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NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.

Observations: Grimy Dunn, Bad Bulls/Worse Knicks, Good Markkanen

Observations: Grimy Dunn, Bad Bulls/Worse Knicks, Good Markkanen

The Bulls are grimy—and that’s an affectionate term considering the way the Bulls have found comfort in playing in close games recently. Kris Dunn might be the Bull best equipped to play in such conditions, so it’s no surprise he found Lauri Markkanen streaking downcourt for a dunk when neither team could get anything close to a basket in the last four minutes or so.

It was also Dunn who made the ensuing free throws with seven seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead at 90-87.

“I just told the team to keep grinding, neither team is making baskets, somebody is gonna make one,” Dunn said. “Don't let it be them. That's what I tried to preach to them.”

Dunn is garnering kudos for his offensive play in recent weeks but make no mistake, this is the kid who won defensive player of the year twice in the Big East at Providence, so this ugly game took him back to his roots.

“Yeah, that's Big East play,” Dunn said. “When I was a freshman, we had Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh, all those teams. You had to grind it out. There would be times where you don't score for four minutes, because both teams are playing that good of defense.”

Dunn had been Mr. Fourth Quarter recently but missed all five of his shots this time around. It didn’t deter him from staying with it mentally, and the team is still following him.

His stat line of 17 points, five rebounds and five assists won’t go in the annals, but it is another step in terms of his leadership.

“They look at me when it comes to the fourth quarter, they feel I could be a leader, the coaching staff does too,” Dunn said. “I'm taking it as a challenge. I'm not backing down from nobody. I'm gonna just try to make the right plays, make the right reads, and see what happens. I'm not gonna hang my head, sometimes it's gonna go bad. It ain't gonna be perfect, but don't hang your head. Know that you're out there battling.”

The Knicks? The Knicks!: Looking at the Knicks’ record, it’s no wonder why they’re closer to the .500 mark than a few games above. Their set offense in the final quarter—and honestly throughout the game, looked atrocious. Rookie Frank Ntilikina will grow into a good NBA player from these eyes and veteran Jarrett Jack has been a stabilizing force at point guard while the rookie learns.

But one would think an offense drawn up by Jeff Hornacek would look…something other than offensive. Yes, the Bulls dragged them into the muck of fatigue they played in due to an emotional win over the Bucks just 24 hours before, but there seemed to be very little in getting easy looks for Kristaps Porzingis in terms of set plays. He was nine of 22 from the field after a strong start and didn’t get much help from the coaching staff.

The Knicks’ scoring decreased in every quarter as they put up just 35 points in the second half, shooting an abysmal 34 percent. Scorer Tim Hardaway Jr’s injury has made things difficult, but Hornacek played Michael Beasley just five minutes in the second half Wednesday night.

The same Beasley who scored 23 and then 32 against the Boston Celtics on national TV a week ago was the same Beasley who played 13 minutes the next night after dazzling against the Celtics.

Perhaps this observation is being too tough on Hornacek, considering point guard and shooting guard aren’t exactly plentiful with scorers on the roster. But when you draw up a play that looks like this when you’re down three and can tie it, there’s something wrong all the way around.

Ugh.

Markkanen: Just when you think Markkanen is ready to head for an extended slump, he breaks out in a big enough way. The rookie made the big play for the dunk to break the drought, and then stepped in front of Doug McDermott’s pass to Courtney Lee on the next possession to trigger the fast break.

Not to mention the clean swat on Porzingis’ turnaround jumper that was erroneously called a foul from the refs. Yes, he was five for 15, but he was a team-high plus-15 while on the floor so that has to count for something.

It started in the season opener against Toronto when he closed out on Serge Ibaka as well as any seven-foot rookie most have seen, and his defensive awareness has continued to surprise ever since.

“He's shown a great ability to move his feet, to stay in front of his man with great anticipation. He's a smart defender, he understands rotations,” Hoiberg said. “It's not easy to grasp, it's such a different concept than the college game with all the rotations that happens at the NBA level. The big thing with Lauri is his IQ and it's helping him on the defensive end of the floor.”

Ugly Bulls too: Let’s not let the Bulls off the hook here, either. Their offense was a far cry from what they’ve displayed in the last 10 games or so, with two surges providing the majority of their scoring.

It was an 18-6 run after they trailed 46-31 midway in the second quarter that brought the game to a workable deficit, and a quick third quarter spurt from Dunn (11 points) that kept the Knicks from running away and hiding after they jumped out to a 59-49 lead in the opening moments.

“Just pick up my energy. My energy was pretty down in the first quarter, first half. I tried to pick up my energy,” Dunn said of the third quarter.

Nikola Mirotic only found four shots, hitting two. Bobby Portis played just 13 minutes and went three for eight. The Bulls were beat, they were dragging all the way to 41 percent shooting and 36 percent from 3-point range.

They just made sure they dragged the Knicks just a little bit more.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls battle Kristaps and the Knicks

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls battle Kristaps and the Knicks

Home sweet home! The Bulls are back at the United Center following a difficult three-game road trip and host Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks. NBC Sports Chicago has you covered all night, beginning with Pregame Live at 6:30!

1. Back to back

The Bulls are facing a difficult task with a back-to-back against the Bucks and Knicks. They haven't played at home in a week, and they are just 1-5 on the second half of back-to-backs this season. However, the good news is that one win came at home against the Knicks back in December, as win No. 2 of their seven-game win streak. Depth will be key against a New York team that played Christmas Day (in the morning) and should be well rested despite the travel.

2. Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis looked like an MVP candidate during the season's first month but has cooled off some since. That's not to say he isn't dangerous, and he's still one of the game's great young players. Here's why. At 7-foot-3 he's the tallest player in the NBA, and he's averaging 24.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 3-pointers per game. The league has never seen those types of numbers combined, and he's still just 22 years old. He was good - not great - against the Bulls earlier this month, going for 23 points on 10-for-25 shooting. But don't expect the Unicorn to have two poor games against this Bulls defense. He can and will go off at a moment's notice.

3. Kris Dunn

Through the highs and the lows he's going to be the focal point of the rebuild until Zach LaVine comes back. Dunn has had some seriously impressive stretches, and then nights like he had against the Celtics. And in a point-guard driven league he's going to face solid tests each time he steps on the floor. This time it'll come in the form of Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina. The 6-foot-5 French point guard has a 7-foot wingspan and has really proven his worth on the defensive end. He doesn't start for New York (because of course Jarrett Jack needs those minutes) but Ntilikina is averaging 21.6 minutes over his last five games. Jeff Hornacek will insert at times to slow Dunn. Another day, another good test to see how far Dunn has come. Ntilikina had 10 points, seven assists and a steal in 21 minutes back on Dec. 9.