International-born players leading Bulls charge

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International-born players leading Bulls charge

Sunday, March 20, 2011Posted: 11:00 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

If the playoffs started todayapologies in advance for utilizing one of the most overused phrases this time of the yearthe Eastern Conference-leading Bulls first-round opponent would be Fridays foe, the Pacers. Indiana, which ended the Bulls' eight-game winning streak with Fridays overtime win at Conseco Fieldhouse, initially surged upon the dismissal of Jim OBrien and promotion of young assistant Frank Vogel. They then hit a downturn before recently bouncing back behind the improved play of young building blocks Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison.

All-Star point guard Derrick Rose doesnt take Indiana lightly, as he remembers the challengesand motivationof being a team fighting for the eighth seed in the postseason, as the Bulls did his first two seasons in the league. These days, the Bulls are the hunted instead of the hunter and as such, are experiencing being a team with a big target on its back.

Its been fun, but at the same time, its kind of hard," Rose said. "Its even harder because youre trying to get in position in the playoffs. You want to get a better seed, of coursebut youre playing against teams that are playing just to get a spot, so you see how hard theyre playing.

Remembering from last year, we were playing pretty hard towards the end, just trying to make it and it took us until the last game.

Despite Fridays loss, one reason the Bulls wont fold, however, is Roses improved leadership. Much has been made of his jumper and defense, including his shut-down job against fellow elite floor general Deron Williams in the Bulls Thursday win at New Jersey, but the soft-spoken 22-year-old is also becoming noticeably more vocal on the court.

I just feel more comfortable, thats the biggest thing. Im able to talk to my guys, no matter what its about. If its on the court, they know if I talk to them or yell at them, its nothing serious. Its just that were trying to win a game and its basketball. People are going to yell at you in basketball, so dont take it seriously. Im fortunate to have these bunch of guys. They dont complain about anything. They just want to hoop, explained Rose, who scored a career-high-tying 42 points before fouling out in Fridays extra session. In games, in situations, it takes a while, but you just get that feeling from teammates, when they come to you about certain things, ask you about certain things. It just happens.

Asiks progress not drawing surprise

While Rose has become more confident in himself, he also continues to develop more trust in his teammates, including rookie center Omer Asik. The 7-foot native of Turkey rang up 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in the Nets win, leading his peers to gush about his ongoing progress.

Thats almost every game with him," Rose praised. "To come in, get that many rebounds, get to the free-throw line, dunk a lot of balls, block shots, play defense. Thats what we need from him. He works hard, listens. Thats the biggest thing. To be a rookie, hes doing everything Coach wants him to do, especially to be a big and we need him on this team.

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: Were not afraid to play Joakim Noah and Asik together and I think thats the value of those guysall of them, all five post guysthey can all play with each other.

If you want more size out there, Omer can play with all of our other bigs. Taj Gibson can play with everybody. Taj can play the five. He has great feet, so when teams go small, we can stay big, he continued. Of course, the shot-blocking with Taj and Omer in the second unit. We have a lot of different things that we can do. The versatility of our bigs is a huge plus for us.

Thibodeau also quipped that Asiks so-called language barrier hasnt been a detriment to his development.

Its probably more challenging for you guys the media," the coach said. "With us, hes been fine. His teammates understand him, he understands us. Sometimes with criticism, he doesnt understand, but everything else, he understands. Hes serious, hes a diligent worker, very bright and now this is his second and third time through against some of these teams. He keeps learning, getting better, more confident. But hes come in with a defensive mindset from the start and he has great instincts.

While Asiks offense can appear raw at times, Thibodeau believes the rookie is making progress.

Asiks post moves are probably a little too fast, but youre probably starting to see his passing right now. Hes been a great screener, great offensive rebounder, very smart, he helps you execute, is comfortable away from the basket passing the ball, he sees things, he reads helps, plays are being defended, explained Thibodeau.

Asik is showing signs of the ability to be a starting-caliber NBA center sooner than later, giving the Bulls a terrific luxury, as Noah is already an upper-echelon player at the position and both 7-footers are still very young.

I think its just a matter of time before he gets more confident back to the basket," Thibodeau said. "Hes great on pick-and-rolls rolling to the basket. Right now in his post game, he has to slow down, just a little bit.

Sometimes hes trying to get into his move too quick and obviously, if its a paint catch, we want him to go quick, but if he catches outside the lane, we want him to be a little more patient. Let the cutters go through, then go to work and make plays. Itll come in time.

Starting center Noah is also appreciative of Asiks contributions to the squad. While hes working his way back into his old form, Noah feels confident that the teams legion of big menhimself, veteran Kurt Thomas, Asik, Gibson and currently sidelined power forward Carlos Boozercan help carry the load.

I dont feel Im playing my best, but I know that somebody can step in and play the way O Asik played," Noah said after Thursday's game. "Thats huge and Im just going to keep working and try to get back to 100 percent as soon as I can. I like playing with AsikI like playing with all our bigs and everybody brings something different to the table.

Weve got five bigs that are very solid rebounders. Booz went down, were still solid rebounding. When I went down, were still very solid rebounding. What Kurt Thomas and what Omer are bringing to the table is huge for us, what Taj is bringing to the table with his versatility.

Thats the beauty of this team," Noah continued. "Weve got a lot of weapons. Omers somebody who lives in the gym, improving. His confidence is getting better and better. Hes understanding how he can score in the offense. Hes playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.

Noah still regaining form
Although Noah admitted to not being 100 percent because of the flu-like symptoms that sidelined him for Tuesdays home victory over Washington, his trademark energy was still present in New Jersey, evidenced by his key tip-in down the stretch Thursday that helped hold off a Nets rally.

After Fridays loss, however, Noahlike Rose, who somehow believed that not only was his scoring effort not enough, but he came up short in the clutch after bringing the team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficitwas extraordinarily hard on himself, in light of his uncharacteristic three-rebound outing. At the same time, after playing in his second game without a bandage to protect the right thumb that caused him to miss 30 games following surgery, he did feel his under-appreciated shooting touch was returning.

My touch felt good. Im just feeling more and more comfortable out there the more I play. Im still a little sick right now, but the more I play, the more I get over this, the better Ill feel.

Noah also fessed up to something made obvious since the early days of the season: Thibodeaus defense and team-oriented mantras have rubbed off on the players, to the point that they parrot his philosophies when talking to the media.

Were doing the same things every day, so its almost becoming more routine. Thibs is preaching the same stuff and even when were doing interviews, I always end up saying what hes saying to us all the time and everybodys saying the same things, he revealed. Its funny, but you know what? Thibs, he knows what hes talking about and were listening.

Deng not distracted

The last of the Bulls' international-born playersoutside of Noah and AsikLuol Deng, has become the teams most consistent player, according to his teammates and coaches. The Sudanese product, who also spent some of his formative years in London before moving to New Jersey in high school, recently opined about how the NBAs pending Collective Bargaining Agreement could affect players, as many observers have speculated that a league lockout is almost a sure thing.

Deng, who scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Indiana, told CSNChicago.com that he would consider playing overseas next season if a potential lockout was prolonged and it was permissible by NBA rules, although hes obviously focused on the current season at the moment.

I have no problem with it. Ive got to wait and see what the rules are, but growing up in Europe and playing in the summer in European competition, I have no problem doing that, but I dont want to do that. I want to stay right here and play. Well see how it goes. I might not be able to. It might be smart to just wait and see what happens, but at the same time, if it looks like its going to be a long timewhich we all hope its notIve got to see whats the rules, whats the options, what can you do and what can you not do because all of us want to be here and play, said Deng, who learned last week that his Great Britain national teamwhich may have former Bulls teammate Ben Gordon on boardhad qualified for the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London.

When that time comes, you go over it. Theres no point right now to be thinking about that. Youve got to be locked in this season and try to do what youve got to do. When its all over and done, when that time comes and youre in that situation, thats when you make that decision, but I havent even given it a thought at all. Really I just try to focus on what weve got here.

Still, the small forward, often described by Thibodeau as the teams glue, is more excited about the continuation of an already-exciting season with possibilities for much more down the line.

Were doing things that havent been done in a long time and I think we should be proud of that. I said it from the start of the year: We really worked hard in training camp and we still do. You deserve what you put in and we really put in the time. Were really committed to it and its just great to be a part of it.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.