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NBA Daily: Evaluating The 2018 Rookie Class

As the NBA season rapidly approaches its halfway point, Drew Maresca examines the rookies and where they stand among their peers.

Drew Maresca

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It’s almost January and the 2018-19 NBA season is nearly halfway over. And while lots of attention is already being paid to Zion Williamson and the 2019 NBA Draft class to-be, let’s look back to June and the 2018 NBA draft and grade the rookies on their performances thus far, while making an educated guess about how their rookie seasons might wrap up.

This article checks in on all of the top 10 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, along with some surprisingly strong performers who fell outside of the top 10. We’ll predict the likelihood that each player wins Rookie of the Year and/or is named to an All-Rookie team by examining their stats and their net effect on their respective teams thus far.

Deandre Ayton: 16.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.0 block per game

Rookie Season Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Ayton is having a strong rookie year that looks better with each passing month. His PER is currently 21.3 and he has logged 21 double-doubles through 34 game – more than twice what the next best rookie has done. He has flown under the radar more than he would have in most recent seasons thanks to the exquisite play of fellow rookie Luka Doncic. While Ayton looks a bit lethargic at times – particularly on defense – he has also been nearly automatic when he catches the ball in good position.

What’s more impressive – Ayton is averaging 20.8 points and 15.6 rebounds in his five most recent games, demonstrating a growing comfort and understanding. Ayton has star written all over him and should develop into a double-double machine at the very least.

Marvin Bagley III: 12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.

Projection: Second-Team All-Rookie

Unfortunately for Bagley, he will probably always be seen as the Greg Oden to Luka Doncic’s Kevin Durant – albeit a more successful and hopefully far more durable one. But that’s not to say that Bagley hasn’t had his share of early successes. Bagley is posting a PER of 18.4, and he is second amongst all rookies in offensive rebounds and third in free throw attempts despite playing only 23.1 minutes per game – significantly less than other rookies ahead of him. Furthermore, Bagley has scored 15 or more points in 12 games and has posted four double-doubles. While ROY is probably out of the question, the focus for Bagley and the Kings should be to close the season strongly and develop positive habits.

Luka Doncic: 19.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists

Projection: ROY and First Team All-Rookie

There was a lot of speculation about Doncic coming into the 2018-19 season. Despite incredibly high expectations, he has not disappointed. Beyond the stats listed above, Doncic has hit numerous buzzer beaters, the most recent of which forced overtime last week against the Portland Trailblazers. Doncic does not shy away from big moments. He is almost certainly the most prepared rookie we have seen since LeBron James in 2003, and possibly the most skilled, too. At 6-foot-7, his blend of size, skill and court vision are virtually unparalleled. And he’s only 19 years old.

Warriors guard Steph Curry is no stranger to strong play. And yet he too seems to be impressed with Doncic’s early play.

“He’s found a way to impose his will most nights. It’s going to be good to see him develop into a star,” Curry said.

That’s some high praise from someone at the pinnacle of the sport.

Jaren Jackson Jr.: 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists

Projection: ROY Runner-Up and First Team All-Rookie

Jaren Jackson was always going to be a lower-profile rookie given his Tim Duncan-esque presence and the fact that he relocated to Memphis, one the NBA’s smaller markets. But his impact on the game is about as big as any rookie’s.

Despite a slightly wonky release, he is connecting on 34.1 percent of his three-pointers and 56.8 percent of his two-pointers.  At 6-foot-11, Jackson is a versatile offensive and defensive player who has a high ceiling and a high floor. And he still has room to grow – just think, he is presently the second youngest player in the league.

The Grizzlies —who are a veteran team led by two former NBA All-Defensive players and All-Stars – are 7-4 when Jackson plays more than 30 minutes. They have a losing record when he plays less than 30. That in itself speaks volumes about Jackson and his effect on the game. Jackson could be a transcendent talent, part Kevin Garnett, part Tim Duncan and part Anthony Davis.

If he maximizes his potential, the Grizzlies nabbed a future franchise cornerstone to bridge the present and the future.

Trae Young: 15.4 points, 7.2 assists and 3.9 turnovers per game

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Trae Young opted to avoid engaging in a discussion about the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year, saying he’d prefer not to speculate. Unfortunately for Young, it probably won’t be him. While he looked surprisingly effective early on, Young has since come back to earth. He seems to be a bit flummoxed by either the deeper NBA three-point line or the speed of the defense; he attempted 6.7 three-pointers per game in October, 5.4 in November and only 3.6 throughout December – all the while, shooting only 24.6 percent on threes for the season.

But Hawks legend and vice president of basketball, Dominique Wilkins, reminds us that future seasons should look better than the current one.

“I think Trae Young is going to be a heck of a player,“ Wilkins said. “He’s only one year removed from high school. People need to give him time to develop and learn.”

And Young was always going to need time to acclimate to the NBA. He is only six feet tall and 180 pounds. It would have been highly unusual for him to hit the ground running as an under-sized point guard – probably the hardest position to transition to in the NBA. If Young can regain his confidence and get back to his prolific shooting, he is a sure-fire star. If he doesn’t, he will struggle as an undersized point guard who isn’t overly engaged on defense.

But Wilkins was quick to point out that the Hawks should have no regrets about swapping Doncic for Young and the Mavs’ 2019 first-round pick.

“No, man,” Wilkins said. “You can’t go back and look at what should have been or possibly could have happened because we got who we wanted.”

Mo Bamba: 6.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.4 blocks per game

Projection: No rookie accolades

Bamba entered the draft with high expectations… and maybe to an unfair degree. Scouts and the media were hypnotized by his length — seven feet tall with a 7-foot-9 wingspan — and his ability to shoot from deep.

But Bamba was clearly a project, albeit one with a relatively high floor. Bamba is only 220 pounds and will be significantly better after adding some needed weight. Through 33 games, Bamba is shooting 31 percent on 1.8 three-point attempts per game – better than Trae Young, Wendall Carter and a number of rookie guards who should theoretically be better shooters.

As much as Bamba needs to hit the weight room though, he also needs playing time. Unfortunately for Bamba, he is stuck in a crowded Magic front court playing only 16.9 minutes per game behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac. He isn’t nearly a disappointment, but he hasn’t been given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities just yet either.

Wendell Carter: 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 blocks

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Carter has been mostly as advertised. He has netted some highlight blocks, posted six double-doubles and is second amongst all rookies in rebounds and blocked shots. Furthermore, Carter appeared to hit his stride as we entered November. He had been playing more than 25 minutes per game in October and November and he scored in double figures in 14 of the Bulls’ 20 games between Oct. 27 and Dec. 4. He even posted a career high of 28 points on Nov. 30 against the Pistons.

But the end of Carter’s streak coincided almost perfectly with the return of Bulls’ star Lauri Markkanen, with Carter’s minutes dropping to just over 21 minutes since Markkanen’s return.

Carter, like Bamba, is in the unfortunate situation of being drafted onto a team with a fair amount of young talent at his position. His well-rounded game clearly translates to the NBA nicely, but we’ll have to wait to see just how well.

Colin Sexton 14.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists

Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Sexton has been about as polarizing as expected. He began the season slowly and inefficiently, averaging only 12.0 points per game and shooting only 14.3 from three-point territory. But he’s steadied quite a bit since then, scoring 16.1 and 15.1 points per game in November and December, respectively. Additionally, his three-point percentage is up dramatically since October. He is currently fourth in points per game and fourth in assists. He is lighting fast and plays with an unusual confidence for a rookie. He has drawn comparisons to De’Aron Fox, which come off better now given his Fox’s sophomore season than they did earlier in the year. Sexton must work on distributing and learning when to use his speed, as opposed to playing at full speed all of the time. But Sexton clearly has the potential to be a multi-time Allstar.

Kevin Knox: 12.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and .9 assists per game

Projections: Second Team All-Rookie

Knox was viewed as a second-tier prospect after Ayton, Doncic, Young and Bamba entering the 2018 Draft, but he caught the attention of just about every NBA scout and executive with his performance in the Vegas Summer League. He suffered an early-season ankle injury but has been impressive since returning to the Knicks’ lineup. In fact, he has scored 15 or more points in each of his last eight games and has averaged 17.9 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting in December. Knox must continue strengthening his lower body and work on remaining locked in throughout 48 minutes – but considering his versatility and the fact that he’s the third-youngest player in the entire league, Knox could easily grow into an All-NBA player.

And while Rookie of the Year is likely too tall an order, don’t tell Knox or his teammates that. Mitchell Robinson had plenty to say about Knox in the ROY race.

“I got to say my teammate Kevin Knox,” Robinson said. “He’s also blocking shots and playing good defense (in addition to his offense).”

Knox also alluded to his candidacy when asked about his pick for Rookie of the Year.

“If I wasn’t going to say myself then I’d have to go with Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton,” Knox said.

So while most people have likely counted Knox out for ROY, he hasn’t given up hope just yet.

Mikal Bridges: 7.6 points on 33.3 percent from three-point range

Projection: No rookie accolades

Mikal Bridges had a disappointing start to the 2018-19 season. He wasn’t able to solidify a place in the Suns’ lineup at first, but that has since changed. He averaged nearly 33 minutes per game in December. His play has improved slightly since securing a spot in the starting lineup. He’s averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a starter. He is shooting a respectable 33.3 percent clip from deep, and he has a defensive win share of 0.6 and a defensive box plus/minus of plus-0.5 – which is almost identical to teammate Josh Jackson and significantly better than fellow rookie Kevin Knox.

But Bridges was the traditional high floor-low ceiling player. He’s already 22 years old and unlikely to develop at the same rate as most of the players selected ahead of him. But with work, he could develop into a Robert Covington-type player — which is to say he can become a mainstay in the starting lineup of a perennial playoff team.

Other Notable Rookies:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

Projection: First Team All-Rookie

Gilgeous-Alexander was the 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He is one of the few lottery picks logging consistent minutes on a winning team. Gilgeous-Alexander has had an up and down season so far, alternating between strong games and poor ones. His PER is subpar (13.2), but so are most rookies’ PERs. He averages 2.9 assists and 1.7 turnovers in 27.4 minutes per game. But he thrives when in a larger role: 16.8 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game when he plays at least 30 minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander has all the tools to grow into an All-Star, but first he has to prove he can be effective more consistently.

Rodions Kurucs: 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game

Projection: Second Team All-Rookie

Since joining the Nets starting lineup recently, Kurucs is averaging 12.9 points on 55 percent shooting, along with six rebounds per game in 29.2 minutes. The 40th overall pick has had a strong effect on the game. He even posted a double-double in back-to-back games. He fits in nicely and at 6-foot-9. He is an athletic and versatile rebounder and finisher. He will probably never grow into an All-Star, but he moves the needle when on the court and doesn’t require touches or plays to be drawn up to him.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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.

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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?

Ben Nadeau

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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.

Utah Jazz

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.

Brooklyn Nets

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.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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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.

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