Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

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Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

Tuesday, October 6th

OK, I know it's only two meaningless preseason games, but you can't help but be encouraged by what we've seen so far from Bulls rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson. NBA observers shrugged when the Bulls grabbed the two power forwards in Round 1 of the draft back in June, with some of the so-called experts saying the team made a big mistake not taking Pittsburgh big man DeJuan Blair. Blair looked good in summer league play with San Antonio, and there's no question he has some scoring ability in the low post. But like so many other teams, the Bulls were scared off by his lack of height and medical reports on his surgically repaired knees.

But back to Johnson and Gibson. Bulls GM Gar Forman told us back on draft night that the Bulls had Johnson ranked as the fifth-best player on their draft board and they were thrilled to get him with the 16th pick overall. He has good quickness and ball-handling ability for a big man, and decent shooting range out to the three-point line. But during the summer, Johnson didn't exactly burn up inferior competition in Las Vegas. He was carrying too much weight at around 265 pounds and didn't look nearly quick enough to play small forward in the NBA. Obviously, Johnson got the message. The former kick-boxing champion worked hard to get his weight down to around 250, and he looks noticeably slimmer and quicker so far in the preseason. Playing against the likes of Utah's Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, Johnson found a way to put up 18 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. He also made the big plays down the stretch, including the game winning jumper at the buzzer. Vinny Del Negro plans to give Johnson playing time at both forward positions and he looks like the kind of player who can grow into a scoring role off the bench.

As for Gibson, a lot of mock drafts had him falling into the second round, but here at Beyond the Arc, we were campaigning for the Bulls to select the hard-working big man out of USC with that 22nd overall pick they got in the Thabo Sefolosha trade. I really liked Gibson's relentless work on the boards at USC playing for Tim Floyd, and he also showed a nice shooting touch and the ability to be a shot blocker at the NBA level. The only real knock on Gibson was that he was too thin, at 225 pounds. But the Bulls have a terrific weight-training staff led by Erik Helland, and they'll work hard with Gibson to help him build the strength he'll need to survive in the NBA, much like they did with Horace Grant before the Bulls' first three-peat. Gibson started the game against Utah with Tyrus Thomas out because of injury, and put up 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, including an emphatic rejection of Millsap. He was even better in the preseason opener against Indiana, leading the Bulls with 19 points off the bench, while adding nine rebounds. Entering training camp, it looked like Gibson might have a tough time finding minutes behind Joakim Noah, Brad Miller, Thomas and Johnson, but he was the first big man off the bench against Indiana and has impressed the coaching staff with his hustle and determination on the boards.

Things could change once the regular season begins, as the Bulls face the likes of San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland in the early going, but the early returns suggest Johnson and Gibson will work their way into Vinny's rotation and maybe contribute more as rookies than anyone around the NBA expected.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

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Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

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.”