Vincent Goodwill

Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker bond over common injury and hip-hop, and will have to share shots

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker bond over common injury and hip-hop, and will have to share shots

Who knows when the texts between Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker went from simple check-ins and bonding over grueling rehab to recruitment but LaVine wasn’t gonna let the world know if he was tampering last season.

“Umm… right after the season. I know what I’m doing,” LaVine said about when the nature of their conversations turned to the prospect of being teammates.

“I was talking him all last year, man. Talking to him, communicating with him. We’re starting to build a friendship. I talk to him every morning.”

The draftmates from the 2014 class share plenty in common, from the unfortunate timing of their 2017 ACL injuries—LaVine’s was on Feb. 3 while Parker’s second ACL tear was five days later—to their love of old-school hip-hop and LaVine’s infatuation with Parker’s classic cars.

“He’s a real cool dude. Real laid back, an old soul,” LaVine said. “We already have some connections.’’

Their biggest connection to date is the knowledge only a few men in their position can claim—coming back from a debilitating injury and the dark days that occur between surgery and a return.

“He’s had two of them, so I can’t even understand the type of struggles. Because it takes a toll on you,” LaVine said. “I went through one and it’s tough. I think we were both having career years, both averaging around 20 points a game and had some All-Star votes, stuff like that, coming into our own. Then something happens and it takes it all away from you, and it sucks.”

The glimmer in LaVine’s eye and sly smile belied the confidence he feels in his new teammate and a growing friendship among the two highest-paid Bulls along with being the guys who can get their own shots outside of the flow of the offense.

He already feels he and Parker can be two of the leaders on a young Bulls team hoping to surprise folks as the expectations have been modest at best.

“I think it’s the main guys – me, Lauri (Markkanen), Jabari, Kris (Dunn), the main guys on the team that have already established themselves as the main role guys,” LaVine said. “But we’re not going to start this thing on who is the Alpha and things like that. We’re going to need more than one Alpha on the team. That’s how teams are now.”

If Parker’s offensive capabilities are as complete as his short dossier suggests—being quick off the bounce and explosive for his size—then he, LaVine and Markkanen can play off each other to make the Bulls a versatile group on offense.

Usually, though, someone has to take a backseat, especially as Markkanen is expected to take more of a central role this season.

“There’s going to be some games where one of us doesn’t get as many shots as we did the game before or get as many points as we did the game before, but I think as long as we win we’ll be OK,” LaVine said.

But if the results aren’t coming as fast and furious as young teams expect it to, then comes the questioning of the sacrifices that will be made.

“Then something’s got to change. That’s always the point,” LaVine said. “I think we’ll be alright though. I think we’re all unselfish, we all understand each other’s game and where the ball is supposed to go. I think we’ll be OK. We’ll figure out through preseason.”

Playing with pace is objective number one for Fred Hoiberg in this new abbreviated preseason, where the regular season begins about 10 days earlier than usual, so getting the players on the same page will feel like a crash course compared to previous years.

“It’s probably not going to be one guy,” Hoiberg said. “You say this is the player we’re going to go to tonight. It’s hopefully based on getting the ball up the floor quickly and attacking the defense early. We have a lot of guys that are capable of putting up big numbers. You’ve got guys that have averaged 20 points in this league.”

Hoiberg said it’s a trust factor that will come into play, and while many believe the head coach must establish the pecking order, LaVine feels the players must decide amongst themselves who’ll eat first and eat most.

“I mean the coaches are going to make their opinions and assumptions, but I feel like it comes from the players as well,” LaVine said. “We’re the ones playing, we understand each other’s games.”

And of course, that comes with more accountability on the floor with each other when things go awry. LaVine said he’s prepared and hopes his growing friendships around the team can aid in that area.

“I’ve never been one of the most vocal guys,” LaVine said. “I’ve always tried to lead by example and hard work, things like that, but to become a better leader you have to show your voice, so I’ve been trying to do that a bit more.”

Wendell Carter Jr's blessing in disguise could be big-time gain for Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr's blessing in disguise could be big-time gain for Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr. sat stoically at the dais Monday, being introduced with Chandler Hutchison as Chicago Bulls first-round picks at the Advocate Center, adding more talent to a growing trough of youth in a rebuild many hope will take a sizeable step this fall.

His cool demeanor shouldn’t be interpreted as an affront, Carter Jr. seemingly keeps a calm face in new situations in the wake of new challenges.

It was likely the same controlled expression he displayed a year ago when like many, he watched future teammate Marvin Bagley III reclassify to become college eligible for the next season and selected Duke as his pit stop before hitting the NBA.

“Humanly, you didn't want it to happen,” Carter Jr. said some time after going through the battery of media interviews following his introduction.

In a moment’s time, Carter Jr. went from incoming focal point for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to afterthought, from future shoo-in as a top pick to the risk of being lost in the shadow of a more heralded teammate.

Carter Jr. stayed quiet, true to his roots despite being a “spoiled” only child, by his admission. His mother Kylia, a former college basketball player who along with his father Wendell Sr. guided the steps of her child, didn’t know if it was a roadblock or blessing in disguise.

“My initial reaction, I was pissed. And it wasn't pissed because Marvin was coming. To be honest, I felt like that was information that was kept from us,” Kylia Carter said. “It felt (shady), it felt like my baby was gonna get kicked to the curb. I felt like all of that.”

While it took Kylia some time to get over it, Wendell Sr. was more pragmatic. It’s there where the balance of the Carter family is on display.

“I tell people. People make promises they can't keep. It didn't bother me,” Wendell Sr. said. “I was concerned because I felt like we were lied to. ‘Oh, Wendell's gonna be the man’ and then the rug was pulled from under us.”

The father had a simple solution for his son: “Just go play ball.”

Wendell Jr’s path was carefully cultivated and nurtured by his parents, who’ll move from Atlanta to Chicago to help with his transition to NBA life. His adjustment to the unforeseen circumstances at Duke wasn’t unlike his adjustment to high school, where he was enrolled in Pace Academy in Buckhead, northeast Atlanta.

Pace Academy has been recognized as one of the top private schools in the country, and the Carters selected it because of its challenging curriculum, amongst other reasons.

Carter Sr. said he didn’t even know who the basketball coach was, and Carter Jr. was already nationally ranked, making it an unorthodox move on its face.

“That made a huge difference,” Carter Sr. said. “He was around people, those people were wealthy. Not rich but wealthy.”

Making Wendell Jr. develop comfort while being uncomfortable was a lesson he learned early and he excelled academically and athletically, weighing a scholarship offer from Harvard before deciding on Duke.

“We would drop him off at school, (other) cars pulling up would be Ferrari’s,” Carter Sr. said. “These folks got money. Long money. When they saw him, they treated him like he wasn't nothing special. That environment helped him a whole lot.”

“He was another student. He felt he was able to grow, nobody tugging at him.”

At Pace, he found out he could easily stand out as well as he could blend into a diverse environment.

At Duke, he was ready to blossom on his own so admittedly, it wasn’t the easiest adjustment although it was embedded in his behavioral DNA. The practices where Bagley and Carter Jr were matched up against each other was likely tougher than the early games.

“We were definitely going at each other,” Carter Jr. said. “Hard. Very hard. But only to make each other better. It wasn't 'I don't like you, I hate that you're here so I'm going at your neck.' We both wanted to get better.”

On the floor, though, he wasn’t performing like a future lottery pick. Wendell Jr. attributed it to the “freshman 15” pounds he added before getting in better shape.

“At the beginning when you watch Wendell's games, he was engaged but we could tell something wasn't all good,” Kylia Carter said. “(He) didn't look all in, you didn't look like you were giving your all. You were there, but you weren't really there.”

A trip back to Atlanta for a visit a few games into the season got him back on track, embracing the minutia and intangibles that helped Duke become a favorite headed into March Madness.

“He told us it bothered him at first. But he said I gotta make it work,” Kylia Carter said. “You're gonna do all the stuff you already know how to do. And you're gonna do it at an extreme level. Everything but score. Do everything else to aid.”

“Everybody knows you can score. So let Marvin have all the damn points. They're throwing him the ball, the offense is geared around him. Why are you beating your head against the wall.”

She pauses to choose her words carefully, paraphrasing her advice to her son.

“Defense is not the strong suit of this team. Fill that void.”

The early start never dropped Carter Jr. from draft boards, firmly planted in the top 10 all season as a steady complement to Bagley—an aspect that appeared to be the greatest compliment to his maturing game.

The blessing suddenly was undisguised, with Kylia facetiously saying “thanks, Coach K.”

“As the games got tougher, his game got better,” she said. “Because those things they needed in those tough things were things he was so comfortable doing. They needed rebounds, rim protection. They needed ball screens.”

Many times over the last few days, John Paxson, Gar Forman and head coach Fred Hoiberg mentioned Carter Jr.’s character off the floor and on it, made note of the verticality he’s used to block several shots last season.

Unknowingly, they were praising mom’s teachings, honed from her playing days.

“It's still basketball. Still X's and O's. Same rules, it's just the players are different,” Kylia said. “We know all the X's and O's. That's what we women know.”

As for the blocked shots, that came from Kylia’s athletic gifts as a volleyball player.

“We played volleyball. That's the way we learned verticality is volleyball,” she said, before demonstrating. “You go straight up. Two hands, straight up. If you go straight up you won't get called for a foul. He would lean, be tempted. All of that is temptation, and anticipation.”

The temptation to command more of Duke’s offense when it had so many first-round draft picks settled down as the anticipation of getting to the NBA grew closer and closer.

“People think I took a backseat to Marvin. I don't think that's the right terminology. It's just that I sacrificed,” Wendell Jr. said. “People think I bowed down to him or allowed him to take the leadership role. But in my opinion I did what I had to in order to win.”

The incoming rookie said there wasn’t much he learned about himself in the process, and his per-game averages of 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks showed he didn’t have much back-down in his game for anybody, let alone a teammate.

The intangibles have long been noted as a reason many believe he can be a nice frontcourt sidekick to Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ burgeoning second-year forward.

“I think it was a positive,” Carter Jr. said. “I'm coming into a situation where I'm gonna be playing with other great players again.”

As for the blessing in disguise, Kylia Carter has yet to give Krzyzewski her true feelings from promises that weren’t kept. But it’s coming.

“We have not had our conversation but we will. We almost went there with him when we did our exit interview,” she said. “But he'll come around to a Bulls game and I'll get the chance.”

Like the Bulls, mom is letting it build.

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

It wasn’t an exciting night at the Advocate Center but it was a successful one in the eyes of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.

And a telling one, from their inaction as they stayed put to select Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison with their two first round picks.

They’re not looking to press the fast-forward button on this methodical process, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves that they’re nowhere near ready to embrace.

But perhaps, it was necessary.

Trade offers were around, and the Bulls were enamored with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in addition to their interest in Mohamed Bamba. But the price of swapping picks, along with giving up the 22nd spot and a future first-rounder was too rich for the Bulls, according to sources.

“We’re always looking and probing for opportunity. How close we got, we don’t know,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “We looked into some things. We thought it was more than a six-player draft. And Wendell is a guy we’ve been high on for quite awhile.”

They believe they’ve opted for prudence instead of panic on a night where bold, confident steps are expected.

After a painful march to the end of an unsatisfying season and dropping a spot in the lottery, a trade would’ve been a do-good when many felt the Bulls should’ve been at the top of the draft order.

After all, so much was made of their scouts and staff spending so much time during the year to assess the top talent—nobody wanted to see all that unspoken promise result in a mid-lottery seventh selection.

“We feel we’re in a situation at this time of our rebuild that to give up assets, important draft assets to move up a spot or two, that didn’t make sense to us and the way we’re planning,” Paxson said. “We continue to talk about being patient and disciplined in how we make decisions.”

One can look at it as the Bulls being unwilling to embrace what comes with taking a top-four talent—especially with Jackson being viewed as a long play as opposed to an instant impact prospect—the word “playoffs” would’ve been swirling all around Madison and Wood for the next several months.

Or one can view it as a sober approach, that Paxson and Forman know there’s far too many unanswered questions about their core, that a slightly better-than-expected regular season wasn’t going to seduce them down a costly road.

They don’t seem to be completely sold on Kris Dunn as the unequivocal point guard of the future, unafraid to take Trae Young if he fell into their lap.

Zach LaVine didn’t play to his expectations, the franchise’s expectations and he didn’t look comfortable playing with the Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, in part because they didn’t have the opportunity.

He enters restricted free agency and nobody will know how much the Bulls value him until they put an initial offer in front of him, likely on the eve of free agency a week from now.

As much as the last 12 months were about hitting the reset button and trading Jimmy Butler to put themselves in this spot, the months of October to April didn’t shed as much light as many anticipated—hence the talk from Paxson about patience and not being in a rush with the rebuild right now.

Because honestly, there’s nothing to rush—the last thing this distrusting fan base wants to hear.

Carter can be exactly what the Bulls need—some ways immediately, other ways in time provided the roster construction is competent and not done at a snail’s pace, the biggest fear from this jaded fan base.

Having to sacrifice at Duke once Bagley III reclassified to get to college, his offensive game didn’t develop as much as it could have—and it’s not like he’ll be featured early on in Chicago with Markkanen and LaVine penciled in as main scoring options.

“As much as you wanna talk about the game getting away from bigs, big guys and their ability to score, the way the game’s going,” Paxson said. “He wants to set screens for guys. This is a young man who’s gonna fit into the team concept that we want to have. And Chandler will do the same.”

Carter had to submerge his talents and gifts during the one season he had to showcase it for the greater good. It speaks to a certain emotional maturity the 19-year old has, a sober approach to look at the bigger picture while still making the most of his not-so-plentiful opportunities.

“Wendell is still a young guy,” Paxson said. “Very few draft picks are finished product, especially in our game where we’re drafting so young. He’s got a lot of room to grow. Defensively as a rim protector, he’ll do really well. Verticality at the rim, he’s been taught really well. Smart kid, we think he’s gonna be really good.”

Hutchison isn’t the high-upside talent Carter is, having played four years of college ball, improving each year to the point that the Bulls supposedly made him a promise very early on in the draft process.

Their unwillingness to give up the 22nd pick, whether they like the perception or not, stems from their belief Hutchison can be an impact player.

“We like Chandler a lot,” Paxson said. “We scouted him early, scouted him often. He knew we liked him. He addresses a position of need. We had debates on wings and players at his position. His ability to rebound and take it off the board, those things are really valuable, especially the way we want to play.”

Paxson alluded to tense discussions leading to the draft, where one can surmise there was serious consideration about not just going with the status quo—their reported interest in point guard Collin Sexton should be proof of that—and that should come as a positive sign for Bulls fans, who feel the front office is satisfied with a slow-rolling, low-accountability approach since they aren’t saddling themselves with high expectations.

To paraphrase Forman, the Bulls are “still building up our asset base” and subtly saying they expect to be in a similar position next June.

Soberly saying winning and contention isn’t on the horizon can be refreshing to hear, but they walk a fine line of expressing too much comfort in things staying the way they are.