After stubbornly avoiding a rebuild a year ago, holding white-knuckled to All-Star Jimmy Butler like a toddler with their lifelong comfort blanky, the Chicago Bulls finally actually did get “younger and more athletic” this past summer, if a year late, and the team now looks toward life after the playoffs. It’s a place they appear destined to reside for the foreseeable future as they attempt to rebuild the roster from the ground up, and while things are off to a slow start, the first years of rebuilds never are easy. This particular rebuild is going to be really ugly, though. Fans already are irate with team’s front office, and a dismal year in the league won’t do much to turn those frowns upside down.
It’s going to be a long season, but onward and upward, as they say. The Bulls literally have no other direction to go.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There isn’t much good to say about the upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls. From the looks of it, their best bet may be to set their sights on the highest possible chance they can secure at winning the draft lottery.
After shipping off star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and with talks of Dwyane Wade eventually being bought out, the shift to the future has now become the present for a Bulls team that just a few months ago had a 2-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
With all eyes on the return of Zach LaVine and the growth of Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are thinking long term as they enter this season. With the production results that are likely to follow, it’s probably best if fans do the same as well.
5th place — Central Division
— Dennis Chambers
The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick Thursday night, which was used on Lauri Markkanen. Chicago better hope that Dunn’s rookie season was an aberration, that LaVine makes a full recovery from his ACL tear and that Markkanen can build off of his impressing offseason. The Bulls have finally moved away from their failed strategy of retooling on the fly and seem prepared for an actual rebuild, which is a step in the right direction. But now they need to figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who clearly wants to play elsewhere.
5th Place — Central Division
— Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls are the latest reminder that, in the NBA, life comes at you fast. Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson all find themselves elsewhere, while Dwyane Wade doesn’t seem too far behind. Nikola Mirotic, one of the few bright spots for the franchise, enters mid-September without a new contract and the playoffs seem about as far away from Chicago as sunny South Beach in Miami.
The good news for the Bulls is that they are in possession of all of their first round picks and only currently have one pick debited, which is their 2019 second rounder. In terms of their payroll, the Bulls are one of the few teams that will enter the 2017-18 season with substantial cap room and only currently have $31 million and $8 million in commitments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Between now and then, the franchise will have to make a number of decisions on some of their young players, but let’s make no mistake about it; this team is in full rebuild mode.
I would go as far as to say that the Bulls may be the Eastern Conference team to experience the most dramatic drop off in win total—last season’s 41-41 campaign is a pipe dream. The best the Bulls can hope for over the next year or two is to lure one or two impact free agents, hitting a home run in the draft and that someone from the current crop—perhaps Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine or Bobby Portis—can fulfill their potential.
In the Central, it’ll certainly be them pulling up the rear, with the Pacers somewhere near. I favor the Pacers, though, mainly because they have at least four or five pieces that we know will be productive. I’m not sure what Chicago has at this point.
5th Place — Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
This is not going to be fun. Jimmy Butler was traded away for guys who can’t play, either because they are injured or because they just flat-out are not good at basketball, and the team’s only remaining “big name” is Dwyane Wade, a veteran who absolutely does not want to be there. Rookie Lauri Markannen had a promising summer, and Zach LaVine should be a 20+ point-per-game scorer when he finally makes his return from ACL surgery, but outside of that there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Chicago this year. No team looks likely to lose more games than the Bulls.
5th Place — Central Division
— Joel Brigham
The Bulls were only .500 last season, but they could be in for one of the most precipitous year-to-year drops of any team in the league nonetheless. Moving on from Jimmy Butler and clearly emphasizing a rebuild has left this group enormously thin on proven NBA talent, especially with Dwyane Wade expected to be bought out and off the roster in short order. Guys like Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Kris Dunn and even newly drafted Lauri Markkanen will be asked to play big roles, and the team will not be expected to do a whole lot of winning. This year is all about seeing which of the young guys fit best and who will be a major part of the core moving forward.
5th place — Central Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Coming off an ACL injury, there still is no definitive return date for the prize jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade, but once LaVine does start suiting up for the Bulls, there won’t be any doubt who the team’s best offensive player is. Before his injury last year, LaVine was having a career season, averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting .387 from deep, and as good as Minnesota is going to be with Butler this year, they will miss LaVine’s ability to space an offense. Conversely, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t had consistent three-point shooters to play with yet in his tenure as Bulls coach, which admittedly has tarnished his “legacy” in Chicago thus far. Adding LaVine and rookie Lauri Markannen should help with that, however dismal the season may be for the team as a whole.
Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez
Easily much too old and much too good to remain on this team too deep into the season, Lopez will serve as the Bulls’ stalwart in the paint for however much time he spends in Chicago between October and February’s trade deadline. Defensively, he does everything a traditional five is supposed to do—swatting away shots, punishing driving guards, anchoring the defensive rotations in the paint—and it shows in the advanced stats. Chicago gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor last season. He’s not quick enough to lock down the pick-and-roll, especially when the roller is a nimbler big man, but he still is far and away the best defender the Bulls have. For now.
Top Playmaker: Kris Dunn
The Chicago Bulls don’t really have any playmakers this season. Dwyane Wade would have to be considered the closest thing to that, but he seems likely to be bought out closer to sooner than later, while the point guard corps is as dismal as any team’s in the league. The best hope for a point guard to break out at this point is Dunn, a player who did average over six assists per game as a junior at Providence a couple of years ago. He only averaged 2.1 assists per game as a reserve in Minnesota last season, so asking for a big bump may not be fair, but if he isn’t the one forcing defenses to collapse and finding open shooters, who is?
Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade
Someday this will be LaVine, but in the interim it’s hard to bet against the ball going into Wade’s hands when the clock is ticking down. He has hit 15 game winners over the course of his career, and even with his athleticism waning, you can’t teach chilly veins in the clutch. As long as he’s a Bull, he’s taking the last shot.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Zipser
As a former second-round pick, nobody really expected much out of Zipser, but he showed in his rookie season in Chicago that’s he much more valuable than just about anybody expected. His 5.5 points per game average in the regular season doesn’t look like much, until compared to his 7.3 points per game in the playoffs. In fact, when Chicago upset the Boston Celtics for a second straight game in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Zipser even had a game where he poured in 16 points. He quietly started 18 games last year and should start even more this season, using his scoring ability and deep shot to carve out one of the more understated roles on the team. Goodness knows the Bulls sure could use a sophomore leap from him.
Best New Addition: Zach LaVine
If the Jimmy Butler trade is going to look at all defensible in retrospect, LaVine is going to have to find himself back on the All-Star track he appeared to be on before his injury last year. He’s a Vince Carter-level athlete who should be the Bulls best overall player before the season wraps, unquestionably, in mid-April. Being the Bulls best overall player and being good in the context of the entire league are two entirely different things, however. Chicago needs LaVine to be the latter.
— Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markannen
What Markannen has done in EuroBasket this season has gotten sports fans in Chicago about 60 percent as excited as they are for rookie Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which really is saying something when we’re talking about 60 percent of infinite enthusiasm. Markannen, whose draft-day photographs are maybe the happiest draft-day photographs in the history of photographs, averaged 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in EuroBasket’s group phase, donning #23 in his Finnish team jersey and puttin’ a hurtin’ on defenders from all over the world. He looked great, frankly, somewhat justifying Chicago having picked him ahead of inevitable Rookie of the Year Dennis Smith, Jr. this past June. But we have yet to see how all those skills transfer to the NBA. They didn’t look great at Summer League, but he’ll have plenty of time to adjust. At the very least, it’s heartwarming to see anyone as excited as Markannen is to play for the Chicago Bulls.
2. Bobby Portis
We’ve seen flashes of what Portis can be. Game 1 of the Bulls’ playoff series against Boston last season saw Portis knock down everything in the Garden on his way to 19 points. He can potentially be a double-double guy, even though he tends to either score in double figures or rebound in double figures without doing both on the same night. To say this is a make-or-break year for him would be stating the obvious, but he’s going to get bigger minutes this year. It’s time for him to do something with them.
3. Cristiano Felicio
After getting paid $32 million this past offseason, Felicio had better be ready to make a leap of his own this year. He has averaged just 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game over the course of his first two seasons, but now he is being paid like someone who can do more. He does shoot 57.3 percent from the field and has the ability and strength to improve upon those numbers, especially if Lopez ultimately is traded and Felicio becomes the team’s new full-time center and defensive cornerstone. Not everybody loved the contract, but whatever he’s getting paid, he’s in for a much bigger role this season.
4. The 2018 First-Round Draft Pick
We don’t know who this young man will be, but the dire struggles of the forthcoming season will be swallowed like a bitter pill, with this pick serving as the sweet applesauce into which that pill has been hidden for consumption. For now, Bulls fans still sleep well at night only because visions of Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter, Jr. dance in their heads like sugar plums. All this suffering will be for naught if the result isn’t a franchise-altering draft selection. Thankfully, there are four or five of those coming in the summer of 2018, and the Bulls will end up with one of them.
— Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bulls are in an interesting position in that they’re over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap but only have $78.4 million in actual contracts on their books. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic takes up $11 million. Chicago also has a trade exception worth $11.5 million for Jimmy Butler, which they partially used to acquire Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls can still get under the cap if they choose, although they cannot rescind their offer to Mirotic without his permission.
Next summer, the Bulls could near $50 million in cap room – although a multi-year deal with Mirotic could subtract from that figure. Chicago can also offer Zach LaVine an extension before the start of the current season. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Denzel Washington, Jerian Grant and Bobby Portis, with an October 31 deadline.
— Eric Pincus
Chicago has been an elite defensive team for years at this point. Even two years after Tom Thibodeau left town, Chicago still was among the best in the league last season in team defense despite everything (at least until Taj Gibson was traded), but this is an entirely new team. Chicago’s new lottery pick, Markannen, is as bad defensively as he is gifted offensively, and outside of Dunn, Felicio and Lopez, there just aren’t a lot of players who a.) like playing defense and/or b.) are any good at it. In other words, the team’s greatest strength in years past probably will not be again, which is to say the Bulls probably aren’t going to have a whole lot of strengths this year. They likely no longer are in the league’s basement in terms of three-point shooting, and they seem to put more butts in seats than another team in the league year after year, but outside of that, the only thing that will be strong after this season is the team’s draft pick.
The other side of the coin is quite a bit larger. Point guard is, far and away, the team’s biggest weakness, with Jerian Grant already having proven he’s no more than a reserve NBA guard and Cameron Payne showing his bust inevitability within two practices of having been acquired by Chicago last winter. There are big questions about Dunn, too, and while he’s the team’s only real hope at that position, even he has more than his fair share of shortcomings, especially on the offensive end. This team is incredibly young and devoid of the talent to compete with so many quality NBA teams every night, especially in their division.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago Set Dwyane Wade Free?
The Bulls are tanking to land a big fish in the draft next season. Unfortunately, Wade is caught up in this swirling hurricane of awfulness and wants to find his way to a new team as badly as just about any player in the league this side of Carmelo Anthony. Chicago owes him almost $24 million this year, and since nobody is trading $24 million worth of assets to bring in D-Wade on a rental, that means the only way Wade gets his freedom is via buyout. Just about anybody would suffer through just about any job for six months if it paid $24 million, but Wade still has eyes on more playoff-focused teams. Rumblings exist suggesting Chicago will let him go, but why would they pay him all that cash to go play for someone else?
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.
Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.
Confused in Chicago
The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.
The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?
Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.
Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.
There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.
There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.
The Last Two for Cleveland
The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!
They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.
Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.
Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.
They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.
However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.
Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.
The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.
Detroit’s Free Fall
After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.
Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.
The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.
Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.
The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.
Khris Middleton’s Left Leg
Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.
Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.
Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.
Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.
Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.
Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland
The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.
The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.
With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.
Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.
The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.
This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.
And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?”
More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.
Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.
Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.
Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.
Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.
In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.
The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.
In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.
Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.
Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.
Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.
A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.
Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.
The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.
NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers
David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.
Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.
But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.
Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.
He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.
After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.
This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.
Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.
“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”
Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.
That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.
“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”
Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.
He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.
The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.
“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”
This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.
Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.
“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”
And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.
Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.
“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”
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