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NBA Daily: Winds Of Change Swirling Around Chicago

Even if their season has pretty much already been decided, Matt John explains why the Bulls’ recent stretch should excite their fans for the future.

Matt John

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In September 2017, the NBA Board of Governors passed lottery draft reform in which the odds that each team in the lottery would get would be more spread out than in past years.

This move was made in hopes that teams would stop intentionally losing the majority of their games during the regular season – the fashionable word for it being “tanking” – in hopes of getting a high lottery pick. Honestly, it’s more likely than not that the act of tanking will never fully vanquish, but there are certain benefits to this most recent reform.

That begins and ends with the lowered odds. Before this season, the team with the worst record had a 25 percent chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft. Now, not only is it 14 percent, but the teams with the second and third-worst record have the same odds. The first team to have less than half those odds is the seventh-worst team.

Because of this, bottom dwellers don’t have to worry as much about their lottery odds if they won an extra game or two before the season’s end. By doing this, we get a chance to see these teams experiment before their doomed seasons’ end which could potentially give us a taste of what’s to come next season.

That’s pretty much what’s happened in the most recent weeks since the trade deadline passed. Since Kevin Love’s return, Cleveland has played its best basketball all season. In Atlanta, Trae Young is making a solid – though sadly pointless – case for Rookie of the Year.

But of all the teams at the very bottom of the league, the one team that may take the biggest leap next season could be the Chicago Bulls.

This hasn’t been an easy season for the Bulls. They’ve dealt with a coaching change, prolonged injuries to multiple players and even lost a game by a whopping 55 points. All of it has made for what many would say has been another miserable season. While it is true that this season will overall be a failure, since the trade deadline, the Bulls have turned the corner.

The Bulls made a polarizing trade at the deadline, acquiring Otto Porter Jr. from the Washington Wizards for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. Porter is an excellent player to have on the team, as both his floor-spacing and defense have given him a well-earned reputation around the league. Porter is also just 25 years old, so his best stuff is yet to come.

As good as Porter is, he’s getting paid a max-level contract at $26+ million for the next two seasons even though he’s never really gotten much All-Star consideration. That’s not a dig at Porter. Paying him that much is better than paying, say, $20 million for Jabari Parker’s services. It just seems like on paper it wouldn’t be worth having Porter eat up that much cap space on a young team like the Bulls.

So far, Porter seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Since his arrival, the Bulls have gone 5-3, with three of those wins coming against Boston, Brooklyn and Orlando – three teams that are very much in the thick of the playoff race. Oh, and Porter missed a game-and-a-half in that stretch.

5-3 isn’t great, but it’s a step up. Porter’s definitely played a hand in their improved play lately, as evidenced by this noteworthy stat.

Porter’s presence opens up so much for Chicago because of the spacing that he provides. Since his arrival, the Bulls have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, averaging 114 points per 100 possessions. That’s a major improvement from where they were before since they currently rank last this season in offensive rating (104.2). Defensively, the Bulls have pretty much remained the same in that span (112.5 DRTG) as they have all season (112.1 DRTG).

It hasn’t been perfect, but the team is beginning to find an identity that it hasn’t really had since the Tom Thibodeau days.

And Porter isn’t solely responsible for the Bulls’ encouraging play. A fair amount of credit has to go to the Bulls’ most valuable prospect – Lauri Markkanen.

Remember how the Bulls have gone through what seems like a never-ending cycle of injuries? Well, that started with Markkanen, who missed the first month-and-a-half with an elbow injury.

The second-year Finnish sensation has overall been pretty solid in his sophomore season. He’s averaging 19.4 points on 44.3 percent shooting including 37.6 percent from deep. He also has shown improvement on the boards – 9.1 rebounds a game – and the Bulls are plus-5.7 offensively with him on the court.

Those are considerably better numbers compared to his promising rookie season, but his play over the last month has got to make the Windy City folk giddy.

Since February began, Markkanen has had what has easily been the best stretch of his young career. He’s putting up 26 points on 48.6 percent shooting and 34.6 percent shooting from three – his most recent 0-for-5 performance may have something to do with that – along with 12.2 rebounds per game. His stand-out performance came against the Celtics – the same team responsible for that 55-point beatdown earlier this season – in which Lauri put up a career-high 35 points to go with 15 rebounds.

Those are franchise cornerstone-like numbers, and since the Bulls have been moderately successful in that stretch (for them), they don’t get categorized as “Good Stats/Bad Team.” Markkanen still leaves a lot to be desired defensively. He averages merely 0.6 blocks per night and the Bulls defense is plus-1.8 with him on the floor.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement with second-year players, but the headline here is – the Bulls have an undeniably special talent on their hands with Lauri Markkanen. Plenty probably saw that already, but now we’re starting to see them reap some of the rewards.

Finally, there’s Zach LaVine. LaVine has garnered a reputation for being an empty stats kind of player, or in other words, a scoring machine whose impact gets negated by his lackluster defense. When you look at Chicago players’ net ratings, it’s pretty hard not to dispute that.

Overall this season, Chicago is plus-0.9 with Zach on the floor. Offensively, the Bulls are plus-4.7 with him on the floor but are also plus-4.0 defensively. Even during this last month, which has been the best of Zach’s career, it’s still the same old story.

In the month of February, LaVine is averaging 24.5 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game on 53.2 percent shooting overall and 49 percent from three. That’s excellent, but the Bulls are a minus-0.5 with him on the court. He’s made them better offensively – plus-20.9 – but worse defensively – plus-21.4.

There are two silver linings to this.

1. LaVine is only 23.
2. In this most recent eight-game stretch, Chicago is plus-8.2 with him on the floor, even if his awful defensive numbers still cancel out a lot of his scoring output.

If the Bulls are improving because of LaVine, then that has to be a good sign going forward.

Are there still a few kinks to work out? Of course, but every young team needs time to truly flesh out who they are as a team. We knew the Bulls were promising, but now with Otto Porter aboard, it looks like they’re starting to put it together.

Let’s not forget: Wendell Carter, who’s suffered from the injury bug for nearly half the season, will be back fully healthy next season. Even though he hasn’t had the best start in the NBA, there’s no telling what he’ll look like between now and then.

To wrap this all up in a bow, even with this great play of late from the Bulls, they’re still probably going to get a high lottery pick when the season concludes. Thanks to the lottery reform, they won’t screw themselves over too badly from this newfound success.

Back before this season started, this writer believed the Bulls had the potential to be better than most thought.

Maybe next season, he’ll get it right.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?

An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?

Shane Rhodes

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“I’m Cam Reddish.”

Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?

A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.

When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.

The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.

But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.

But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.

“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”

But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?

“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”

“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”

There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.

Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.

And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.

“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”

There were certainly issues, however.

Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.

All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.

But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.

Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George

Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.

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NBA Daily: Grant Williams: Household Name In The Making

On Friday, Tennessee’s Grant Williams announced that he would stay in the NBA Draft — but this is just the beginning for the collegiate standout, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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On Friday, Grant Williams made the most important decision of his young career.

After a strong three-year stint at Tennessee, Williams has elected to remain in the selection pool, a choice that will undoubtedly culminate in celebration next month at the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7, Williams effortlessly presents the type of well-rounded skillset that has had scouts drooling all week at the NBA Draft Combine. As Tennesse climbed the NCAA’s power rankings this past collegiate campaign — even standing as Division-I’s No. 1 team for four weeks — Williams’ name and stature deservedly rose too. The Volunteers eventually suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 this springtime but by then the damage had been done: Williams was somebody worth watching.

In that late March Madness loss to the Boilermakers, Williams racked up 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 56.3 percent. A few days prior, during the Round of 32, the high-intensity junior stuffed the box score for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals. And if those numbers seem impressive — and don’t worry, they are — that’s because Williams practically averaged a similar line all season en route to his second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.

But that’s not the only reason why Williams has first round-worthy plaudits either, showing promise as a flexible defender and hardcore challenger this week alone.

“Just the improvement that I had throughout my career, showing that I progressively got better — I think teams value good guys and value competitors, so then that really helped me over the course of my career,” Williams told Basketball Insiders on Thursday. “And coach Barnes, like I said, those guys that put me in the best position to help win as well as become a better player.”

As a capable three-point marksman (32.6 percent) and an underrated passer (3.2 assists), Williams fit flawlessly into that modern big man mold that every front office has chased in drafts for the last half-decade. The sample size is a tad small at just 1.2 attempts per game from deep in 2018-19, but many will see Williams as a two-way positive — a high-percentage offensive contributor with lockdown capacity on the opposite end.

During the combine, Williams was adept at switching in the pick-and-roll, a skillset that bodes well for defending multiple positions at the next level too. Even more impressive, back in January, he went 23-for-23 from the free throw line to propel Tennessee past Vanderbilt in overtime — aberration, it was not, as he hit at 81.9 percent for the entire season to boot. But Williams believes that his ability to draw fouls could offer a unique glimpse at more of his NBA-ready strengths.

“Maybe, [but] fouls are different in the league, I think it’s more physical of a game — so you might not get those certain calls,” Williams said. “But it’s just a matter of showing your toughness and being able to be that guy that isn’t pushed around and can hold his own.”

Ultimately, Williams is the complete package — all he’s missing now is the household name.

Soon that will change too.

Williams’ massive choice to remain in the draft likely reinforces that his first-round projections were too good to turn down. In Basketball Insiders’ latest Consensus Mock Draft, two writers sent Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 26, while the other pair selected him one pick later at No. 27 for Brooklyn. Elsewhere, The Athletic recently plugged him in at No. 27 too and The Ringer went even higher at No. 17.

Yahoo! Sports, CBS and ESPN all have ranked Williams somewhere within that range too, while Andy Katz — longtime draft analyst — openly gushed about the Volunteer on national television.

Unsurprisingly, Williams’ list of honors is much longer than we can feasibly print but the highlights simply prove that the 20 -year-old has reigned atop Division-I for nearly a full year. NCAA Unanimous First Team All-American, 2019 and 2018’s SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team — in both AP and coach-led versions — and plenty of conference-given Player of the Week awards decorate Williams’ budding trophy case. Today, the Volunteers’ Twitter account made the most succinct point of them all: “Plain and simple, one of the best to ever wear the Orange & White.”

And even though he believes that his day one performance wasn’t quite up to snuff, Williams is determined to prove that the best is yet to come.

“Just the defensive consistency as well as knocking down the shot,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t shoot the ball well [yesterday], I tested well, I think, I had 20 on the bench press and stuff like that before I played. I think that [today] is going to be a better day to show more.”

Of course, Williams could’ve been lured back for a final, year-long curtain call at Tennessee — but without Admiral Schofield and, potentially, Jordan Bone, that thought became a much more difficult torch to bare alone. Leaving that guaranteed money at the wayside, particularly so without his All-SEC teammates, would have been a tough ask — particularly so if Williams is now destined to hear his name called in the first round.

Still, Williams is built differently and watching him play for five minutes, whether in an NCAA Tournament game or combine scrimmages, quickly confirms that notion.

On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski joined the analyst’s desk to share a gem he’d picked up from Kendrick Perkins, one of the coaches working at the combine, noting that Williams, out of nowhere, naturally assumed a leadership role throughout the scrimmage portion of the afternoon.

“Williams came in with his team, started organizing the team right away, talking to guys about their strengths, how they could come out here and play well, play to each other’s strengths,” Wojnarowski mentioned. “[Perkins] said it’s kind of rare to see that leadership, that type of initiative in the combine process.”

For Tennessee and their fans, however, that’s just a normal day with Williams, their beloved three-year standout who is finally ready to make his jump to the professional level.

But when asked about what’s he’s getting out of the NBA Draft Combine, Williams offered up a refreshing slice of perspective.

“[I’m] enjoying it, just enjoying the process, as well as enjoying the opportunity because not many guys get this opportunity to be here,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s part of the reason why I played [in the scrimmages], I wanted to go through the full experience.”

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