Collin Sexton

What to watch for: Bulls look to level season series with Cleveland Cavaliers

What to watch for: Bulls look to level season series with Cleveland Cavaliers

For the second time this season, the Bulls are set to square off with the Cavaliers, this time in Chicago. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Cavaliers’ last five games (2-3)

  • Jan. 17 — L at Grizzlies: 113-109

  • Jan. 14 — L at Clippers: 128-103

  • Jan. 13 — L at Lakers: 128-99

  • Jan. 11 — W at Nuggets: 111-103

  • Jan. 9 — W at Pistons: 115-112 (OT)

Storyline(s) to watch

This is as peak a ‘dog days of January’ NBA game as they come. For the Cavaliers (12-30), it’s the last of an absolutely grueling six-game road trip dating back to Jan. 9. For the Bulls (15-28), it’s the sixth game in nine nights. Both teams are on the back-end of back-to-backs and, of course, both were snowed out of Chicago until this morning after out-of-state games yesterday.

So, yeah. Legs will be tired. The Cavaliers are bottom-six in the league in offensive rating (25th), defensive rating (29th) and net rating (30th). The Bulls are 2-8 in their last ten and remain without a host of crucial characters in Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford. It’s a great opportunity for the Bulls to pick up a much-needed victory, but in general, this has the feel of a ‘Murphy’s Law’ type of evening for all parties involved. It's honestly kind of exciting.

Player(s) to watch: The Youngins

The Cavaliers started the season with what was expected to be one of the clankiest backcourts in the NBA — forgivable because the duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are in their sophomore and rookie seasons, respectively. 

In reality, it’s been a mixed bag. Sexton, specifically, has shown major scoring promise and grabbed the reins of the offense with gumption — by a decent margin, he leads the Cavs in shots per game (16.2) and usage rate (26.2%). His field goal percentage is up from year one and he’s shown the ability to get to the rim consistently, but his 3-point efficiency has plummeted after a sharper-shooting second half to last season and his assist-to-usage ratio is in the second percentile of point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. As a team, the Cavaliers have the highest turnover rate in the league. Still, the sparks (and certainly the assertiveness) are there.

Bulls fans have their own lovable, inefficient youngin to spur on. Coby White is coming off a solid outing in Philadelphia, and the team will need his energy in this one. Something in my gut tells me this could be a big Coby game.

Matchup to watch: Frontcourts

There’s layers to this one. In an immediate sense, the matchup between the Cavaliers’ starting frontcourt of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson against Lauri Markkanen, Luke Kornet, Thad Young and Cristiano Felicio will be key to the game. When these teams met on Oct. 30 (the Cavs won 117-111), Love (20) and Thompson (10) combined to snag 30 boards and the Cavaliers, as a team, outrebounded the Bulls 57-41. Energy on the glass has been a fulcrum point in more than a handful of Bulls’ losses this season.

And in an existential sense, the Bulls need more from Markkanen. Love and Thompson are hounds on the glass, but neither are defensive stoppers. It’s going to take more than one bounceback performance to assuage growing concern about Markkanen’s regression, but filling the stat sheet against a bottom-of-the-barrel defense running on dead legs would be a good start. As always, watch closely the frontcourt minutes distribution. Against the Sixers, Markkanen played only one minute more than Kornet (and took one fewer shot) and three less than Young.

Side note: This isn’t the worst game to be on the lookout for another ‘ticked off Kevin Love’ moment of three. For all the reasons enumerated in the first section, anything and everything is possible tonight.

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Cavaliers all-in for tank after losing LeBron James for the 2nd time

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USA TODAY

Cavaliers all-in for tank after losing LeBron James for the 2nd time

Just like Michael Jordan, LeBron James probably could make a case for being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in every year of his prime.

After all, look at what his presence meant to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took a nondescript roster to the NBA Finals in 2007 and routinely had Cleveland among the top seeds in the Eastern Conference after that. But after James left in 2010 free agency, the Cavs quickly sunk to the bottom of the league standings, earning the No. 1 overall draft pick in three of the four post-LeBron years.

When James came back, Cleveland became an instant championship contender, going to the Finals in four-straight seasons and culminating in the 2016 Cavs winning the city’s first professional sports championship since the 1964 Browns.

Now LeBron has left his beloved northeast Ohio for a second time and Cleveland has truly embraced the tank. After losing their first six games of the season, they fired the coach who led them to their lone championship, Tyronn Lue, and replaced him with assistant coach Larry Drew.

That was followed by All-Star forward Kevin Love opting for surgery to repair a toe injury, and now two other starters, George Hill and Cedi Osman are sidelined by injuries. The result? The Cavs are 1-10 and one of the early favorites to finish with the league’s worst record, which could mean a chance to draft the guy Steve Kerr called the next LeBron, Duke freshman Zion Williamson.

Seems like it’s business as usual in Cleveland under owner Dan Gilbert.

Looking at the roster, you would think the Cavs should be a lot better. Veterans Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Hill are still around, while young players Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Osman were believed to have the potential to become solid pros. Plus, the Cavs used the No. 8 overall pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade with Boston to select exciting, young point guard Collin Sexton, a player the Bulls seriously considered one pick earlier.

But apparently when you take away the best player in the league from Cleveland, all of the other players’ individual weaknesses become magnified. Korver and Smith aren’t getting those wide open looks anymore, and Thompson’s hustle plays don’t mean as much when the team is down by 20 points.

Sexton is intriguing with his speed and athleticism, but reportedly he’s rubbed some of the veteran players the wrong way with his ball-dominant style. Sexton is averaging 10.9 points on 42% shooting from the field, but only 2.1 assists in 24.7 minutes per game.

Cleveland re-signed restricted free agent Hood, hoping he would be ready to take a big jump starting in James’ vacated small forward spot, but Hood is only averaging 12.3 points on 43% shooting. Clarkson has been productive, averaging 15.2 points on 47% shooting, but overall the roster lacks consistency at both ends of the court.

Since Cleveland is not a destination for free agents without James around, the Cavs will be hoping for more lottery luck to find their next franchise player. Expect the front office to explore trades for Love & just about any other player on the roster in the coming months.

So, what will it take to beat this dysfunctional group Saturday night?

1. GET OFF TO A FAST START.  With everything that’s gone wrong in Cleveland over the first month of the season, the Cavs’ players don’t need much adversity to decide it’s not going to be their night. Running out to a 10 or 15 point lead in the opening quarter should allow the Bulls to dictate tempo for the rest of the game.

2. DOMINATE THE BOARDS. Thompson is still an effective energy player, and Nance Jr. will attack the offensive glass when he comes in, but if the Bulls can control their defensive board and get the ball out in transition they should be able to score at will against this dispirited Cleveland team.

3. SECONDARY SCORING.  Zach LaVine continues to deliver sensational play at the offensive end. He entered Friday’s action ranked 4th in the NBA in scoring at 27.4 points per game. LaVine should be able to get his points against Clarkson and JR Smith, but Fred Hoiberg would love to see Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday or even Antonio Blakeney emerge as a consistent secondary scoring option.

We hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me Saturday night for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium at 6:30 on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC sports app. Then, after the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for the Hoiberg media session, player interviews and a whole lot more on Bulls Postgame Live.

Why the Bulls should consider drafting the Young Bull, Alabama's Collin Sexton

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AP

Why the Bulls should consider drafting the Young Bull, Alabama's Collin Sexton

Take the best talent available.

It's a tired cliche used far too often in any major sport's draft. But it's also true, and especially true in a sport where only five players are on the court at one time. Position-less basketball (look, another cliche!) is at its peak, and NBA teams are trying to get their best talent together.

And when the Bulls go on the clock at No. 7 in two days' time, there's going to be a special talent waiting for them.

Collin Sexton became a national darling in March, like so many collegiate stars do on the biggest stage. First he hit a buzzer beater floater against Texas A&M that essentially put his Alabama Crimson Tide into the NCAA Tournament. Then he knocked off SEC regular season champ Auburn and went toe-to-toe with Kentucky in an SEC Tournament loss. He disposed of a Virginia Tech team in the NCAA Tournament with a 25-point effort before running into the buzz saw that was Villanova in Round 2, though his 17 points were a valiant effort.

All told Sexton averaged 24.2 points on 53 percent shooting in six postseason games. He made 48 percent of his 3-pointers, averaged 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists, and played better than 33 minutes per game.

The lightning-quick point guard was tough, physical, competitive and a bully as he fought to bring the Crimson Tide not only to the NCAA Tournament, but within a game of the second weekend.

Sexton's best attribute, without question, is his pick-and-roll action. Thanks to head coach Avery Johnson, who spent years in the NBA, Alabama deployed an offense more similar to the NBA game than most other programs. Consider that Sexton used 28.8 percent of his scoring possessions in pick-and-roll settings. He scored 180 points on 180 possessions, either blowing by a taller defender or shooting over teams that went under screens. His 0.957 PPP ranked in the 87th percentile, and the 180 possessions were more than Derrick Rose (42), Russell Westbrook (37) and John Wall (66) all had in their respective freshman seasons combined; only Rose's 0.929 PPP came close to Sexton's, but again that was on less than a quarter of the possessions Sexton had.

Sexton also got to the free throw line in bunches. His 252 attempts ranked seventh in the country, just below Trae Young's 274 attempts. Then again, Young's usage rate (38.4%, tops in the country) was higher than Sexton's 32.5% usage. Of the 54 players with a usage rate at or above 30%, Sexton's 57.5% free throw rate was fifth highest, and first among Power 6 schools. His elite quickness and speed allowed him paths to the basket where he drew contact more ofen than not, which will only make him an even better pick-and-roll player at the next level.

But he may have seeked out contact too often. For the attempts he did have, Sexton still was a below-average finisher at the rim. His 0.976 PPP on those attempts ranked in the 27th percentile. He's undersized at 6-foot-1.5 and 183 pounds, though his toughness can't be denied. Whether or not he can withstand an 82-game schedule is another story, and he'll need to be more in control at the rim. He won't get the same foul calls in the NBA that he got in Tuscaloosa.

Sexton shot 36.8 percent from deep in his first 16 games. Then he went through a serious lull, making just 23.5 percent of his 3-point attempts to finish out conference play. The postseason run allowed him to find his stroke again, as he made 48 percent of his 23 attempts. On the year he made 33.6 percent of his attempts, but he's a better shooter than those numbers suggest. His 0.942 PPP on jumpers ranked in just the 54th percentile, but he projects as someone who will have to be respected from deep, even if it isn't his best attribute (think Kemba Walker, a career 36% 3-point shooter).

Sexton's defensive numbers are essentially average across the board. His toughness and intensity can't be taught and will help him at the next level. So, too, will his 6-foot-7.5 wingspan (buzzword alert!). It does say a lot that Alabama's defense was ranked 20th in the country, per Ken Pom. Sexton certainly had a hand in that, and he should benefit from coaching at the next level on how to properly use his quick footwork and frame.

Yes, the Bulls have Kris Dunn. Yes, Dunn showed signs of life last season after getting away from rookie killer Tom Thibodeau. But the Bulls are at a time in their franchise's rebuild where they can't pass up talent to fill a need. Talent is their need. And Sexton, a five-star recruit who has already been under the tutelage of a former NBA coach for a year, has that talent. He'll inject some nastiness into the lineup - his nickname is Young Bull for the way he bullies opponents - he immediately improves the Bulls' lackluster transition game and he solidifies the Bulls' backcourt.

Dunn and Sexton can play off one another, even if it relegates the former to a Marcus Smart-type role: important, useful, just not in the spotlight. Sexton running pick-and-roll/pop with Markkanen only makes both players better, and it allows the Bulls freedom to look at a wing or a big with the 22nd pick. If the Bulls feel Sexton will be there at 10, 11 or 12, perhaps they trade with a team looking to move up for a Michael Porter Jr. or Trae Young. But Sexton's talent supersedes any positional needs for the Bulls. They can fill holes later on needs. When a talent is waiting for them to draft, they've got to take it and run.