Luka Doncic

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr: 'I'm the best player in this draft'

Michael Porter Jr. trusts his process and in his mind it’s only a matter of time before people who matter believe in it too.

The NBA’s biggest question mark strolled confidently into the combine at Quest Multisport for a late afternoon media session, declaring next month’s draft is more than a two-player showcase.

“They had me as the No. 1 player in high school and I wasn't 100 percent. I'm still the best player,” he said. “I played against all these guys, they're all great players but I'm the best player in the draft.”

Suddenly, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton heard their ears ringing at the notion, that a player who hasn’t truly been seen since the Adidas Nations showcase a year ago is better than the top stars in a star-studded class.

Porter has no swagger-dripping game-winners against the best overseas competition and certainly no tour de force campaign Ayton put together in Tucson. The lingering image to Porter’s name is a back injury that robbed him of essentially his entire freshman season at Missouri.

Three games are on his collegiate ledger, but his confidence and talent are as undeniable as the question marks surrounding him.

“Is he gifted or talented,” repeated one assistant general manager in attendance for the combine.

“He’s gifted.”

At 6-foot-10, scouts believe Porter has the greatest ability necessary to excel in a league full of multidimensional talents and transcendent stars: He can get a bucket, and get it easily.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” said Porter, mentioning Ayton and Trae Young as prospects who each had considerable time capturing the imagination of scouts and fans through the college season.

“But this is a step in my process to be the best player I can be,” Porter said. “It's a little different but I'm more ready than ever. I've been dreaming about this NBA stuff forever, I feel like I'm ready.”

Playing against Seattle-based pros like Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas and DeJounte Murray gave him a confirmation of sorts, that missing the showcase one-and-done season cannot rob him of.

Seeing Philadelphia’s “Process” fulfillers, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, emerge after early injuries held them back, along with belonging on the floor with NBA players, gives him reason to believe he’ll be next.

“It was dope, I got used to playing with those guys,” Porter Jr. said of the Seattle players. “It was cool. It was weird, those guys are in the league but I was doing my thing. I felt good on the court, it was really good for me.”

The back injury that sidelined him at Missouri had been affecting him since his sophomore year in high school after being undercut during a dunk. Instead of resting it, he kept playing and things deteriorated—not after being the consensus No. 1 player in the country, in his eyes.

“I think I got a good glimpse in high school but I feel I far surpassed that player,” Porter said. “There (were) things I didn't want to do due to the back pain. But I think I'm a much better player.”

If his on-floor polish meets his ability to negotiate the task of answering the mundane questions asked by media members probing about which teams he met with — no, the league didn’t set up anything with the Bulls for the combine — he’ll be a find for whomever drafts him.

If his medical records check out.

Jared Sullinger’s back was red-flagged before the 2012 draft, when his freshman year at Ohio State had him pegged as a top-five pick.

He slid to Boston at 21 and had serviceable years, averaging 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds his second season, before things caught up with him in 2016-17. But Sullinger was undersized and battled weight issues as a post player.

Porter Jr., said the one executive and a few others, is “gifted”.

The combine is a place used for teams to unearth details about potential draftees through the interview process more than it is the five-on-five play or the measurements everyone goes through. They have thick folders of strengths and weaknesses for players on the floor, but can’t truly get to know them until sitting down with them.

Porter is the opposite.

He knows that’s the question, and he had no problem quoting the medical minutia, using the term “minimally invasive” to describe his November surgery that had him sidelined until early March.

Because seemingly, there should be no question about his game.

“It was a step back to take three steps forward,” Porter Jr. said. “It's been challenging but I feel 100 percent. I feel better than ever actually. I feel pain free and I haven't felt that way for a long time.”

Porter Jr. doesn’t know if he’ll release his medical records to every team, even though some league executives murmured teams should have access to every player as opposed to players and agents steering matters to their advantage — or at least acting in the client’s best interest.

“I can already go, full go. In the workouts I won't be holding back at all,” he said. “When I get on the floor, they'll see for themselves that I'm 100 percent. I feel great.”

He’s in a lose-lose situation to some degree. Of course he’s going to say he feels great and teams will see how he performs at full health, and of course it’ll be met with a certain amount of skepticism.

Critics can present his two-game late-season return to Missouri as “Exhibit A”, when his game against Georgia in the SEC Tournament and showing against Florida State in the opening round of the NCAA’s didn’t show the best player in the country.

Totaling 28 points and shooting 33 and 29 percent, respectively, won’t inspire much confidence but it doesn’t seem fair in the least to use that as evidence.

“I knew I wasn't gonna put on a show or be the Mike they saw in a few months,” Porter said. “Really just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had six players on scholarship and two got injured. Just trying to do what I can.”

He declared for the draft soon after, and has been in Chicago for the past several weeks, working out at Quest Multisport to get himself right.

Porter Jr. remembers going through every step of the rehab process — the cautious stage where being careful was recommended as things healed gradually, instances where he had to build strength in his left leg, the leg he explodes from.

Then the step of trusting his body, which he didn’t do at first when he was given the green light to “push it as hard as it gets”, he said.

“It was weird, especially going back to play at Missouri,” Porter Jr. said. “Even at practice, I was trying to be different as a player. Not trying to get to the rim and dunk on anybody. I had the power in my leg, I know I can jump and dunk it but I was jumping two inches off the ground.”

He’s well past that point now, he claims, and has no problem addressing whatever concerns teams have — again, believing he’s in the upper crust of draft prospects but saying he’s not tied to having his name called first.

“At the end of the day, I don't have to go No. 1. I don't have the ego to go No. 1,” Porter Jr. said. “I just want to be in the right situation for me. Look at (Utah’s) Donovan Mitchell. But I think when I work out I'll be in that conversation, yes.”

He feels his versatility in a positionless league, businesslike approach and undeniable gifts will make some team happy and others regretful when it’s over.

He talks it.

He’ll have the chance to show he can walk it.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Where does the Addison Russell-Manny Machado trade rumor stand?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Where does the Addison Russell-Manny Machado trade rumor stand?

Connor McKnight (670 The Score), Chris Bleck (ESPN 1000) and Kevin Fishbain (The Athletic) join Kap on the panel. The Addison Russell-Manny Machado trade rumors pop up again. Has Russell’s hot play quelled the trade talk?

Plus the guys discuss if they are surprised the White Sox are this bad and whether the Bulls should move up for Luka Dončić.