Why Jarrett Allen's athleticism, upside could trump Bulls' draft needs

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USA TODAY

Why Jarrett Allen's athleticism, upside could trump Bulls' draft needs

When the Bulls made – and hit on – their Joakim Noah selection in the 2007 NBA Draft it solidified the center position. Though free agent Ben Wallace patrolled the middle during Noah’s rookie season, and Drew Gooden did so for the early portion of Noah’s second season, the Florida product wound up grabbing the reins in the middle of the 2008-09 season and remained entrenched as the starter through 2015.

In that span he made two All-Star appearances, was named First Team All-NBA and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.

The Bulls rotated backups behind Noah in those years, bringing in players such as Brad Miller, Aaron Gray, Omer Asik and Nazr Mohammed to patrol the second unit’s defense. When Noah fell out of favor under Fred Hoiberg before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury two season ago, the Bulls filled that void with Pau Gasol, who had played alongside Noah in his first season (under Tom Thibodeau) at power forward. The Bulls moved on from Noah last year, dealing Derrick Rose to New York for a package that included Robin Lopez. Noah signed with the Knicks to replace Lopez.

Lopez was his usual solid self in his first season with the Bulls. He averaged 10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 28.0 minutes, and perhaps most importantly appeared in 81 games (and all six in the postseason). Cristiano Felicio also continued his development into a serviceable backup, playing in 61 games.

Since drafting Noah in 2007 the Bulls have selected and kept 10 first-round draft choices. Of those, two were point guards (Rose, Teague), three were shooting guards (Butler, Valentine, McDermott), two were small forwards (Snell, Johnson) and three were power forwards (Gibson, Mirotic, Portis).

The Bulls are one of six teams that have not drafted one of the 45 centers in the first round since 2008 (DAL, LAC, LAL, NYK, ORL are the others). Noah’s presence allowed the Bulls to bypass many of those bigs, and even entering this offseason it’s likely Felicio, a restricted free agent, returns.

But at some point taking the best player available – something Gar Forman said he’ll do  – must trump considering needs for the Bulls. For a team void on young talent, and even more so on athleticism, instant impact is no longer the most valuable attribute a player can have. Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine, both accomplished seniors, were seen as players who could contribute to a team competing for the postseason, while Portis fell into the Bulls’ lap at No. 22 as a draft-day steal. Tony Snell was a junior and Jimmy Butler a senior, with freshman Marquis Teague sandwiched in between a franchise looking to compete.

The Bulls have needs in multiple areas: point guard and depth on the wing top the list. But if the right player becomes available – even a center – the Bulls need to consider it. Adding the best players regardless of position or age isn’t a sign of a rebuild or not playing to win; it’s a sign of improving your young talent pool, and the Bulls need that perhaps more than any other franchise.

Enter Jarrett Allen. The 6-foot-11 freshman didn’t become a household name in his lone season at Texas as the Longhorns struggled to an abysmal 11-22 record under Shaka Smart. But the five-star product from Austin put together an impressive campaign, averaging 13.4 points and 8.5 rebounds; his numbers impressively spiked to 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in Big 12 play.

Against the six Big 12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament, Allen averaged 15.6 points on 61 percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds in 13 games. His play improved as the competition did in his first and only season of college ball. In two meetings against Kansas he double-doubled in each game and combined to tally 42 points and 30 rebounds, including a whopping 18 offensive boards by himself.

Allen tested well at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. His vertical leap (35.5 inches), ¾ sprint (3.21 seconds) and shuttle run (3.00 seconds) all were first among centers, and his 7-foot-5 ¼ wingspan was fourth among all players. For what it’s worth (very little), he also had the longest hands (9.5 inches). It was rare to see a potential Lottery pick show up at the Combine, but Allen wanted to prove himself, which he did.

"It was important for me to come to show I'm more athletic than people think," he said.

Allen’s offensive game is raw – he admitted as much at the Combine – but his impact around the rim at both ends is impressive. All but 20 of his field goals came in the paint, although he converted those at a nearly 64 percent clip. In conference play he grabbed 3.2 offensive rebounds per game, and on the year ranked in the 80th percentile nationally scoring off offensive rebounds, per Synergy Sports Technology. A combination of strong hands and a soft touch at the rim made him a terror in the paint. He also runs the floor well, averaging 1.18 points per possession in transition, which ranked in the 73rd percentile nationally, per Synergy.

Allen has the length and intangibles that make him capable of becoming a great rim protector and defender. He blocked 2.0 shots per 40 minutes and committed just 2.3 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play. Both his block percentage and fouls-committed-per-40 were among the best in the Big 12.

He said at the Combine that a misconception of his game is that he’s not tough, and if he wants to make an immediate contribution in the NBA he’ll need to prove that. He's working out at IMG Academy during the pre--draft process, and something his coaches are stressing to him is lateral movement to help defend pick-and-rolls against guards.

"The first two years I'm going to have to be a defensive guy and bring energy," he said. "My offensive game isn't going to be as polished as it's going to be, so that's the only way I'm going to get on the court."

Allen won’t be the only center the Bulls could consider at No. 16. Creighton’s Justin Patton, Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and Wake Forest’s John Collins are all worthy of a look. But Allen has that combination of athleticism, production and upside (he won’t turn 20 until April) that the Bulls have been missing in recent years.

He would join a successful group of Longhorns to declare for the draft after their freshman seasons. The most recent include Kevin Durant, Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Myles Turner. While all those players' successes don't guarantee anything for Allen, the program has a track record of churning out NBA talent.

The draft could fall a number of ways, and no one knows for certain what the Bulls’ big board looks like. But if Allen is around when the Bulls are on the clock it could produce a cornerstone at the position the Bulls haven’t had since Noah. Having Lopez around for two seasons would allow Fred Hoiberg to work Allen in slowly, and though Felicio is just 24 he projects as a career backup (albeit a productive one with talent). Allen met with the Bulls in Chicago during the Combine and said he thinks he'll go somewhere between picks 10 and 20.

Center may not be a position of need for the Bulls, but adding the best talent with significant upside is. Allen checks the boxes there and could bring a new - and sorely needed - skill set to the Windy City.

Which of the Bulls' young players will develop next season?

Which of the Bulls' young players will develop next season?

Seeing as the Bulls don't have much flexibility to reshape their roster this offseason - meaning don't expect any sudden overhauls - it's going to be on the team's younger players to develop.

Players like Cameron Payne, Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Chris Feliciio and Jerian Grant need to take steps forward or the Bulls won't move much from their standing in the Eastern Conference.

We discussed what to expect from the youngsters on SportsTalk Live. Check it out in the video above.

NBA Buzz: Don't expect a roster overhaul from the Bulls this summer

NBA Buzz: Don't expect a roster overhaul from the Bulls this summer

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman didn't provide a whole lot of clarity on the team's future during their 40-minute end-of-the-season meeting with reporters on Wednesday.
  
We learned Fred Hoiberg will definitely be back for a third season as head coach, and Paxson said there's a "really good chance" the Bulls will pick up their $13.4 million team option on Rajon Rondo's services for next season. Forman also indicated the Bulls would like to keep restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic.

But beyond that, there's a lot of unknowns, starting with Dwyane Wade's $23.8 million player option for next season. Wade has already met once with the front office, and Paxson said they'll meet again in the coming weeks to talk about the direction of the roster and the franchise. But given Wade's recent history of taking his time to make decisions about his future, the Bulls might not have anything concrete until the June 30 deadline.

Both Paxson and Forman talked about the importance of player development this summer, saying the Bulls are counting on all of their young players to spend meaningful time at the Advocate Center working with the coaching and training staffs. Forman said the Bulls still have high hopes for a number of their under-25 crew, including Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Cris Felicio, Paul Zipser and Cameron Payne. 

With the expected return of Rondo next season, look for Payne to be the back-up at point guard, with Jerian Grant a possible trade candidate. Grant fell completely out of the rotation at the end of the playoff series against Boston, and it's unlikely the Bulls would want to bring him back as the third string point guard, with little hope of consistent playing time. Don't expect to see restricted free agent Michael Carter-Williams return either. MCW will probably be joining his fourth team when the new season opens in October.

Obviously, the biggest decision for the front office involves the future of All-Star Jimmy Butler. While conceding Butler is the best player on the team and an All-NBA talent, Paxson stopped short of saying Butler was untouchable in trade talks. Like Wade, Butler is also planning to have a no-holds barred sit-down with the front office in the coming weeks, seeking some assurance about whether the team has a plan in place to become a contender in the Eastern Conference again. 

Paxson said the Bulls aren't shopping Butler, and that's something Jimmy will appreciate hearing in person when their meeting takes place. He'll also want to hear what the Bulls plan to do with their available cap room (roughly $20 million if Wade and Rondo return) to add a consistent shooter off the bench. 

At this point, it looks like the plan for the summer is to bring back the "Three Alphas", make the 2 draft picks on June 22nd, and possibly add a solid veteran bench player in free agency. But the upcoming meetings with Butler and Wade could force the front office to pivot to a completely new direction. Stay tuned.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

The Bulls aren't the only team contemplating an uncertain future this summer. L.A. Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has to decide whether to take the franchise into unprecedented luxury tax territory by resigning upcoming free agents Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute.

Resigning Paul and Griffin alone could cost the Clippers around $375 million over the next five years. Rivers has indicated he'd like to have everyone back, and to this point he hasn't been given any payroll limitations by deep-pockets owner Steve Ballmer.

Still, you have to wonder if bringing back the same crew is the best strategy for a team that routinely wins 50+ games during the regular season, then flames out early in the playoffs. Since the Clippers will be capped out by retaining Paul alone, their best strategy is probably to also bring Griffin back to preserve trade options down the line. They could explore sign-and-trade scenarios, including a previously discussed deal with the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. But again, Rivers will have to get the green light from his owner to take the payroll to a level we haven't seen before in the NBA.

Are there roster changes coming in Atlanta? Head coach Mike Budenholzer relinquished his front office role after a first round playoff exit, and the Hawks best player, Paul Millsap, will be looking for a max deal in free agency. Are the Hawks willing to commit five years, and over $150 million to a very good, but not great 32-year-old power forward? Especially considering their core group of Millsap, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder really isn't good enough to challenge Cleveland for Eastern Conference supremacy. Don't be surprised if the next head of basketball operations decides to take a different approach with the roster.

And, what might happen in Toronto if the Cavaliers complete a semifinals demolition of the Raptors? The Cavs' trapping defense has taken All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out of their comfort zones, and the addition of frontline defenders Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker has done nothing to slow down LeBron James and Kevin Love. Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker are all headed to free agency at season's end, and it seems unlikely the Raptors will be able to afford to keep all three players. 

Ibaka would look good as a starting power forward in the Bulls' lineup with his ability to defend and knock down shots from 3-point range. Problem is, the Bulls probably won't have the cap room to add a max player, and the 27-year-old Ibaka will be looking to break the bank this summer. 

Other power forward options in free agency include Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Gay, James Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, Derrick Williams, Marreese Speights, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Patterson. But if Mirotic is brought back along with Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser, the Bulls won't have a major need at that positon.

If Mirotic does not return to the Bulls, finding a consistent shooter at the stretch-4 positon could jump to the top of the list of offseason priorities. The Bulls should be able to pick from a large number of college and international power forwards in the June 22 draft with their 16th and 38th selections.

Included among that group are Cal's Ivan Rabb, UCLA's TJ Leaf, Wake Forest's John Collins, Duke's Harry Giles, Kentucky's Bam Adebayo, Syracuse's Tyler Lydon, Baylor's Johnathan Motley, Purdue's Caleb Swanigan, Utah's Kyle Kuzma, Oregon's Jordan Bell Valpo's Alec Peters and SMU's Semi Ojeleye.  

Based on what we heard from Paxson and Forman on Wednesday, as many as 11 of the 15 players on the roster for the Celtics playoff series could be back in Bulls' uniforms when training camp starts in September.

It looks like the marketing department already has it's slogan for the 2017-'18 season, "Let's Run It Back."