Atlanta Hawks small forward DeAndre Bembry is arguably one of the most NBA-ready players from this year’s draft class.
Not only is the 22-year-old more experienced than many of his fellow rookies, he’s also mature beyond his years and has the kind of basketball IQ rarely seen in a first-year player. Because of his versatility and ability to produce on both ends of the court, it’s possible that he could crack Mike Budenholzer’s rotation sooner than later in Atlanta.
Bembry was the No. 21 overall pick in the draft, and he likely would’ve gone higher had he been a bit younger. During the draft process, teams often fall in love with a player’s potential rather than their college production, which tends to hurt older prospects like Bembry. But after doing very well in pre-draft workouts and impressing NBA decision-makers in face-to-face meetings, Bembry solidified himself as a mid-first-round pick and is now determined to make every team that passed on him pay.
He seems to have found a perfect situation in Atlanta since the team is in win-now mode. After adding Dwight Howard in free agency, the Hawks are hoping to contend in the Eastern Conference, which is relatively wide open after the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Budenholzer and his staff want contributors, not projects, so it’s no coincidence that both of the team’s first-round selections (Taurean Prince and Bembry) are 22-year-olds who are ready to play now rather than needing years of development before making their mark.
Bembry may have flown under the radar a bit while at Saint Joseph’s, but there’s no question that he was one of the most productive players in the nation. As a sophomore, he led the Hawks in scoring (17.7), rebounds (7.7), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). Last year, as a junior, he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and .8 blocks while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. Bembry finished the campaign with an offensive rating of 113.1 and a defensive rating of 97.7. He played the third-most minutes of any player in the nation (1,341), showing just how important he was to the Hawks.
He was named the 2016 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Player of the Year for his efforts, while also earning a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 First-Team (for the second straight year) and the conference’s All-Defensive Team.
Perhaps the best example of Bembry making his presence felt all over the court when his team needed it most was this past NCAA Tournament. In Saint Joseph’s first-round win over Cincinnati, Bembry filled the stat sheet to the tune of 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks (while shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range). In the Round of 32 against Oregon, Bembry had 16 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Bembry received little help and Oregon managed to win the close game by seven points.
Now, Bembry is hoping to use his well-rounded game to continue filling the stat sheet at the pro level. The Hawks won 48 games last season (fourth-best in the East) and are looking to make a deep postseason run after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. Atlanta has made the playoffs in nine straight seasons and all signs point to that streak continuing.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Bembry to discuss his transition to the NBA, what he has seen from his Hawks teammates in offseason workouts, his lofty Rookie of the Year goal, how he plans to honor his late brother, Adrian, and much more.
Alex Kennedy: You’ve been described as one of the most NBA-ready players in this draft class. Do you think you can make an impact right away in Atlanta and what can you provide the Hawks this season?
DeAndre Bembry: “I definitely feel like I can impact the game right away. I feel like it just depends on what the coaches need me to do in my rookie year. Whether it’s me needing to score or if it’s just needing me out there to guard the best player on the floor, I’m open to it. I’m a very versatile player; I can play with the ball in my hands and can play off the ball if that’s what Coach Bud wants. I can pretty much guard the one, two and three, so I can affect the game in many different areas. It just depends what the team needs me to do or what my coaches want me to do.”
Kennedy: You mentioned being able to play three positions and defend three different positions. You ranked 17th in the nation in Defensive Win Shares last season. How much does your versatility help you and, in today’s NBA where we see position-less basketball more and more, how important is that?
Bembry: “Rather than just being a one-dimensional player, Coach can throw me out there to do multiple things. Rather than just being a defensive player or just being able to throw up shots, I can always find a way to make an impact since I play hard on both ends. The NBA is definitely moving toward more versatile players. These days, the four will bring the ball up the court sometimes, like Draymond Green does. Even the fives are trying to dribble more than they used to. Being versatile can definitely help a player get more minutes, and I feel like that will help me get out there more.”
Kennedy: I love this fit in Atlanta for you. You’re unselfish, you defend, you like to facilitate for your teammates and you’re mature. A lot of times during the draft process, people focus on what number you get selected, but the specific situation and fit is probably more important. How great of a fit is this for you?
Bembry: “It’s a great fit. Being a team player is one of the things Coach Bud is really high on. Also, being able to share the ball, making the right play at the right time and being able to read and react much faster than others. It’s definitely a good fit for me because those are some of the things that I do very well. When I played in the Summer League, there wasn’t one play we drew up; it was just all read and react and that’s one thing I’m pretty much use to doing, making the right play at the right time and finding open teammates.”
Kennedy: What kind of interactions have you had with your teammates so far? Have you been working out with guys and getting the chance to pick their brains yet?
Bembry: “Yeah, definitely. I’ve been on the court with them and working out with them a lot. I’ve been working out with Dwight [Howard] a lot. [Paul] Millsap has been around. [Thabo] Sefolosha has been around. Pretty much everyone who’s been here for the summer, we’ve all been working out and just getting used to each other. The same goes for the coaches as well; I’ve just been trying to learn things from the coaches because they’ve been around the NBA for years. I’m just trying to soak in everything.”
Kennedy: The addition of Dwight Howard was huge for you guys. His move home made headlines and now people are curious to see how he’ll produce. What have you seen from Dwight in your workouts and, at this point in his career, what kind of impact can he have on both ends of the floor?
Bembry: “He can still obviously dominate the game if, mentally, he gets his mind right and if, physically, he’s healthy. From what I’ve been seeing though, Dwight has been killing it. He’s been shooting a lot of mid-range shots and they’re going in. He’s making them more consistently. I mean, everyone knows what Dwight can do though; we just need him when the season starts. He has to just block everything out and just do what he normally does. I feel like this year will definitely be a year where he does great things. He could be the top guy here, and I feel like that’s something he needed. He’s been trying to lead the team, and just doing little small things talking to me and Taurean [Prince], the two rookies. Even if it’s the older guys, he’ll talk to them as well. He’s definitely trying and we’re really looking forward to see what he’ll do for us.”
Kennedy: You and Taurean Prince have quite a bit in common in addition to being the two incoming rookies. You’re both 22 years old who are versatile swingmen who can make an impact on both ends of the court. How have you guys gotten along so far?
Bembry: “Well, Taurean and I have a similar background as far as how we got here. We were both underrated – not in the top 100. I met him at the Nike Skills Academy last summer and after that, we always had this respect for each other because whenever we went out there, we were just dogs and played hard against each other. Then, entering the NBA draft, we always matched up with each other somehow [in pre-draft workouts]. We were just going against each other a lot and just respecting each other’s game, so I feel like we got a feel for each other. He was cool off the court as well, so we developed somewhat of a bond. It was just funny how we ended up getting drafted together and ended up staying in the same condo and stuff like that. So yeah, Taurean and I are very close. We’re too close (laughs).”
Kennedy: That’s awesome. When you have another rookie who is there with you every step of the way and can relate to what you’re going through, how much easier does that make this transition?
Bembry: “I mean, it definitely helps to have somebody out there that you’re cool with, can talk about whatever with and things like that. I feel like we’re both mentally prepared, and we’re both mentally strong enough to come into the league prepared to dominate and go at whomever. That’s one of the things I like about Taurean; he has the same type of attitude that I have coming into the game. Right now, of course, he’s the one guarding me so we’re going hard at each other, like we’re enemies. (laughs) But that’s how I play and that’s how I like my teammates to play. We’ve looked really good playing against each other and alongside each other this summer. I can’t wait to see how we play against players from other teams.”
Kennedy: You had a very interesting journey to the NBA. In high school, you had a ton of doubters and you flew under the radar. One prominent scouting service had you ranked No. 224 in your class and Rivals didn’t even give you a single star, if I recall. How did that motivate you and how nice is it now to silence some of those detractors with your success?
Bembry: “The way I’ve always thought about it is I know what’s right and what’s wrong about my game. Even when I was in high school, I would just go out there and play basketball; that’s how simple it is for me. You could say whatever you want about me, but I’m going to go out there and play hard every possession because that’s something I know how to do. I’m going to go out there and play defense. I’m going to play my game. That’s just how I do it. That’s how I’ve always done it and that’s how I got here. Each game, I would just go out there, play hard and that’s pretty much what would shut everyone up. I always loved the game, so getting motivated wasn’t hard for me. But I did use it and let it motivate me even more.
“I’ve never been someone who hypes myself up, and maybe that [affected me] in the draft. I still feel like I should have gone higher, but that’s just another chance for me to show people what I can do. I want to show people why I really should have gone higher in the draft. But I’m just excited to be in the NBA. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing against these guys.”
Kennedy: What are some of your individual goals for this upcoming season?
Bembry: “Well, I always set my standards very high. This year, I’m obviously going to say win Rookie of the Year, but other than that [my goal is] just to get as many minutes as I can as a rookie. I know Coach Bud doesn’t really play younger guys a lot, but I feel like me and Taurean are two very different younger guys coming into the NBA. I’m just trying to go out there and play my game, but I’ll definitely try to win Rookie of the Year.”
Kennedy: Who are some NBA players who you’ve studied and who have influenced your game a bit?
Bembry: “There are a lot of people. I try to pick little pieces from different players when I notice something that looked good or worked well. Take someone like Dirk Nowitzki, for example. I’m always learning how to do the little fade-away jump shot. I do a lot of Eurosteps, so I look at Manu Ginobili and James Harden. I look at Tracy McGrady a lot. It’s just taking little things from different players. I’ll look at Magic Johnson running the point as a 6’8 guard. If you’re a good basketball player and something that you’re doing is working, then I’ll definitely try to pick it apart and learn from it.”
Kennedy: Are there any defensive-minded guys you watched, maybe because of their motor or their ability to lock guys down?
Bembry: “I like people who are mentally and physically in tune to the game, so I’ll start with like a Dennis Rodman type of player. That’s how I try to come into every game. Like Rodman, I won’t let anybody just keep scoring on me. In today’s game, I’d say someone like a Jimmy Butler or Tony Allen – guys who can actually defend and do a good job at it.”
Kennedy: We talked about your individual goals, so now let’s talk about team goals. After the Cleveland Cavaliers, the East is pretty much wide open. How good can the Hawks be this season?
Bembry: “I feel like if everybody brings their ‘A’ game, we should be good. The bond is there; I know a bond when I see them. I’ve been on a lot of teams, especially in high school, where we started with a strong bond and went on to win championships. That’s what I’ve been a part of, and it all starts off with the bond. Our bond [in Atlanta] is already good. Then, you always need to have superstars. Dwight Howard is our superstar, Paul Millsap is our All-Star. As long as our top guys always bring their ‘A’ game and we just do what we’re supposed to do, then we will be pretty good this year. Like you said, nobody else in the East is as dominant as the Cavs, so it would definitely be fun to play in the playoffs my rookie year.”
Kennedy: You are going to wear No. 95 to honor your younger brother, Adrian, who was shot and killed two weeks before the 2016 NBA Draft while trying to break up a fight in Charlotte. You’re doing this because Adrian was born in 1995. I know you also want to use your platform as an NBA player to speak out against gun violence and hold events in a number of large cities. I’m so sorry for your loss. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. For those who don’t know, can you explain what you’re planning to do to honor Adrian?
Bembry: “I’m wearing No. 95 for him. Also, we’re going to do events about [preventing gun violence] in a number of cities. We’re still doing all of the paperwork, and I’m trying to find different foundations to get involved with. I’ve just been talking with my mother about what we want to do and talking to my lawyers as we try to get all the paperwork done. In addition to here in Atlanta, I want to do something in Philly, New Jersey and Charlotte because those are all areas where I actually lived in and got to see a lot of different things. I’m just trying to get that all finalized and I’ve been talking to the National Basketball Players Association about it as well. I think I’m going to try to get it going after my first season so that people know who I am a bit more and know my story. I think that’s better rather than me just trying to do it now and nobody understands what’s going on.”
NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation
D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.
In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.
Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.
His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?
The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.
Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.
Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.
Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.
First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.
If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.
Of course things are different now.
After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.
It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.
— D'Angelo Russell (@Dloading) March 23, 2019
This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.
It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.
What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.
Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.
Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.
More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.
In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.
Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.
This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.
It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.
So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.
NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home
Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?
There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.
And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.
Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.
At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.
See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.
Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.
While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?
This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.
Los Angeles Clippers
With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.
In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.
Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.
Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.
Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.
Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.
The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.
If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.
Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.
New Orleans Pelicans
Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.
This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.
Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.
With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.
And he did all that in New Orleans.
Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.
With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.
It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.
That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.
So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
What is Working
Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.
The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.
He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.
Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.
There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.
More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.
What Needs to Change
The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.
Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.
Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.
The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.
And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.
Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.
Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.
Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.
Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.
Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.
Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.
The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough
Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.