off in a matchup littered with NBA talent, including six players who may hear their names called in the first round of next month's draft.

Kentucky was led by De'Aaron Fox's career-high 39 points, while SEC Player of the Year Malik Monk added 21 points. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky's interior presence, was quiet in 37 minutes, as was his counterpart in UCLA's Ike Anigbogu. Likely top-3 pick Lonzo Ball scored 10 points and power forward T.J. Leaf added 17 points and seven rebounds in the Bruins' 86-75 loss.

While the NBA showcase played out that Friday evening - Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe is a potential second round pick, and UCLA's Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have pro futures - a quiet, slender 6-foot-5 guard sat tucked away on the end of the Wildcats bench. Five-star prospect Hamidou Diallo didn't play in that Sweet 16 matchup. He didn't play before it, either, and he watched from the bench during the Wildcats' Elite Eight loss to North Carolina two days later.

His story is as unique as his game. He's the NBA Draft's biggest mystery, and maybe its most intriguing. And if he pans out the way some believe he can, he could also wind up being one of the draft's best.

"I think everybody has a different route to the NBA," he said at last week's combine. "We can sit here and talk about a lot of peoples's route to the NBA, but it's whatever best suits them."

Diallo graduated high school early in the spring of 2016, which made him eligible for the 2017 NBA Draft. He enrolled at Putnam Science Academy, a prep school in Connecticut. He played his last game in late December before enrolling at Kentucky for the spring semester, choosing the Wildcats over Connecticut. In January he practiced and traveled with the team but chose not to play.

Diallo said his decision not to play was to allow his Kentucky teammates to maintain the chemistry that had pushed them to a 13-2 record by the time he enrolled, but it also helped the 18-year-old maintain the same mystique that has NBA executives so intrigued now.

Still, his decision to attend Kentucky had its benefits. He was able to work with a coaching staff that annually churns out the most NBA prospects of any school in the country and practice against some of the top pro prospects.

"He's extremely strong. He's a great defender," said Fox, expected to be a top-10 pick next month. "When he was guarding us, when people always ask, 'What was harder: practices or the games?' It was the practices for me."

Added teammate Isaiah Briscoe: "He's a competitor. We're from the same area (New York). You've got to have that heart and competitive spirit to be on the court. He's a competitor. He's got that fight in him. That'll carry on at the next level."

Fox admitted that Diallo will need to shoot better from beyond the arc - he was a 26 percent 3-point shooter at Putnam - at the next level. Whether he improved on his outside jumper in his three months at Kentucky was not on display during last week's NBA Draft Combine.

Diallo, who has not hired an agent and could still return to Lexington, opted against performing any of the shooting drills or participating in the 5-on-5 games. Again, he created mystique about his game. Much of that decision came from his head coach, John Calipari, who has seen 21 of his players drafted in the first round since 2010.

"Just being advised by one of the people that's really been through it more than anybody else, what that guy says I have to trust 100 percent," Diallo said. "Because I feel like he's been through more than anyone I know."

The decision seems to have worked, at least for now. Diallo's strong showing in the physical testing drills and his meetings with 10 teams - including the Bulls - have allowed his draft stock to rise. It's not unlike the rise of Thon Maker, who became the first preps-to-pro jump since the NBA instituted its one-and-done rule. Maker was considered a borderline first-round talent, also sat out the shooting drills and scrimmages at the combine, and wound up going No. 7 to Milwaukee last June following impressive workouts.

"They don't know. Well, don't show them," Calipari said, speaking to a group of reporters on Thursday. "They all like you without watching you? Good. The more you don't play, the more they like you, the more they're impressed."

Calipari's latest recruiting class features six players ranked in Rivals' top 31, five of whom are listed as five-star recruits. They could also still add Mo Bamba, the No. 2 player in the class, and CBT ranked the Wildcats No. 5 in their preseason top 25 rankings.

Diallo would almost certainly improve his draft stock in a 2018 class that figures to be less top-heavy than the loaded 2017 draft, and the allure of playing for a national title contender (instead of watching one from the bench) is enticing.

"I got a text from almost all the guys today telling me, 'Hey, man, go out there and kill it. Do it for your family,'" Diallo said Thursday at the Combine. "I love those (incoming recruits) like my brothers. At the end of the day I have to do what's right for me and my family."

That decision is looming. While Diallo has until June 12 to withdraw his name from the draft and return to Kentucky, he'll likely receive feedback on where he might go long before then thanks to more team interviews and workouts. If he does keep his name in the draft, there's a team that plays nearly 400 miles north that should consider taking the mystery man who hasn't played a game in nearly five months.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman's quote about the Bulls wanting to get "younger and more athletic" in the wake of trading Derrick Rose last season hasn't exactly panned out. The Bulls signed aging veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, drafted a 22-year-old Denzel Valentine and only have Cameron Payne to show for an uninspiring haul at the trade deadline in February.

Assuming Forman's vision to "start changing the culture of the team," as he said in June, remains, Diallo checks just about every box. He won't turn 19 until the end of July, making him one of the youngest players in this year's class (and the second youngest first-round prospect, behind UCLA's Anigbogu). Diallo's athleticism speaks for itself. His 44.5-inch vertical was the second highest recorded jump in NBA Combine history, his 2.79-second shuttle run was second fastest and his 3/4 court sprint was third fastest. His "worst" test was his lane agility, and he finished 10th fastest among the 54 participants.

Diallo is far from a finished product, and has said he's open to spending time in the D-League to work on his game. While the Bulls certainly could use immediate help, that strategy has landed them Valentine and Doug McDermott in two of the previous three drafts. In between they nabbed Bobby Portis, who fell to No. 22 despite being a potential lottery pick.

Diallo even checks the box on a Bulls need; assuming Rondo, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio return, the Bulls' biggest need will be at wing behind Jimmy Butler and Wade (a surplus of point guards makes that position a slightly smaller need, despite the talent deficiency there).

There's a boom-or-bust feel to Diallo's NBA prospects, but most of that stems from there being so little footage of him. The Bulls clearly liked him enough to sit him down, and it seems likely he'll have a workout in Chicago. If he's there at No. 16, and the Bulls really are looking to get younger and more athletic and make a real splash, there isn't a better realistic package of the two in this class than the mystery man from Lexington.

"I can see my dreams getting closer and closer," he said. "I'm just trying to stay level headed and be a great listener. Follow your heart and do what you want to do at the end of the day."

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.