Shaquille Harrison

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono

Midseason expectations: Otto Porter Jr. arrived in Chicago the same night the Bulls posted a 126.3 offensive rating in a 125-120 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe that was foreshadowing for how the offense would look two days later when Porter made his Bulls debut. That was the expectation, at least, that Porter would infuse life into a stagnant Bulls offense, space the floor and give the Bulls some versatility on the defensive end. Given the Bulls were 12-42 when Porter arrived, the expectation was that he’d gain some chemistry with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen heading into the 2019-2020 season when he’d have an entire offseason to figure out a defined role.

What went right: How about 49 percent from beyond the arc? Again, it was a small sample size, but Porter connected on 39 of his 80 3-point attempts in 15 games with the Bulls. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving that nightmare of a John Wall-less Wizards offense, was exactly what he needed. Past his lights-out shooting, Porter showed a knack for distributing that he rarely showed in Washington.

Consider that Porter had 40 assists in 15 games with the Bulls, half of the 80 assists he had with the Wizards in 41 games. He had a career-high eight assists for the Bulls in a March game against the Pistons, three more than his high in Washington last season. Porter is never going to initiate offense but playing well in pick-and-roll action and keeping the ball moving around the perimeter only adds to his value.

What went wrong: Pegged as two-way player when he arrived in Chicago, Porter didn’t do all that much on the defensive end. The Bulls were 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Porter sat than when he played. It’s a small sample size, and the Bulls defense was a mess regardless of who was or wasn’t on the floor, but it’s hard to pick out any real significant defensive plays that Porter made in his 15 games.

The Stat: 111.5

We’ll disclaim here that it was just a 17-game sample size, but that’s still more than 20 percent of the season. In the 17 games between Porter’s acquisition and when he was shut down for the remainder of the season, the Bulls’ 111.5 offensive rating was ninth best in the NBA, better than teams such as the Warriors, Hawks, Sixers and Nuggets.

What’s more, their turnover percentage (13.3%, 13th), effective field goal percentage (53.0%, 11th) and offensive rebound percentage (26.1%, 15th) were all top half of the league. It was their best stretch of the season, and it was no coincidence that it came while Porter was in the lineup and healthy. Small-ish sample size? Yes. Still promising? Yes.

2019-20 Expectations: A lot. No, the Bulls didn’t give Porter that massive contract. But it’s going to stick with him as long as the Bulls are paying him. Expectations are clear: Continue to be an elite 3-point shooter and move the ball – whether it be around the perimeter or in pick-and-roll action – once the defense shifts.

Speaking of defense, Porter will be tasked with changing the narrative in Chicago. The Bulls need to improve their defense if they’re going to have any change of competing for a playoff spot and much of that responsibility will fall on Porter. He’ll routinely be guarding the opponent’s best wing and will need to hide Zach LaVine at times. It’s a tall order, but it comes with the territory while making $27 million per year.

Strotman: The Bulls have something special in Shaq Harrison

Strotman: The Bulls have something special in Shaq Harrison

Oftentimes an overlooked aspect of an NBA rebuild is the supporting cast. Franchise players are critical, and creating a championship contender means finding Hall of Fame talent. Supporting cast starters come from those late Lottery to mid-first round selections, and free agency is critical to plug holes once those young players are ready to contend.

But what about the bench? What about the situational role players that can turn a game on its head at a moment’s notice? What about that tired-but-true cliché of players doing the little things?

It’s critical. It’s necessary. The Tony Allens, the Shane Battiers and the Shaun Livingstons make good teams great, and great teams elite. And what the Bulls have in small forward Shaq Harrison is the early stages of a glue guy, a role player and a defensive star who they’d be wise to hang on to.

Wednesday’s effort against the Wizards was vintage Harrison with an added bonus. Starting for the second time in as many games, Harrison finished with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting and four steals and provided more elite defense, this time on All-Star Bradley Beal. This came two nights after a four-steal performance against Devin Booker and the Suns, the team that cut him in training camp last September.

“Defensively he’s like a mad dog chasing a meat truck,” Jim Boylen said before Wednesday’s overtime win. “But he’s playing in a system now and it’s great to see what he’s doing.”

To say that Harrison has been good on the defensive end would sell him incredibly short. His on/off numbers won’t impress because he’s usually on a second unit that features players like Cris Felicio, Antonio Blakeney and Wayne Selden that hurt his numbers.

But in a league that’s increasingly focused on offensive numbers like never before – and it becoming difficult to find relevant defensive numbers – Harrison is absolutely thriving on the other end. Though he’s averaging just 18 minutes per game, Harrison is second in the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes (3.9), first in steals per 36 minutes (2.4) and his average defensive speed of 4.50 miles per hour is the fastest in the NBA.

Harrison isn’t just a really good defensive player; he’s a great one.

“Defense is 90 percent effort, 10 percent talent,” he said after Wednesday’s game. “I guess that 10 percent shows sometimes, but it’s 90 percent effort. Anybody can go out there and play hard any day and make things happen.”

Harrison is selling himself short. He was the primary cover on Beal in the second half and overtime, when Beal went 4 of 13 for 12 points. This is the same Beal who entered Wednesday’s game averaging 30.0 points on 50 percent shooting since Feb. 9. Harrison hounded him most of the second half and made life miserable for the potential All-Pro shooting guard.

“Grit, grind, fearlessness. He’s a very smart player, especially on the defensive side,” Kris Dunn said. “He’s in the right spots but at the same time you can put him on somebody and he’s going to go out there and work hard and try to make everything difficult for that person.

“He plays hard, great feet, great hands, athletic. He a dog. When you’re a dog on the defensive end that gives you a little extra.”

Perhaps Harrison’s defensive effort has given him more confidence on the offensive end. After all, two of his steals on both Monday and Wednesday led to his own fast break buckets. That’s a free 8 points on 4 of 4 shooting. But Harrison has done even more than that.

Wednesday was his best effort of the year as a scorer, filling that third option void for the Bulls who were without Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. Harrison’s 18 points were the most he’s scored since a 20-point effort in December, though that came in the infamous 56-point loss to the Celtics.

This time around Harrison did his damage in a win and it was a continued trend of efficient basketball. Prior to Jan. 29, Harrison was shooting a team-worst 50.4 percent in the restricted area and 22 percent in the paint. Since then, he’s 60 percent in the restricted area and 45.5 percent in the paint.

He’s never going to be a shooter – though he made his second triple in his last 19 games on Wednesday – so Harrison is focusing on what he does well. He’s living in the paint and moving the basketball when he can’t get to the basket.

“I’m watching film, I’m getting in before practice, I’m getting shots up and going over schemes with the coaches and trying to play at a controlled pace,” Harrison said of his improved offensive play. “And I think it’s paying off. I’m going to continue to keep working at it and get better.”

Anything Harrison provides on that end of the floor is a bonus. He’s going to make his money and stay in the NBA because of his defense. But what the Bulls have unearthed in Harrison is a keeper. The Bulls are 25th in defense this season and while Wendell Carter Jr. will improve them next season, this is still a team built around offensive talent in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr.

Harrison gives the Bulls something they desperately need: a talented defender on the wing. He’d give the Bulls a re-do on swapping David Nwaba for Jabari Parker this past offseason, he’d solidify the Bulls’ second unit with a defensive stopper and someone who could be an offense-for-defense substitution late in games.

He has a team option for next season that the Bulls will undoubtedly pick up, but they could go a step further by extending him to a longer-term deal. He’s already 25 years old, so this isn’t as if the Bulls have found a young hidden gem. But Harrison hasn’t stopped improving since he debuted in October. The defense has only gotten better, the offense has slowed down for him and he fills a need. His ceiling is capped by his offensive limitations, but there still feels like there’s a lot of potential there.

The Bulls have their frontline talent in Markkanen and LaVine, they have an excellent supporting cast with Porter, Carter and potentially Chandler Hutchison. They’ll also add a top-8 pick in June. Harrison couldn’t complement that cast of players any better. He could be the Allen, the Battier, the Livingston as the Bulls look to build a playoff contender.

“I think as much as this league is about playoffs and great players and great personalities and all those things, this league is about improvement (and) development,” Boylen said. “And seeing an undrafted guy come in and get better and grow, he’s improved his finishing, his ball handling, his decision making, his shooting.

“When you see guys improve and grow, I don’t think there’s anything better.”

Wendell Carter shows off everything he could be for the Bulls

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Wendell Carter shows off everything he could be for the Bulls

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Wendell Carter, Jr. has spent his rookie season feeling out his role on a rebuilding Bulls team. The offensive polish and defensive potential have been apparent, but as with any but between persistent foul trouble and defensive struggles all too common for a 19-year-old rookie, he’s seen his minutes change wildly from game to game, which has affected his consistency.

Recently, Bulls coach Jim Boylen has even taken to benching Carter down the stretch in bad losses, which he claimed was meant as a learning opportunity for one of the Bulls' future cornerstones.

On Wednesday night, Carter showed the Bulls everything he could be, everything that made him their no-brainer selection with the No. 7 overall pick in June. He was one of the bright spots of the Bulls’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, their first game of a daunting five-game West Coast road trip. He led the Bulls in scoring with 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting, scoring with ease in the post and drawing contact, which he turned into a perfect 7-of-7 from the foul line.

“My shots were just going down,” Carter said after the game. “Attacked the rim when I could, drew fouls when I could. Just getting comfortable. But I don’t think about me scoring a lot of points today as much as taking a few steps forward. Feeling more comfortable taking my shots. I took my time on all my shots. Even if this next game I only have five points, I feel comfortable with the ability I have now, where I just go out there and play, especially on the offensive end.”

Carter even hit a three-pointer, his first in over two months.

Don’t expect him to turn into a stretch-five anytime soon — the low post is still his bread and butter — but Carter wouldn’t mind hitting a few more of those, to open up the rest of his game.

“That’s something I want to build on,” Carter said. “Just being more comfortable stretching out other players, and then being able to drive by once they respect it. I’ve been practicing it before and after practices, and it feels real comfortable coming off my hand, so I definitely look forward to shooting more of them.”

At times this season, Carter has been reluctant to assert himself in the offense. His usage rate is 19.7 percent, by far the lowest of the Bulls’ “core four” alongside Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. On Wednesday, he made a strong case that he should demand the ball more.

“All my teammates know I’m a very unselfish player,” Carter said. “I’m never going to take any bad shots. Just me touching the ball is going to keep me engaged throughout the game. Especially on the defensive end, if I just touch the ball, I don’t have to put it up towards the rum at all, just me touching the ball on each possession, it feels good.”

Carter’s defense is still a work in progress. Foul trouble has limited him at times, and he’s still learning the positioning and footwork that come with guarding NBA bigs.

One thing he hasn’t shied from is the physicality.

“He embraces collision and contact,” Boylen said. “He likes to hit people. He doesn’t mind people getting into him. I think it’s maybe hurt him a little bit on defense in some ways, because he wants to grab and hold and hit people. But when you’re not afraid of getting hurt and you’re not afraid of contact, the game’s easy for you. He loves it.

“[Shaquille] Harrison was a football player, [Kris] Dunn was a football player. I think Wendell would have been a pretty damn good defensive end if he’d played football.”