What to watch for: Bulls look to maintain momentum against Oklahoma City Thunder

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USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls look to maintain momentum against Oklahoma City Thunder

The Bulls kick off a four-game road swing tonight in Oklahoma City, when they take on Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Thunder’s last five (3-2)

  • Dec. 14 — L at Nuggets: 110-102

  • Dec. 11 — L at Kings: 94-93

  • Dec. 9 — W at Jazz: 104-90

  • Dec. 8 — W at Trail Blazers: 108-96

  • Dec. 6 — W vs. Timberwolves: 139-127

Storyline(s) for each team

When the Thunder stripped their roster of its two best players — Russell Westbrook and Paul George — last offseason in trades that yielded Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Galinari and a treasure trove of draft picks, they appeared primed for the lottery — albeit nicely situated for the future. Now, at 11-14, they’re on pace for their first losing season in over a decade, but are vying for a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs, all the same. (Caveat: They’ll likely fall out of contention if they find takers for Paul, Galinari and/or Steven Adams before February’s trade deadline.)

Still, they enter this one a fun, surprising team on the heels of a four-game west coast swing. The Bulls are coming off a four-game homestand (which they finished 2-2) and their first win against an above-.500 team this season (I don’t care who played, it counts). Tonight’s matchup features two teams with crisscrossing preseason expectations and reality, but also a host of exciting talent.

Player to watch: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Gilgeous-Alexander is an absolute joy to watch, and it makes me immensely happy to see him thriving in Oklahoma City alongside Paul. In his second season and on a new team, SGA’s field goal attempts are up from 8.7 to 15.4 per, he’s playing nearly nine more minutes per game and his usage is up to from 18.3 to 24.9%. His efficiency has slipped marginally (43.4/35.1/79.7 shooting splits) and he’s not an 8-10 assist guy yet, but he has an elastic frame, is tremendous defensively and is as silky-smooth with the ball as anyone in the league:

Especially fun will be watching Gilgeous-Alexander match up with a Bulls backcourt notorious for stifling opposing guards. The Bulls will have their hands full between him, Paul and a reborn Dennis Schroeder, but Kris Dunn — who just went toe-to-toe with Paul George on Saturday — should be up for a scrap.

Matchup to watch: Pace

The Thunder live in the halfcourt with Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander as their primary ball-handlers and the slow-footed Galinari, Adams and Abdel Nader surrounding them in their starting lineup. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder run 82.4% of their plays in the halfcourt (second-highest in the NBA) and are by far the least efficient transition team in the league. For reference: The Thunder score 98.7 points per 100 transition possessions, the 29th-ranked Knicks score 110.9.

All of that’s to say, if the Thunder have their way, this game will be played at a plodding pace, while the Bulls are at their best and most efficient when they’re running off of steals and live rebounds (they score 126.4 points per 100 in transition, per Cleaning the Glass). The Bulls force the most opponent turnovers (18.4) per game in the NBA, the Thunder commit (14.2) the ninth-least. That tug-of-war will be instrumental to the result of this game, and assuredly worth watching. Something has to give.

Trends to watch

  • Zach LaVine enters tonight’s game averaging 25.4 points on 45.4% shooting from the field, 48% from three (8.2 attempts) on the road.

  • In their last 12 games, the Bulls have the second-ranked defense in the NBA (by defensive rating). Seriously.

  • The Bulls’ frontcourt has become a bit of a logjam, with three guys (Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter and Thad Young) all vying for starter-level minutes. Against the Clippers, Markkanen played 40, Carter 36 and Young 20. Versus the Hornets the night before, Markkanen played 26, Carter 24 and Young 27 (and Daniel Gafford 20). Keep an eye on this, especially if Gafford (hamstring) re-enters the rotation tonight, or Carter finds himself in foul trouble.

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.

'Young Bull' Collin Sexton might be the next piece for the young Bulls

'Young Bull' Collin Sexton might be the next piece for the young Bulls

The Bulls’ youth movement is underway and in full swing. Only the Suns and Sixers had a younger Opening Night roster, and by season’s end their four leading scorers were 24 years or younger. Bobby Portis and his 199 career games is the elder statesman of that bunch, and they’ll become more youthful with two first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft (and Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez trade candidates with expiring contracts).

Tuesday’s lottery drawing went against the Bulls, bumping down from No. 6 to 7 as the Kings moved to No. 2, they’ll still have options after the first six names go off the board. John Paxson appears set on taking the best player available when they go on the clock June 21st, and while he doesn’t exactly fit a positional need, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton could top the Bulls’ big board and give them what they “need” more than anything: talented basketball players.

A top 10 recruit in the country, Sexton committed to Alabama in November 2016, in part because of the guidance he’d receive from head coach Avery Johnson, who played 16 seasons in the NBA and led the Mavericks to an NBA Finals appearance in 2006, winning 440 games in seven seasons with Dallas and later the Nets.

That tutelage paid off, both from a collegiate perspective and for his NBA prospects. Sexton led the Crimson Tide to their first 20-win season since 2013, their first Associated Press Top 25 appearance since 2012 and their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2006. Though he was known in recruiting and SEC basketball circles, Sexton joined the national conversation in late November when he scored 40 points in a loss to Minnesota in which the Crimson Tide finished the game with three players.

Sexton’s next national headlines came in March, when he went on an absolute tear in the postseason. With his team squarely on the bubble, Sexton went the length of the floor in 4.4 seconds and hit a floater at the buzzer to beat Texas A&M – the floater accounted for two of his 27 points. The following day he dropped 31 on SEC regular season champ and rival Auburn in another upset win. Sexton blew past Virginia Tech in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 25 points on 14 shots while handing out six assists. He even managed 17 points on 50 percent shooting against juggernaut Villanova in a second round exit.

In five postseason games – Texas A&M, Auburn, Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Villanova – Sexton averaged 24.2 points on 53 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists. A blur in transition, physical at the rim and a hound defensively, the 19-year-old saved his best basketball for last and showed NBA scouts that his game is made for the next level. He said Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine that he has his coach, Johnson, to thank for that.

“He was a big part of my success because he put me in the right positions this past year,” Sexton said. “He put me in a lot of pick and rolls and stuff and put the ball in my hand and allowed me to play through adversity.

“He made me want to work that much harder because in practice he’d be on me tough. If I throw a left-hand pass, a one-hand pass, he’s on me. So he really helped me out a whole lot.”

Sexton wasn’t asked to do much perimeter shooting in his lone year at Alabama. Whereas fellow top point guards in the class like Trae Young (3.7 makes per game) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (40 percent on 57 attempts; 11 of 22 in his last 10 games) used the long ball, Sexton shot just 33.6 percent on 131 attempts. His efficiency went up during that run in March, but he’s still ball-dependent and needs to work playing off the ball.

He’s been working on his perimeter shooting and mentioned Chris Paul as someone he models his game after. Paul, of course, is sharing the floor with James Harden in Houston and has subsequently had to improve his game off the ball.

“The NBA’s evolving. You’ve got to be able to play both positions,” Sexton said of backcourt versatility. “You can’t have the ball in your hands all the time.”

Still, he averaged 19.2 points, got to the free throw line 7.6 times per game and made 44 3-pointers. He won’t struggle to score at the next level, though at just 19 years old there’s still some fine-tuning needed. He measured just 6-foot-1.5 in shoes at Thursday’s combine, but his aggressiveness, quick feet and athleticism made him one of the league’s better defenders. He’s ready to play from Day 1.

And he would on a Bulls team that likes what they have in Kris Dunn but isn’t against upgrading in that aforementioned critical area: talent. Sexton brings a surplus of it to the table, both in his playmaking ability and transition game. Plus, in an era of positionless basketball the only reason to have two ball handlers on the floor at once is because you couldn’t find a third.

And if Sexton’s attributes and skill set weren’t enough to make him the perfect fit in Chicago, he has an apt nickname: Young Bull. Sure, it’s related to his bully-style basketball at the rim and the way he pressures on defense, but during a time when the Bulls want to get younger for the future, drafting a young Bull makes too much sense as the Bulls stock up on talent to push them forward.