Why Jarrett Allen's athleticism, upside could trump Bulls' draft needs


Why Jarrett Allen's athleticism, upside could trump Bulls' draft needs

When the Bulls made – and hit on – their Joakim Noah selection in the 2007 NBA Draft it solidified the center position. Though free agent Ben Wallace patrolled the middle during Noah’s rookie season, and Drew Gooden did so for the early portion of Noah’s second season, the Florida product wound up grabbing the reins in the middle of the 2008-09 season and remained entrenched as the starter through 2015.

In that span he made two All-Star appearances, was named First Team All-NBA and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.

The Bulls rotated backups behind Noah in those years, bringing in players such as Brad Miller, Aaron Gray, Omer Asik and Nazr Mohammed to patrol the second unit’s defense. When Noah fell out of favor under Fred Hoiberg before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury two season ago, the Bulls filled that void with Pau Gasol, who had played alongside Noah in his first season (under Tom Thibodeau) at power forward. The Bulls moved on from Noah last year, dealing Derrick Rose to New York for a package that included Robin Lopez. Noah signed with the Knicks to replace Lopez.

Lopez was his usual solid self in his first season with the Bulls. He averaged 10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 28.0 minutes, and perhaps most importantly appeared in 81 games (and all six in the postseason). Cristiano Felicio also continued his development into a serviceable backup, playing in 61 games.

Since drafting Noah in 2007 the Bulls have selected and kept 10 first-round draft choices. Of those, two were point guards (Rose, Teague), three were shooting guards (Butler, Valentine, McDermott), two were small forwards (Snell, Johnson) and three were power forwards (Gibson, Mirotic, Portis).

The Bulls are one of six teams that have not drafted one of the 45 centers in the first round since 2008 (DAL, LAC, LAL, NYK, ORL are the others). Noah’s presence allowed the Bulls to bypass many of those bigs, and even entering this offseason it’s likely Felicio, a restricted free agent, returns.

But at some point taking the best player available – something Gar Forman said he’ll do  – must trump considering needs for the Bulls. For a team void on young talent, and even more so on athleticism, instant impact is no longer the most valuable attribute a player can have. Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine, both accomplished seniors, were seen as players who could contribute to a team competing for the postseason, while Portis fell into the Bulls’ lap at No. 22 as a draft-day steal. Tony Snell was a junior and Jimmy Butler a senior, with freshman Marquis Teague sandwiched in between a franchise looking to compete.

The Bulls have needs in multiple areas: point guard and depth on the wing top the list. But if the right player becomes available – even a center – the Bulls need to consider it. Adding the best players regardless of position or age isn’t a sign of a rebuild or not playing to win; it’s a sign of improving your young talent pool, and the Bulls need that perhaps more than any other franchise.

Enter Jarrett Allen. The 6-foot-11 freshman didn’t become a household name in his lone season at Texas as the Longhorns struggled to an abysmal 11-22 record under Shaka Smart. But the five-star product from Austin put together an impressive campaign, averaging 13.4 points and 8.5 rebounds; his numbers impressively spiked to 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in Big 12 play.

Against the six Big 12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament, Allen averaged 15.6 points on 61 percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds in 13 games. His play improved as the competition did in his first and only season of college ball. In two meetings against Kansas he double-doubled in each game and combined to tally 42 points and 30 rebounds, including a whopping 18 offensive boards by himself.

Allen tested well at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. His vertical leap (35.5 inches), ¾ sprint (3.21 seconds) and shuttle run (3.00 seconds) all were first among centers, and his 7-foot-5 ¼ wingspan was fourth among all players. For what it’s worth (very little), he also had the longest hands (9.5 inches). It was rare to see a potential Lottery pick show up at the Combine, but Allen wanted to prove himself, which he did.

"It was important for me to come to show I'm more athletic than people think," he said.

Allen’s offensive game is raw – he admitted as much at the Combine – but his impact around the rim at both ends is impressive. All but 20 of his field goals came in the paint, although he converted those at a nearly 64 percent clip. In conference play he grabbed 3.2 offensive rebounds per game, and on the year ranked in the 80th percentile nationally scoring off offensive rebounds, per Synergy Sports Technology. A combination of strong hands and a soft touch at the rim made him a terror in the paint. He also runs the floor well, averaging 1.18 points per possession in transition, which ranked in the 73rd percentile nationally, per Synergy.

Allen has the length and intangibles that make him capable of becoming a great rim protector and defender. He blocked 2.0 shots per 40 minutes and committed just 2.3 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play. Both his block percentage and fouls-committed-per-40 were among the best in the Big 12.

He said at the Combine that a misconception of his game is that he’s not tough, and if he wants to make an immediate contribution in the NBA he’ll need to prove that. He's working out at IMG Academy during the pre--draft process, and something his coaches are stressing to him is lateral movement to help defend pick-and-rolls against guards.

"The first two years I'm going to have to be a defensive guy and bring energy," he said. "My offensive game isn't going to be as polished as it's going to be, so that's the only way I'm going to get on the court."

Allen won’t be the only center the Bulls could consider at No. 16. Creighton’s Justin Patton, Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and Wake Forest’s John Collins are all worthy of a look. But Allen has that combination of athleticism, production and upside (he won’t turn 20 until April) that the Bulls have been missing in recent years.

He would join a successful group of Longhorns to declare for the draft after their freshman seasons. The most recent include Kevin Durant, Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Myles Turner. While all those players' successes don't guarantee anything for Allen, the program has a track record of churning out NBA talent.

The draft could fall a number of ways, and no one knows for certain what the Bulls’ big board looks like. But if Allen is around when the Bulls are on the clock it could produce a cornerstone at the position the Bulls haven’t had since Noah. Having Lopez around for two seasons would allow Fred Hoiberg to work Allen in slowly, and though Felicio is just 24 he projects as a career backup (albeit a productive one with talent). Allen met with the Bulls in Chicago during the Combine and said he thinks he'll go somewhere between picks 10 and 20.

Center may not be a position of need for the Bulls, but adding the best talent with significant upside is. Allen checks the boxes there and could bring a new - and sorely needed - skill set to the Windy City.

Denzel Valentine: Injury and surgery could be 'blessing in disguise'


Denzel Valentine: Injury and surgery could be 'blessing in disguise'

The Bulls are dealing with a lot of injuries to their core players, including Denzel Valentine who will likely miss the season after he gets surgery on his ankle. On Tuesday, Valentine opened up about the surgery at practice.

1. Be Thankful for Health

As you Bulls fans carve up your Thanksgiving turkey, use that as a reminder to say an extra prayer for Denzel Valentine who goes under the knife again later this week. This will be Valentine’s third surgery in three seasons. He had work done on the same left ankle following his rookie season in which he sprained the ankle twice and then the knee procedure at the end of last year. But after listening to the third-year guard speak at the Advocate Center on Tuesday, you sensed relief and optimism beyond the disappointment.

“It’s going to take 4-6 months to get back right, but when I come back it’s going to be a brand new ankle," Valentine said. "I’ve been pretty much having ankle issues ever since my rookie year. I think I’m going to be fine. I think I’m going to feel better.

"I think I’m going to take my game to another level because now I’m going to be more stable in my ankle. I’ll have a whole year to recover and get my body right, which I haven’t gotten to do since college, really. I’ve just been on the go, on the go, on the go... Could be a blessing in disguise, that’s how I’ve got to look at it.”

2. Decision Made  

Valentine admitted he could have come back and played this year, but evaluating how things were going he felt like he didn’t want to get on the court with nagging pain. Dr. Bob Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was the one to make the latest diagnosis “ongoing ankle instability” that requires surgery.

The Bulls said a full recovery is expected and believe Valentine will participate in normal offseason training, likely meaning the season is lost but Valentine is looking at the positives.  

“I know it’s going to suck, but it is what it is. I’ve jut got to attack rehab and try to come back the best that I can," Valentine said. "I’m fully confident that I will come back and be 100 percent. Who knows if I’ve ever been 100 percent this whole time in my NBA career. I’m really excited about coming back and being 100 percent.

3. Moving Forward

Not that it makes the process any easier, but Valentine has been able to talk to people and players that have been through this surgery and come back full strength. For reference, Dr. Bob Anderson is the same surgeon who performed Steph Curry’s ankle surgery in May, 2011, another guard who had been battling ankle injuries his entire career. Maybe this is why Valentine remains confident about the road ahead.

“I talked to a couple players and they’ve told me that they’ve got the surgery and came back better. So, they were glad I was getting it,” Valentine said.

And once he’s able to return to the sidelines, that’s where the 14th pick of the 2016 draft said he’ll be.

“Definitely, as much as I can I plan to be around the team. Still trying to lead, talk to the guys and be a part of the team. I don’t want to alienate myself," Valentine said. "I still want to feel part of the team and try to be positive and encourage the guys.”  

Zion, Reddish, RJ and Little: How the projected top 2019 NBA prospects would fit with the Bulls


Zion, Reddish, RJ and Little: How the projected top 2019 NBA prospects would fit with the Bulls

Best player available or need?

In seven months the Bulls will begin Year 3 of their rebuild. They'll do so with a core that consists of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter and Kris Dunn. It could include Bobby Portis.

As far as the draft is concerned, the Bulls have drafted for BPA and for need during their rebuild.

Lauri Markkanen was the best player left on the board even though the Bulls had 25-year-old Nikola Mirotic and 22-year-old Portis (pre-fight) on the roster and a clear need on the wing after trading Jimmy Butler.

A year later the Bulls drafted for need. Desperate for some kind of interior presence to go alongside Markkanen, they drafted Carter over some sexier picks like Collin Sexton or Kevin Knox. It's been less than 20 games but the Bulls' drafting on need appears to have worked out fine, just as drafting best player available worked out in 2017.

So where will they go in 2019? The front court is secured with Markkanen and Carter, and Zach LaVine is both locked in financially and skillfully as the shooting guard of the future. Dunn has some work to do to make believers out of his skeptics, while Portis (and Chandler Hutchison) won't really factor into what the Bulls do next June.

The good news is the Bulls likely won't have to make a decision on draft night. Though plenty can change between now and then, the 2019 NBA Draft appears to be flush with wings at the top, where the 4-13 Bulls should be drafting. Here's a look at five of the top draft prospects and how they'd fit in to the Bulls rebuild.

Zion Williamson, PF, Duke

That being said, of course we'll begin with the one player who wouldn't fill a need. But when considering a talent such as Williamson, throw everything out the window. He's the most unique prospect we've seen since Anthony Davis in 2012, and his combination of size and athleticism is unparalleled: He's 291 pounds with a 40-inch vertical. He's ferocious at the rim, an apt ball handler and distributor and has the length and footwork to defend multiple positions. He doesn't have much in the way of an outside shot yet because he hasn't needed one at any level he's played at. That will come in time, though it doesn't project to ever be a strong suit.

So, where does he fit in with the Bulls? It's tough to say. His best position in the NBA will be at power forward, with shooters surrounding him in a similar manner to how LeBron James plays. Markkanen is, of course, cemented in at power forward, which would push Williamson to small forward with Carter at center. Markkanen could move to the 5 in a smaller lineup, and in reality Williamson is adaptable to any non-point guard spot on the floor. Fred Hoiberg would have fun mixing and matching the three players, while Williamson's drive-and-kick ability would entirely open up the offense for Zach LaVine on the wing.

The point is, if you don't have a spot for Williamson, make one and worry about the fit later. He's a winning player and the early favorite to go first overall.

R.J. Barrett, SG, Duke

If not for Williamson, we'd all be oohing and aahing over Barrett. The *other* top recruit dominating for the Blue Devils, Barrett is a do-it-all wing with massive upside. He's averaging 24.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists in his freshman season. While he isn't the athlete Williamson is, he's constantly making the right play and is methodical in his decision making. He's got the perfect frame, looks smooth on his perimeter jump shot and is crafty working his way toward the basket.

He'd be a no-brainer for the Bulls. Too often the ball stops in Fred Hoiberg's offense, and it's one area where Barrett would make the Bulls light years better. He'd slot in at small forward - just the other wing position opposite LaVine - and use his playmaking to space the floor for outside shooters. His 6-foot-10 wingspan and instinctive play gives him great defensive potential. He can be the jack-of-all-trades player Jimmy Butler was in Chicago.

Cam Reddish, SG, Duke

The Bulls need shooting. It's been that way for a while now, and despite offensive stars in LaVine and Markkanen the Bulls still have as few outside threats as any roster in the NBA. That's where Reddish comes in. The third of Duke's three freshman phenoms, Reddish is shooting better than 43 percent from deep in the early season and is punishing defenses that chase him off the line. He's going to score at the next level, and his ability to guard both backcourt positions would give the Bulls flexibility.

He'd plug in perfectly next to LaVine. Having two wings who attack the basket and play well in pick-and-roll action will space the floor for Markkanen and Carter, and he'd immediately be the Bulls' best outside shooter. 

Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina

Someone not from Duke! But we'll stay in the state of North Carolina and look at perhaps the player with the highest defensive upside in the class. With Markkanen and LaVine leading the charge, there's an argument to be made that the Bulls already have their 1-2 scoring punch of the future. That's not to say Little can't score, but drafting with an eye toward defense could make sense for the Bulls. Little is a relentless defender with excellent instincts. He isn't a terrific outside shooter but has an excellent first step and isn't afraid to go inside. He's more athleticism than polish at this point, but there's potential for him on offense.

He'd be an excellent complement to LaVine and Markkanen offensively, and give the Bulls a lockdown wing defender. He's also sneaky-good in the post, which would add another dimension the Bulls offense doesn't really have right from in any of its wings.

Quentin Grimes, PG, Kansas

Is Dunn the point guard of the future? We'll have a much clearer answer in April after he (and Markkanen and Portis) has returned from his knee sprain and plays out the year with the rest of the young core. But the verdict is still out on whether Dunn can lead a contender at the point or is simply a Marcus Smart-type player: an important defender who can score in spurts but is better utilized off the bench in an 82-game season.

If the Bulls believe he's the latter, Grimes could be the former. He's not a true point guard, and many believe he'll play shooting guard at the next level. But he's a do-it-all type player that would finally give the Bulls an outside threat at the point for the first time since Nate Robinson in 2012. That's where the league is trending at a rapid pace, and he's a plus defender with that 6-foot-5 frame and 6-foot-7 wing span.