What to Watch for in Bulls' Pre-Season Opener

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What to Watch for in Bulls' Pre-Season Opener

Thursday, October 1st

Here's a few things to watch for in the Bulls' opening pre-season game against Indiana, Friday at 6 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Plus.

1. LUOL DENG'S QUICKNESS...... How much did the right leg stress fracture and long summer of rehab affect his ability to drive past defenders and get to the rim? Deng looked like a future All-Star after his outstanding playoff series against Miami in 2007, but he's been held back by a series of injuries over the last 2 seasons. The Bulls need him to be a reliable scorer, combining his mid-range jumpers with an aggressive driving game. Will his health hold up over the course of a long season?

2. IMPROVED OFFENSIVE PLAY OF NOAH AND THOMAS..... Both players spent a lot of time in the gym this past summer working on their offensive games. Tyrus says he has complete confidence in his 15 to 18 foot jumper, which would open the door for him to fly past on-rushing defenders for one of his patented dunks. Noah did a lot of work with a shooting coach to improve the form on his mid-range jumpers and the consistency of his free throw shooting. If both players can make opposing defenders honor the threat of a mid-range jump shot, it will open up the Bulls' offense considerably.

3. THE ROOKIES.... How much playing time will James Johnson and Taj Gibson earn as rookies? It sounds like the Bulls have big plans for Johnson, their top draft pick out of Wake Forest. At 6-8, 250 pounds, Johnson has the size to play power forward and the ball handling and outside shooting skills to play some small forward. Keep an eye on him during the pre-season games to see if he has the confidence to contribute meaningful minutes off the bench. Gibson is more of a project at this point. The Bulls want to get him in the weight room to improve his strength, much like they did with Horace Grant when he first came into the league. Gibson is a versatile defender and extremely aggressive. With the injury to Aaron Gray, the Bulls might experiment with Gibson as their 3rd center behind Noah and Brad Miller.

4. JOHN SALMONS AT THE "2" GUARD...... With Ben Gordon taking his 21 points a game to Detroit, the Bulls are counting on a big season from Salmons, who's played both shooting guard and small forward during his NBA career. Salmons should be able to score 16 to 18 points a game, but will he be able to defend shorter, quicker shooting guards? And, after the injury issues he had at the end of last season, will an increased work load have him worn out come playoff time?

5. DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE...... The coaching staff has talked about a renewed commitment to defense ever since the playoff series against Boston ended last spring. They plan to be more consistent in their approach to defending the pick and roll, which is the staple of most NBA offenses. The Bulls are counting on an improved defense to make up for some of the scoring they lost with Gordon's departure.

6. ROSE IN FULL BLOOM........ Derrick Rose had an eventful summer, not all of it pleasant, thanks to the academic irregularities reported involving his former college and high school. But Rose spent a lot of time working with personal trainers in Los Angeles to improve his jump shot and finishes at the rim. He also practiced with the U.S. Olympic developmental team, and should be a fixture on future national squads. Derrick turns 21 next week, and it's going to be a lot of fun watching him take his game to an even more dynamic level this season.

I wanted to answer some of the e-mail questions we've received lately, and as always, I invite you to keep them coming.

Question from Steven, Wilmette, Illinois:

Since the Bulls lost their scorer, can we look to the deadline to find a scorer rather than wait till the off season? Maybe we can acquire a guy like Stephen Jackson or Jason Richardson to play the 2-3 for Deng if things don't work out. Could that happen?

Mark Schanowski: It's always a possibility, but I'm pretty sure the Bulls are going to wait until next summer to make their move for a big time free agent like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. They probably could have worked out a trade for Carlos Boozer over the summer, but the front office wasn't convinced he was the right guy to be handed a max contract. Stephen Jackson has had a lot of attitude issues during his career, so I don't think the Bulls would be interested in him, and Jason Richardson has bounced around since coming into the league with so much promise out of Michigan State. I thought Richardson would develop into a great pro, but so far, it hasn't happened.

Question from Marc, Olive Branch, MS:
Hey Mark, do you still believe that the Bulls organization will try & make a move for Chris Bosh? They STILL need a low post presence that'll hopefully take this team to the next level. GO BULLS!!

Schanowski: My read on the situation is Wade will be the number 1 target for the Bulls in free agency, followed closely by Bosh. When you look at the top players in the league, it's probably something like LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Bosh would be in that 2nd tier of all-star players, who would be great additions, but not necessarily franchise players. Personally, I'd rather see the Bulls pursue Stoudemire over Bosh. I think Amare is a more dominant scorer, whose talents would mesh perfectly with Rose in the pick and roll game. The Bulls are still hoping Tyrus Thomas might take a big step this season towards becoming the kind of player they expected when they picked him 4th overall in 2006. And if that happens, they might even think about a guy like Atlanta's 6-7 shooting guard Joe Johnson in free agency next summer.

Question from Ty, Chicago, IL

What did you think of MJ's HOF speech? I was very surprised at all the low blows.

Schanowski: I'm right there with you Ty. I was in Springfield for the speech, and I couldn't believe M.J. would pick that occasion to take so many shots at rivals and former colleagues instead of thanking his teammates, coaches and family for all their help through the years. As you can tell by all the criticism Jordan has received in the national media, a lot of people had their eyes opened regarding the down side of Michal's famous competitive, win-at-all-costs attitude. I thought his speech was very heavy-handed, and I'm guessing he would do things a little differently if he had it to do over again.

Question from Andy Larson, Barrington, IL:

My question is why don't the Bulls take risks to make their team better? Now i know the Ben Wallace free agent signing in 2006 was a risk but it seems like that was the last time they did so. The time is now for the Bulls. Let me know your feedback. Thanks

Schanowski: As I mentioned earlier, the Bulls seem to be putting all their eggs in the 2010 free agent class. I would have liked to have seen them roll the dice on a trade for Carlos Boozer this past summer, and see how his skills would have meshed with Rose. If they worked well together, sign Boozer to a long-term extension. If not, let him walk, and go after someone else in free agency. I think the Bulls front office is a little more cautious after getting burned on that huge contract they gave to Ben Wallace. It really hurt team chemistry, and sent their building plan back a couple years. It forced them to trade an emerging player in Tyson Chandler, and altered decisions they made in the draft and trade markets. The upside is they were able to get in the draft lottery in '08, and win the rights to draft Rose, so I guess things could work out well in the end. If they can get Wade next summer to go with Rose, they will instantly become a championship contender for the next 5 to 7 years.

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.”