Deng, Noah making early cases for All-Star consideration

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Deng, Noah making early cases for All-Star consideration

MIAMI -- The latest voting returns for February's NBA All-Star Game in Houston were announced by the league Thursday. Among Eastern Conference frontcourt players, Bulls center Joakim Noah currently ranks seventh, while teammate Luol Deng is 13th in the recent tabulation.

Neither player is likely to be voted in by the fans as a starter, but as the Bulls remain in the early-season race for the Central Division (entering Thursday, they're a game behind Indiana and a game ahead of Milwaukee), as well as firmly in the middle of the pack in East playoff contention (currently fifth in the conference), it's increasingly more probable that Deng will make a return All-Star appearance and Noah will be honored for the first time.

The Bulls duo might not have the national recognition of some of their peers, but around the NBA, they are highly respected.

In the case of Noah, his health has been the key to his emergence, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau frequently refers to.

Discussed by observers as an early-season candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year, his offensive development as a consistent scoring threat, the more obvious display of his unique playmaking acumen with point guard Derrick Rose sidelined and ability to absorb heavy minutes -- an overlooked aspect of Omer Asik's offseason departure to Houston -- have also been factors in what has thus far been a career-best campaign.

Noahs gotten better every single year, so now hes one of the more complete centers in this league. He's relentlessness on the glass, hes an improved post player, he puts so much pressure on you in the paint and then one of the most underrated things always about him is his passing ability and his vision, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra observed. He makes other players better and now the balls finding him more often with Rose out, where he has to make plays. You cant be surprised by that.

Miami big man Chris Bosh added: Joakim presents a lot of challenges and hes a good basketball player, so any time youre up against other good ballplayers, its a lot of fun.

For Deng, it's largely been more of the same, as he's established himself as perhaps the NBA's premier ironman over the previous two seasons -- two years ago, he led the league in total minutes, while he was the minutes-per-game leader last season, something he's currently on pace to do again -- burnishing that reputation by playing through multiple injuries, not to mention garnering praise for his understated style of play.

But while he's received acclaim for being one of the league's top defenders and most versatile offensive players, in Rose's absence, he's also willingly stepped into the role as the Bulls' go-to scorer.

Explained reigning league MVP LeBron James, whos faced off with Deng since the pair were the top-two players in the same high-school class: Its the same for him. Hes approached the game at a high level each and every night defensively, offensively. It doesnt change for him. He doesnt ever step outside of his box, he plays inside his comfort zone and hes a really good player.

Perhaps thats why Deng still remains an unheralded star, as his consistency has been taken for granted, prompting the likes of Miami's Shane Battier (widely acknowledged as the "fifth starter" for the defending-champion Heat), New York's Amar'e Stoudemire (who only made his regular-season debut this week) and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum (who hasn't played at all for the 76ers) to be ranked ahead of him in fan balloting.

The players above Noah are more predictable -- Miami's LeBron James and New York's Carmelo Anthony far outpace their competition, with Boston's Kevin Garnett holding a lead over the Heat's Chris Bosh, trailed by Knicks center Tyson Chandler for the final starting frontcourt spot and Paul Pierce of the Celtics in sixth place.

Deng, who plays just over 40 minutes a night, is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points per game, along with seven boards, 2.8 assists and a steal per contest. Noah, currently third in the league at 39.2 minutes per game, also sports averages of 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 blocked shots and 1.4 steals a night.

More significant than their numbers, with Rose out of the lineup, the duo has truly kept the Bulls afloat, raising their level of play and despite being selfless players, taking on more of the offensive burden. Noah has long been regarded as the heart of the Bulls, but has developed into more of a mature leader, while Deng, the longest-tenured player, has become more vocal.

They took the responsibility to shoulder a little bit more, Spoelstra said. Thats what great players do.

However, if theyre not selected to the game which isnt a lock, as Noah has to deal with the removal of the center designation, giving way to three frontcourt starters; otherwise, hed be in the running to be a starter and the trickle-down effect impacts Deng they wont be overly concerned. At least they wont show it publicly, as neither professes to be playing for that type of recognition, though one can be sure it would fuel their fire in the second half of the season.

Still, as Bosh who trails future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett for the final frontcourt starting nod in the East, despite the fact that the Heat big man has superior statistics and Miami has a far better record than underachieving Boston said Friday, when asked about his own chances: Its a popularity contest. Im not running for President.

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.