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.

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

Scouting report: What the Bulls are getting in newly acquired Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

The Bulls have entered their rebuilding phase, dealing Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which became Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen. Time will tell what Markkanen becomes as a stretch forward/center but he certainly was worthy of the selection. LaVine and Dunn had been with the Timberwolves since they were drafted, and give the Bulls two versatile options in a backcourt that will look far different than it did a year ago.

Here’s what the Bulls are getting in the two former Timberwolves guards:

LaVine, a two-time NBA Dunk Contest champion, was having a career year before he suffered a torn ACL on Feb. 3. Playing a bigger role in his second season under Thibodeau, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and shot a respectable 39 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts per game, 16th most in the NBA.

LaVine is known for him thunderous dunks, but that athleticism allowed him to shoot nearly 64 percent at the rim last year, per basketball-reference. He’s a scorer first and foremost, topping 25 or more point 10 different times in those 47 games. He went for 40 points in a late December loss to the Kings. He also had five or more assists on eight different occasions, so he’s able to distribute the ball as well. He’s a true combo guard who should finally give Fred Hoiberg some backcourt flexibility.

The Bulls got a firsthand look at LaVine’s skill set in December when he went for 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in a win over the Bulls at the United Center. He shot 10-for-18 and made a few key shots over Dwyane Wade late to seal the game. It was part of a stellar 16-game stretch between November 23 and December 23 when LaVine averaged 23.6 points and 3.5 assists.

He flirted with 50/40/90, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 88 percent from the line. He did all this, of course, playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. While that gave LaVine more one-on-one situations as defenses dealt with his two budding star teammates, shots were hard to come by until LaVine asserted himself and worked him into a featured role in the offense.

LaVine had ACL surgery on February 14 and spoke about his recovery in late May, saying “everything is going well.” LaVine said at that time he was only allowed to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and there’s still no timetable for his return to the court. A source told Insider Vincent Goodwill LaVine is “training softly.”

Dunn has plenty of work to do to show he can compete at the next level. Though he only played one season, his rookie campaign under Thibodeau was one to forget. The No. 5 pick in the draft averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. He played in 78 games behind Ricky Rubio, although he did lose some playing time to Tyus Jones late in the season.

Dunn’s shooting is his biggest weakness. In terms of true shooting percentage, which takes into account 3-point shots and free throws, Dunn was second-to-last in the NBA last year with a 43.2 percent mark. He shot just 38 percent from the floor, 29 percent from beyond the arc and 61 percent at the free-throw line.

For his season-long struggles he did look good in the second half of the year. After the All-Star break he improved his percentages to 40.4/33.3/77.8 and had a handful of impressive games. He had 11 points and seven assists against the Lakers and followed it the next night with a career-best 17 points against the Blazers. In the season finale he handed out 16 assists to go with 10 points, the first double-double of his career.

Where it’s clear he excels is taking care of the ball. His 1.1 turnovers were seventh fewest among point guard who averaged at least Dunn’s 17 minutes per game. He’s ready to facilitate, but he’ll need to score at a higher and more efficient clip to earn playing time.

Where both fit into the Bulls is a question for now. The Bulls have a decision to make with Rajon Rondo and whether to pick up his team option for next season. The Bulls traded for both Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne in the last calendar year, and Isaiah Canaan is under contract for another year. On the wing, LaVine will replace Butler and get as much run as he can handle. With only Denzel Valentine and Anthony Morrow available at shooting guard, LaVine is in line for a big role from Day 1. He’s also in the last year of his rookie contract so the Bulls will be looking to extend him sooner than later.

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Lauri Markkanenn will be a Chicago Bull once the trade between the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves is finalized sometime Friday when the trade call is sent to the NBA, as he’s the first domino to fall in what could be an interesting offseason to come.

A stretch-shooting big man from Arizona who shot 42 percent from 3 last season, Markkanenn is a native of Finland who’s more of an offensive threat rather than a defender and rebounder at seven-feet tall. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for Arizona and has been regarded by many scouts as the best shooter in the draft.

With the Bulls bringing up the rear in that category, one assumes he’ll add a level of versatility if he can see the floor—which brings the Bulls to some offseason decisions they’ll have to make once free agency begins and even before. Markkanenn conceivably brings Nikola Mirotic’s future into question, as Mirotic is a restricted free agent this summer and Mirotic was on the trade block by the Bulls for the better part of last season as he had an underwhelming year trying to fill the role of a stretch-shooting big man.

But officials with the Bulls say Mirotic is still a priority for the Bulls and because he’s restricted, they control the process of his free agency. Mirotic shot 41.3 percent and averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, as the Bulls still consider him an asset for the present and future as they’ll play a new style of basketball next season.

One would think Mirotic will command a salary at least around $10 million as the NBA’s salary cap will balloon to $99 million with a luxury tax line of around $119 million.

Rajon Rondo’s future has yet to be decided, as the Bulls acquired a point guard in Kris Dunn they’ve long eyed and presumably one they feel will be their future at the position.

Bulls officials stated they’ll wait until next week before making a decision on Rondo, but one wonders if they’ll go full youth movement, especially with wanting Dunn to succeed after a rocky rookie year in Minnesota and already having Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.

Rondo has a $3 million buyout the Bulls can exercise that will make Rondo a free agent or they’ll pay Rondo $13.3 million next season.

[MORE: After trading Jimmy Butler, Bulls select Lauri Markkanen] 

And then there’s Dwyane Wade, who opted in to his deal of $23.8 million for next season. Wade came to Chicago for a number of reasons, notably the salary and chance to play with Butler. With Butler gone and the Bulls changing their direction of the franchise, one wonders how Wade sees himself next season and how the Bulls see Wade with their young players.

Unless Wade wants out, the Bulls are headed into the free agency period thinking he’ll be back next season, and considering the Bulls have to spend up to 90 percent of their salary cap, his money helps them keep their books afloat, even as Butler’s affordable max salary exits and the controlled rookie-scale salaries of LaVine, Dunn and Merkkanenn enter Chicago for a future unknown