Bulls

Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

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Sam: Keep an eye on Young's Brooks, Smith

Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith couldn't be happier. Even with their peers around the city -- including some at their school -- receiving much more attention for the colleges recruiting them and their status as basketball prospects, the two seniors at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the West Loop are content.

That's because the duo recognizes that even if they don't achieve stardom in their final prep basketball campaign, they're still in great shape. Brooks, a 6-foot-5 undersized power forward with tremendous athleticism, and Smith, a versatile, 6-foot-2 combo guard, could have waited out the recruiting process until the spring and with the benefit of an expected successful season for Young, perennially one of the top hoops programs in the city and state, accepted scholarships to programs on the lower rungs of Division I college basketball.

Instead, the pair made a decision to attend the University of Chicago, one of the nation's top academic schools, which plays on the Division III level and is hardly renowned a basketball powerhouse. They made a choice for their future.

"Really, I look at I have going for me right now and I had some Division I offers, but really because I'm such a good student, too," said Brooks on why he committed to attend the Hyde Park university. "I feel that University of Chicago gives me the best opportunity to take advantage of both my skills on the classroom and my skills on the court."

Chimed in Smith: "Pretty much education. It's a great opportunity. I couldn't pass it up."

Earlier this month at the United Center, Smith and Brooks joined their teammates -- including sophomore center Jahlil Okafor, one of the nation's top prospects in his class -- at a Nike-sponsored pep rally for some of the better high school teams in the city, including Simeon Career Academy, Derrick Rose's alma mater. However, even among the likes of Okafor and Simeon junior superstar Jabari Parker, arguably the best high school player in the country, the unheralded Whitney Young duo stood out.

Brooks boasts a 4.4 grade-point average (on a weighted scale, as Young, the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama, offers an array of Advanced Placement courses, giving students college credits before they even hit campus) and a 31 score on the ACT, while Brooks has a 4.3 GPA -- "Smith beat me on that," he joked -- and a gaudy 32 ACT. In other words, even if they couldn't play basketball, these are two kids who could attend their prestigious future university. But don't think they're merely two kids who happen to suit up for high-level squad like Whitney Young and can't actually play.

Although neither is a starter -- playing behind the likes of Okafor, junior big man Tommy Hamilton, who is ranked among the top 50 players in his class nationally, Paul White, a 6-foot-8 talent regarded as one of the top 50 sophomores in the country, and fellow seniors Jermaine Morgan (a post player and fall Colorado State signee) and UIC-bound sharpshooter Gabriel Snider, is nothing to be ashamed of -- neither is an unfamiliar name to observers of Chicago high school basketball. Watch a Whitney Young game and you'll see two valuable contributors who could be putting up gaudy statistics for an average high school team in the city, as well as recruits who were pursued by numerous college programs.

"I had Florida A&M, Northern Illinois, annual Division II title contender Northern Kentucky and we had some Ivy League looks, but they never really offered us, so this was the best opportunity," said Smith.

Added Brooks: "I had Southern Illinois and UIC, too."

So it's not as if college coaches weren't aware of their abilities, as they often excelled on the summer AAU circuit, where their individual skills could be evaluated outside of the context of Young's loaded team. (Full disclosure: I've personally seen both of them play in outside events and for their team since they were sophomores and upon seeing them at University of Chicago's exhibition game at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I simply assumed they were recruits invited by UIC, instead of potential "U of C" recruits.)

"Phenomenal kids. Two kids who are unbelievable hard workers in the classroom and who take that hard work and transition it to the court also," gushed a Young assistant coach. "When you look at where they came from and where they are now, they're classic stories of achievers and really, that's what the Whitney Young model is, achieving and wanting to be the best."

At the University of Chicago, Brooks and Smith have a chance to be the team's focal points, something they missed out on in high school. That played a part in their decisions, but more importantly, armed with a degree from the institution, the odds that they'll be successful in life are greater than even their most talented counterparts.

"Well, of course you've got people around you doing things and you kind of want to do what they're doing, too," said Brooks. "So, of course that was something, but I still feel like the University of Chicago's a great opportunity. I'm not really losing out on anything.

But before giving them too much credit as trend-setters, it should be noted that the move isn't entirely unprecedented. University of Chicago has a freshman point guard on its roster, Royce Muskeyvalley, who in addition to having an excellent name, was the teammate of co-Illinois Mr. Basketball Chasson Randle, currently a starting guard at Stanford (not exactly a shabby academic institution itself) while attending Rock Island High School, the 2011 state champions.

"When we visited down there, we stayed with Royce and he's a really cool guy. He was telling us it's a great opportunity," said Smith of his future teammate, who also received recruiting interest at the Division I level. "He was in the same position as us. We had DI looks, but the University of Chicago, you can't pass something like that up."

Do yourself a favor sometime over the next five years: Head over to Hyde Park (easy for me to say, living in the neighborhood) and check out a University of Chicago home game. Competing in one of the top conferences in Division III, the level of basketball might surprise you, especially with a boost from at least three Division I-caliber athletes. Better yet, with NBA basketball not set to start until Christmas, watch a Whitney Young game -- I'd recommend their Dec. 23 tilt against Simeon at UIC -- to see two young men who may not be headliners on the floor just yet, but are definitely a refreshing example of what athletics should be about.

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

It wasn’t an exciting night at the Advocate Center but it was a successful one in the eyes of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.

And a telling one, from their inaction as they stayed put to select Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison with their two first round picks.

They’re not looking to press the fast-forward button on this methodical process, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves that they’re nowhere near ready to embrace.

But perhaps, it was necessary.

Trade offers were around, and the Bulls were enamored with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in addition to their interest in Mohamed Bamba. But the price of swapping picks, along with giving up the 22nd spot and a future first-rounder was too rich for the Bulls, according to sources.

“We’re always looking and probing for opportunity. How close we got, we don’t know,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “We looked into some things. We thought it was more than a six-player draft. And Wendell is a guy we’ve been high on for quite awhile.”

They believe they’ve opted for prudence instead of panic on a night where bold, confident steps are expected.

After a painful march to the end of an unsatisfying season and dropping a spot in the lottery, a trade would’ve been a do-good when many felt the Bulls should’ve been at the top of the draft order.

After all, so much was made of their scouts and staff spending so much time during the year to assess the top talent—nobody wanted to see all that unspoken promise result in a mid-lottery seventh selection.

“We feel we’re in a situation at this time of our rebuild that to give up assets, important draft assets to move up a spot or two, that didn’t make sense to us and the way we’re planning,” Paxson said. “We continue to talk about being patient and disciplined in how we make decisions.”

One can look at it as the Bulls being unwilling to embrace what comes with taking a top-four talent—especially with Jackson being viewed as a long play as opposed to an instant impact prospect—the word “playoffs” would’ve been swirling all around Madison and Wood for the next several months.

Or one can view it as a sober approach, that Paxson and Forman know there’s far too many unanswered questions about their core, that a slightly better-than-expected regular season wasn’t going to seduce them down a costly road.

They don’t seem to be completely sold on Kris Dunn as the unequivocal point guard of the future, unafraid to take Trae Young if he fell into their lap.

Zach LaVine didn’t play to his expectations, the franchise’s expectations and he didn’t look comfortable playing with the Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, in part because they didn’t have the opportunity.

He enters restricted free agency and nobody will know how much the Bulls value him until they put an initial offer in front of him, likely on the eve of free agency a week from now.

As much as the last 12 months were about hitting the reset button and trading Jimmy Butler to put themselves in this spot, the months of October to April didn’t shed as much light as many anticipated—hence the talk from Paxson about patience and not being in a rush with the rebuild right now.

Because honestly, there’s nothing to rush—the last thing this distrusting fan base wants to hear.

Carter can be exactly what the Bulls need—some ways immediately, other ways in time provided the roster construction is competent and not done at a snail’s pace, the biggest fear from this jaded fan base.

Having to sacrifice at Duke once Bagley III reclassified to get to college, his offensive game didn’t develop as much as it could have—and it’s not like he’ll be featured early on in Chicago with Markkanen and LaVine penciled in as main scoring options.

“As much as you wanna talk about the game getting away from bigs, big guys and their ability to score, the way the game’s going,” Paxson said. “He wants to set screens for guys. This is a young man who’s gonna fit into the team concept that we want to have. And Chandler will do the same.”

Carter had to submerge his talents and gifts during the one season he had to showcase it for the greater good. It speaks to a certain emotional maturity the 19-year old has, a sober approach to look at the bigger picture while still making the most of his not-so-plentiful opportunities.

“Wendell is still a young guy,” Paxson said. “Very few draft picks are finished product, especially in our game where we’re drafting so young. He’s got a lot of room to grow. Defensively as a rim protector, he’ll do really well. Verticality at the rim, he’s been taught really well. Smart kid, we think he’s gonna be really good.”

Hutchison isn’t the high-upside talent Carter is, having played four years of college ball, improving each year to the point that the Bulls supposedly made him a promise very early on in the draft process.

Their unwillingness to give up the 22nd pick, whether they like the perception or not, stems from their belief Hutchison can be an impact player.

“We like Chandler a lot,” Paxson said. “We scouted him early, scouted him often. He knew we liked him. He addresses a position of need. We had debates on wings and players at his position. His ability to rebound and take it off the board, those things are really valuable, especially the way we want to play.”

Paxson alluded to tense discussions leading to the draft, where one can surmise there was serious consideration about not just going with the status quo—their reported interest in point guard Collin Sexton should be proof of that—and that should come as a positive sign for Bulls fans, who feel the front office is satisfied with a slow-rolling, low-accountability approach since they aren’t saddling themselves with high expectations.

To paraphrase Forman, the Bulls are “still building up our asset base” and subtly saying they expect to be in a similar position next June.

Soberly saying winning and contention isn’t on the horizon can be refreshing to hear, but they walk a fine line of expressing too much comfort in things staying the way they are.

 

The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls had a decision to make Thursday night at No. 7.

Staring them in the face was Michael Porter Jr., undoubtedly the biggest risk in the draft but also one of the most talented, and a fan favorite to boot. Both Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox presented options who would fill needs on the wing for a Bulls team desperate for a perimeter threat. The team was also reportedly interested in Alabama point guard Collin Sexton during the pre-draft process, and the potential to trade up for a Luka Doncic or Mo Bamba at 3 or 4 was on the table.

Instead the Bulls opted against going high upside, high risk. They passed on filling one of their glaring needs. They didn’t mortgage future assets to move up in a draft they felt was already deep enough. What the Bulls did on Thursday night in selecting Duke center Wendell Carter was make clear one aspect of their rebuild: Lauri Markkanen is the face of the franchise and the man they’re constructing this roster around.

Everything that makes the 19-year-old Carter a great prospect is what detractors felt might hold Markkanen back at the next level. Carter was built to thrive in the paint, an energetic center who posted a better offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the floor) than Texas’ Mo Bamba and his 7-foot-10 wingspan. Carter was one of the best players in the country at scoring off those offensive rebounds, and he did all this while playing alongside Marvin Bagley, the No. 2 pick to Sacramento and the ACC’s leading rebounder.

But Carter is more than just a young Tristan Thompson. Though he rarely had to use it on a Duke team littered with perimeter threats, Carter showed a solid touch in making 41 percent of his 46 3-point attempts. He looks comfortable at 15 to 17 feet, and he passed well from those areas, too. That shooting will come as an added bonus; Carter was the anchor a Duke defense that transformed to zone midway through the season, and the Blue Devils defense was nearly 6 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the floor.

It's not surprising that the Bulls were reportedly interested in moving up with centers Jaren Jackson and Bamba on the table, more defensive-minded complements to Markkanen, and not Doncic or Porter. It felt as though the Bulls were drafting at 7 not only to grab the best player available, but to maximize Markkanen's potential.

What Carter will be asked to do, at least in the early going with this roster’s makeup – is much of what he was asked to do at Duke. He played second fiddle in the frontcourt to Bagley, who led the Blue Devils in all major offensive categories and won ACC Player of the Year. Carter posted modest 13.5-point and 9.0-rebound averages while doing the dirty work on defense. His 7.6 percent block rate (percentage of shot attempts he blocked while on the court) was impressive considering how often Duke played zone.

“The young man sacrificed a lot in order to be a good teammate. A lot of it speaks to who he is,” Forman said. “We think in really studying his game is, if you look long-term, is a guy that can fit with Lauri and obviously Lauri is a huge part of what we’re trying to build here."

The Bulls are rolling the dice that Markkanen can be the face of franchise. A year ago LaVine was far and away the core piece of the Jimmy Butler trade, and that was while he was rehabbing from ACL surgery. Markkanen was a question mark and a project, and Kris Dunn was a 23-year-old rookie who posted awful numbers in Minnesota. Questions about LaVine's future in Chicago with restricted free agency this summer now linger, and Dunn is going on 24 years old with 50 career starts.

It's Markkanen's spotlight, and the Bulls know it. He showed he was for real as a rookie; he was not, however, Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons, a can't-miss, sure-fire star. Yes, he joined LeBron James and Dario Saric as the only members of the 1,000-point, 500-rebound, 140-3-pointer club last year. He put up shooting numbers for a 7-footer matched only by Hall of Fame center Dirk Nowitzki. Questions persist on whether he can make a leap to stardom, but adding pieces like Carter to complement him and cover some weaknesses are a step in that direction.

"You hope you draft players that become stars," Paxson said. "We believe that last year, in drafting Lauri, he has that potential. He has a long way to go, but we believe he has that potential."

That could be part of the reason the Bulls opted against moving up in the draft, like Dallas did in dealing No. 5 and a future first-round pick to grab Luka Doncic at No. 3. Paxson and Forman both hinted at the Bulls being in a state of the rebuild where giving up future assets to attain something greater didn't provide a positive net worth. They're happy and comfortable with where they stand at this stage in the rebuild, with Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and an enormous amount of cap space.

Now they can add Carter and No. 22 pick Chandler Hutchison to that list. The 6-foot-7 Boise State forward was yet another complementary piece to the roster. Like Carter, Hutchison projects as a high floor, low(er) ceiling player. Hutchinson is a four-year senior compared to Carter being a year removed from high school, but the two are similar. Hutchison will provide a physical presence on the wing the Bulls have lacked, and he can cover defensive weaknesses of players like Denzel Valentine, LaVine and even Markkanen.

"We feel these two players complement the team and the roster that we have very well," Paxson said. "One year later we feel like we’ve added five really good young core pieces to build and that's important to us. We’re excited about the future, the direction we’re headed."

The Bulls didn’t need to roll the dice with their 7th pick on Thursday night. They rolled the dice with the same selection one year ago and hit on it. Taking Carter midway through the Lottery is a complement and a compliment to what the Bulls believe Markkanen is and what he will be for a franchise looking to get back in contention.

It's a lot to ask for a 21-year-old Finnish stretch forward. But superstars win in the NBA and the Bulls believe they have one budding at the power forward position. Thursday's decision to play it safe and draft a complementary piece in Carter, one who played a role in college he'll be asked to play in Chicago, only cements that belief.