Zion Williamson

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Ja Morant

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Ja Morant

Success at the point guard position has never been more critical than it is in today’s NBA. Consider that in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the top 30 leading scorers in each season included 12, 8 and 10 point guards. That was an incredible jump from just a decade earlier, when 3, 2 and 3 point guards were included in the top 30 leading scorers in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

A point guard has won MVP each of the last four seasons (Curry twice, Westbrook, Harden) after the position combined to win three MVPs from 1956 to 2014 (if you’d like to count Allen Iverson or Magic Johnson as point guards, feel free to do so. The point remains).

Of the last three draft classes, 2, 3 and 2 point guards were selected in the top-5. The three years prior to that? 1, 1 and 0 point guards went in the top-5.

The strategy is becoming clear: Find your franchise point guard. And ironically it’s the one aspect of the Bulls rebuild that they haven’t aced in terms of unearthing future talent. They traded for and developed a shooting guard in Zach LaVine. They used their expiring contracts and abundant cap space to acquire a small forward in Otto Porter. They drafted their frontcourt in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter.

And yet the point guard position remains a mystery. Lucky for them, there’s an answer in this year’s draft class.

Two years ago, Ja Morant was an unranked point guard from South Carolina starting as a freshman for a Murray State team that had gone 16-17 the previous year. A lot has happened since then for Morant, who arrived on the national scene after a dominant sophomore season in which he led the country in assists, became the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists, and earned All-American honors for a 28-win Racers team that won an NCAA Tournament game. Here’s how he did it:

Morant was far and away the best transition player in basketball last season. He led the country with 268 transition points, 53 more than anyone else. In fact, the difference from Morant to No. 2 was the same as No. 2 to No. 29 in total transition points.

But it wasn’t just volume scoring; Morant’s 1.202 points per possession on transition attempts ranked 30th in the country. He was absolutely elite as a transition scorer, using his lightning-quick speed to get out on the break and his athletic 6-foot-3 frame to finish at the rim.

But wait, there’s more. Morant also assisted on 93 transition field goals to his teammates. That was nearly 29 percent of his season total, and it doesn’t include passes he made that led to free throw attempts. Morant will enter the NBA as one of the best transition threats in the league. Those instincts, combined with his speed and agility, will convert seamlessly. And in an NBA that just topped 100.0 possessions per game for the first time since 1989, Morant is arriving at the perfect time.

Keeping with the trend of NBA-relatable traits, Morant put together an excellent season in pick-and-roll on an incredibly high volume, averaging 0.776 points per possession in 254 actions. Morant hovered near the likes of Trae Young (0.881 PPP on 335 possessions) and De’Aaron Fox (0.852 on 162 possessions) in this category. Give Morant a capable rim-runner or pick-and-pop shooter (in the Bulls’ case, they have both) and it’ll only make him more explosive. Consider that Morant did all this with defenses keying in on him every night.

Morant did most of his damage in these two areas. That’s good news for his NBA prospects – though admittedly he’ll need to work heavily on his 3-point shot. He’s going to score plenty; Russell Westbrook has averaged 26.3 points per game over the last five seasons and shot 30.9% from beyond the arc.

Guess what else Morant has in common with Westbrook? An assist rate that’ll make you blush. His assist rate of 51.4 percent led the country and he did so on a 36.0 usage rate. Morant distributed in every way imaginable and made it look easy – and anyone knocking his lack of competition should Google what he did against Alabama, Auburn, Marquette and Florida State this past season. Whether it came in transition, off pick and roll or on isolation dribble-drives, Morant kept the ball moving with crisp passes and elite court vision. He’s going to have a direct and immediate impact on whichever offense he joins.

Morant has the frame to become a solid defender at the position but still needs work on that end. He’s a gambler – which was fine against the likes of Austin Peay and UT Martin – and his effort has come into question at times. Athleticism does not equal defense (ask Zach LaVine) but Morant has a chance to improve on that end because of his measurables.

He’d be a no-brainer pick for the Bulls at No. 2. We’ve written ad nauseum about why the Kris Dunn experiment is over, and any veteran free agent signing would be a stopgap. Instead, the Bulls have a chance to find their future at the position. Yes, a Moran-LaVine pairing in the backcourt isn’t ideal defensively. The Bulls don’t have the luxury of waiting around as they enter Year 3 of the rebuild. If there’s a franchise point guard on the board, you grab him.

He'd force Jim Boylen’s hand into picking up the pace offensively, and his pick-and-roll prowess plays right into the hands of Markkanen and Carter. Add in 3-point wings in LaVine and Porter and you’ve got a match made in heaven. There isn’t a better fit for any team in the Lottery than Morant and the Bulls.

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Zion Williamson

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft: What the Bulls would get in Zion Williamson

It’s difficult to determine what’s more incredible about Duke freshman Zion Williamson: The amount of hype, headlines and hyperbole he’s received since he entered the national spotlight 5 months ago, or the fact that he’s deserving of every single ounce of it.

He’s the best NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003 and the latest can’t-miss prospect since Anthony Davis. He’d be the first pick in just about any NBA Draft in the history of the league. What he does on a basketball court shouldn’t be possible, let alone for a player of his size. He’s part Russell Westbrook, part Draymond Green and part LeBron. There’s no argument against it, and any one that you do hear is someone simply arguing to argue: Williamson is a generational talent that will change the course of one team’s franchise in June.

He’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1992. He’s Tim Duncan in 1997. He’s LeBron in 2003. He’s Anthony Davis in 2011. He’s as can’t-miss as any of those foundational pieces who were selected first overall without any second guessing. Here’s why:

Let’s begin with his frame. Williamson, who officially declared for the draft on Monday evening, is listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds. Both figures seem accurate, and seeing as he’s likely to skip on the Combine in May, we won’t get any official measurements. He’ll turn 19 in July but has the frame on a 27-year-old middle linebacker. He’s chiseled, has tree trunks for legs and the broadest of shoulders. He’ll enter the NBA as the second heaviest player in the league behind Philadelphia’s Boban Marjanovic, who has a listed 290 pounds on a 7-foot-3 body.

And yet, Williamson might be the most athletic player in the league next season. You’ve seen him jump out of the gym on dunks, race down the floor in transition and time up blocks on the defensive end. He moves incredibly well both laterally and straight-lined and a 6-foot-10 wingspan only adds to his unbelievable dimensions.

But can he play? Oh, this is going to be fun. Williamson’s raw numbers were stunning. In 33 games, he averaged 22.6 points on 68 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in 30.0 minutes. Where to begin? He’s the first player in NCAA history to average 22 points and shoot 68 percent from the field; in fact, his closest competition was Blake Griffin, who as a sophomore averaged 22.7 points on 65.4 percent shooting. The last player to reach his rebound/block/steal combination? Nerlens Noel in 2013.

But let’s dig a little on these scoring numbers. Williamson was an absolute freak of nature inside. While it’s true that some of those possessions came on fast-break dunks, consider that Williamson averaged 1.502 points per possession around the basket, per Synergy Sports. What’s even crazier? Williamson broke the database and did so on 219 possessions. Only nine players in the country even reached 200 possessions. And the only other player in its database to reach 1.45 points per possession was 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, who went first overall last year to Phoenix. The combination of efficiency and volume was unprecedented.

Don’t let the 2.1 assists fool you. Williamson has elite court vision, constantly passing out of double teams and drives when entire defenses would come crashing down on him. He’s only going to get better in a more spaced NBA setting while finding more talented shooters at the pro level – Duke was 328th of 351 teams in 3-point field goal percentage last year (30.8%). Take out Williamson’s numbers and he was passing to players averaging a combined 30.1% from deep. He’s an outstanding passer. He’ll have no trouble averaging 4-5 assists out of the gate.

That being said, the outside shot is a concern. Williamson only shot 33.8% from beyond the arc and was just 3 of 8 on midrange attempts. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons have shown it’s possible to dominate without a jump shot in today’s 3-point-heavy era but it’s something Williamson will at least need to improve on. We’ll add here that he was pretty left-hand dominant, but that’s typical for an 18-year-old freshman. The good news is a jump shot and off-hand dribble are teachable. Everything that makes Williamson great is not.

If Williamson weren’t an historically good offensive talent, his defense would make him a top-10 pick anyway. Williamson’s instincts and timing, combined with his absurd athleticism, made him one of the best defenders in the country. He’s only 6-foot-7 but will have no trouble playing power forward – or center, for that matter – in the NBA. His 285-pound frame will be able to withstand the banging inside – think Draymond Green – and his footwork and quick side-to-side movement will allow him to switch out onto the perimeter.

The Bulls need a point guard. But don’t overthink it. The Bulls, like 29 other teams, could use a generational talent. While it’s true that drafting Williamson would put one of Wendell Carter Jr. or Otto Porter – with Williamson playing the 3 – on the bench, it’d be a minuscule sacrifice for what Williamson would bring to the Bulls.

They’d be able to run the offense through him and instead of Zach LaVine drawing away attention to free up Lauri Markkanen or vice versa, it’d be Williamson attracting attention to give the Bulls two open lethal scoring options. And that’s before considering Porter as a 3-point threat. He’d inject life into a Bulls defense that has been among the league’s worst over the last two seasons, and a Williamson-Carter combination in the frontcourt has serious potential.

The Bulls, like 29 other teams, would sprint to the podium and draft Williamson. The Bulls would instantly be contenders for a playoff spot and, depending on what happens this offseason, a top-4 spot. Williamson would also make Chicago a more attractive landing spot for free agents, specifically a point guard who would like to be surrounded by Williamson, Markkanen, LaVine and Porter.

He’s a franchise-altering talent. The moment he shakes Adam Silver’s hand on June 20th he’ll be one of the top 25 players in basketball. He’s everything a team is looking for and he’s 18 years old. He’s got a high floor and a higher ceiling. He’s the no-brainer first overall pick for every reason.

The only debate would be whether Williamson would be allowed to wear No. 1 in Chicago.

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NBA Buzz: Just how good will Zion Williamson be in the NBA?

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Just how good will Zion Williamson be in the NBA?

Now that Zion Williamson’s college career is in the books with an Elite Eight loss to Michigan State, the focus has immediately shifted to his potential impact at the NBA level.

Sure, Williamson needs to improve his outside shot and we really don’t know which position he’s best suited for at the pro level, but anyone who watched him play at Duke can tell you the 6-foot-7, 285 pound forward is a special talent.

An athlete that big isn’t supposed to be so skilled, so fast and so agile, but Williamson answered all the doubters with an amazing season at Duke. The raw numbers are impressive enough, 22.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks on 68 percent shooting from the field.

Williamson also brings some intangible qualities that may prove to be even more important in the long run. His passion for the game, competitiveness and ability to inspire his teammates and fans with freakishly athletic plays will immediately lift the prospects for whichever lottery team is lucky enough to land the No. 1 pick. Plus, he’ll be a huge hit for the marketing department with his outgoing personality.

In terms of potential impact on the court, Williamson is probably the best prospect to come into the league since Chicago native Anthony Davis in 2012. Davis has battled injuries throughout his career, and only led the Pelicans to the playoffs twice in his seven seasons. But he is unquestionably one of the league’s top talents, and will be highly sought after on the trade market this summer.

A report on Monday indicated USA basketball will explore the possibility of adding Williamson to its 12 man squad for the World Cup this summer, a rare honor for a collegiate player. And, with LeBron James telling the Athletic he won’t be part of that team while keeping his options open for the 2020 Olympics, the possible inclusion of Williamson is symbolic of the young star’s place in the future NBA pecking order.

Now, let’s be clear. I don’t think Williamson will have a LeBron or Kevin Durant type impact on the sport. James is the greatest small forward in NBA history and Durant is one of the top scorers the league has ever seen, already a top 20 player all-time.

Williamson is more likely to be more of a Blake Griffin or for older fans, a Shawn Kemp type talent. He’ll be a regular fixture on highlight clips and add wins to whichever team he’s on. But let’s wait to see him play a couple seasons in the NBA before adding him to the list of all-time greats.

Being drafted No. 1 overall is just the first step in Williamson’s pro hoops journey. And, Bulls fans are hoping some draft lottery luck on May 14 will result in the next stop being Chicago.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Purdue’s Carsen Edwards probably helped his draft stock more than any other player with his showing in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot shooting guard poured in 139 points in four games, including a pair of 42 point performances.

Edwards had been listed as an early second round choice in most mock drafts, but his strong tournament showing could move him into the first round, which means two seasons of guaranteed money. Even though he’s better suited as an off-the-ball scorer, Edwards’ size will likely mean a point guard role in the NBA, so he’ll need to improve on his ball-handling and passing skills. Still, Edwards’ Steph Curry-like tournament run should help him land a rotation role as a rookie.

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While Edwards’ stock is rising, the disappointing freshman season of Duke forward Cam Reddish came to a close with an injury limiting his ability to contribute in the Blue Devils’ last two games.

Once considered a lock to be a top three pick in the 2019 draft, Reddish will need to show well in individual team workouts to rehabilitate his standing among NBA talent evaluators. Reddish was considered to be one of the nation’s top three point shooters at the start of the season, but after shooting just 33 percent from the college line, he could drop into the back half of the lottery. Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver has passed Reddish as the likely No. 4 pick after the consensus top three of Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett.

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Congratulations to former Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg on his new position at the University of Nebraska. Hoiberg had indicated a preference to stay in the NBA game as a coach or front office executive, but his family has several links to Nebraska, including one of his grandfathers serving as head basketball coach in the 1960s.

Hoiberg enjoyed tremendous success at his alma mater, Iowa State, before coming to the Bulls in 2015. He’ll face a major challenge in trying to make Nebraska a contender in the ultra-competitive Big Ten conference. Current Windy City Bulls coach Charlie Henry is expected to join Hoiberg’s staff.

The Bulls will get back about $3.5 million dollars of the money owed to Hoiberg as a result of the off-set provision in the original five-year contract he signed, but that doesn’t change the plan to bring Jim Boylen back as head coach next season.

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Turns out Ernie Grunfeld didn’t have a lifetime contract as President of Basketball Operations with the Washington Wizards. Grunfeld was fired on Tuesday after 16 seasons on the job, which could lead to even more changes this summer for the underachieving team.

Remember when the Wizards upset the Bulls in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs? With a young core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza, plus physical big men Nene and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards were expected to be contenders in the East for years to come. But Washington never had much success in the playoffs, leading to a coaching change and several trades that had little impact.

Now, the new head of basketball operations will be saddled with the max extension given to Wall that will pay him an average of over $40 million per season while he tries to work his way back from an Achilles tendon injury. Beal is hinting he might look elsewhere instead of re-signing with the Wizards, and the players Grunfeld acquired in the Otto Porter Jr. trade with the Bulls, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, will both be free agents this summer.

Whoever replaces Grunfeld will have a major rebuilding job on his hands, but at least they’ll know owner Ted Leonsis is committed to spending whatever it takes to try to make the franchise relevant again.

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