NBA Summer League

Backcourt problems solved? Bulls sign Summer League standout

Backcourt problems solved? Bulls sign Summer League standout

Try telling Antonio Blakeney that Summer League doesn't matter. 

The guard's strong play in Las Vegas over the last week earned him a Two-Way contract with the Bulls, meaning he can play for both the G League's Windy City Bulls and in the NBA.

Blakeney, 20, has appeared in four Summer League games, averaging 16.8 points, five rebounds and just under one steal per contest. It's pretty safe to say that he's been one of the squad's few bright spots in Sin City. While fellow guard Denzel Valentine has struggled to find his shooting rhythm, connecting on under 30 percent from the field this summer, Blakeney has shot 43.8 percent. 

He didn't come out of nowhere, though. Blakeney had tons of hype out of Oak Ridge High School in Florida and was selected to play in the McDonald's All-American Game before taking his talents to LSU, where joining forced with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. That experiment didn't quite work out for Blakeney, who failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in both seasons and went undrafted in 2017. 

For the Bulls, it's a chance to take a flyer on a young, athletic guard who proved he can shoot in college. 

It also gives fans more chances to catch his absolutely nasty dunks, whether it's in Hoffman Estates or at the United Center. 

That's just ridiculous. 

Gar Forman optimistic that Nikola Mirotic will return

Gar Forman optimistic that Nikola Mirotic will return

The Bulls have been relatively quiet since dropping their Draft Day bomb. 

The front office hasn't spent big in free agency or indicated a Dwyane Wade buyout was imminent, instead opting for low-cost moves and commitment to the future. 

Whether Nikola Mirotic is in those future plans remains to be seen, but general manager Gar Forman projected optimism when asked on Monday if he sees the Bulls agreeing to terms with the 26-year-old forward. 

"We want Niko back, and we think Niko wants to be in Chicago," Forman said. "When you have those two things at the end of the day, there's usually a way to get something done." 

The market on the three-year vet remains a mystery, with no NBA teams stepping up to make a serious run. Whether that ultimately helps Gar/Pax in negotiations is also a question mark, but it's certainly looking more and more likely that Mirotic will end up on Fred Hoiberg's roster. 

Last season, Mirotic shot 41 percent from the field and 34 percent from behind the 3-point line. He averaged 11 points and five rebounds over 24 minutes per game. 

While the Bulls expected - and frankly needed - more from their stretch-four, Mirotic did show flashes. In March, he shot over 40 percent from deep, scoring 15 points per contest. 

Mirotic-Markkanen frontcourt? 

Still point guard of the future? Fred Hoiberg confident in Cameron Payne

Still point guard of the future? Fred Hoiberg confident in Cameron Payne

LAS VEGAS -- Since trading Derrick Rose, the Bulls’ relationship with the point guard spot has been “complicated”, if it were a Facebook status.

So while it’s not surprising to see the franchise’s evaluation of Cameron Payne fall flat to this point, one wonders how much progress should be expected given they still have Jerian Grant and acquired Kris Dunn on draft night.

Payne and Dunn played together in the backcourt in the Bulls’ Summer League opener Saturday and although the Bulls went to a two-point guard front, they looked disorganized and out of sorts for most of the game.

Not the best sign considering Payne was called the “point guard of the future” when he was acquired from Oklahoma City as the Bulls dumped Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott.

Considering the Bulls renounced the rights of Joffrey Lauvergne, making him an unrestricted free agent, Payne is the lone body remaining from the deal. And although the setting of Summer League is hardly the best ground to show what a player will do when the games really matter, going two for nine and missing all five 3-point attempts won’t do much to inspire confidence in Payne from the outside.

“I would agree with that. We watched a lot of clips on that this morning with Cam. He walked into a very difficult situation (in February),” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said following Sunday morning’s practice at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center

Hoiberg said Payne was a positive in the playoff prep for Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, where he played the role of Thomas for the scout team. Considering the way Thomas played in the series after Rajon Rondo was hurt, perhaps it was more the defense that was easily manipulated compared to the actual performance.

But the Bulls have confidence in Payne and will continue to express it outwardly, as evidenced by Payne being more on the ball than Dunn in the opener. Dunn expects to play more point guard Monday afternoon, though.

“Cam is a good basketball player. He’s a competitive kid,” Hoiberg said. “He was really disappointed last night. It’s all about bouncing back, watching film, getting better from it. Hopefully he finishes summer league strong.”

More than the statistics, it didn’t appear Payne had a strong feel for the game and its rhythm, requirement number one at that position. At times he rushes the offense while looking for his shot and even more, his cadence often gives away when he’ll forsake the offense to look for his own shot.

And considering the lack of positive experiences Payne has had since being acquired, one has to wonder about his confidence level being affected before it can actually be built.

“We talked a lot about going out there and just making the right basketball play, making simple plays,” Hoiberg said. “We had a lot of examples in our three-day minicamp that we had of making solid plays. When Dallas went on a run last night, it looked like it became my-turn basketball. We just came down and jacked up bad shots.”

On the criticism Payne has received, Hoiberg keeps pumping Payne up: “You can’t let negative comments affect the way you play. Hopefully he’ll be better tomorrow and throughout these last four or five games,” he said.

Payne has spent most of the offseason in Chicago, a must after Bulls VP John Paxson said Payne needs to work on his body and conditioning before next season

“Yeah, I feel like I began to improve. I’ve still got a ways to go, but I mean it’s a process,” Payne said. “I’ve been feeling pretty good. I’ve been in Chicago. That’s been my summer. Just trying to get bigger, stronger. Pick my conditioning up, improve my stamina on the court.’’

Stating pointedly that there’s no time for summer vacation, Payne hopes this experience is a building block for himself personally as he hopes to rewrite a narrative that hasn’t gone his way thus far.

“I mean of course. I mean Summer League is definitely a big task for us,” Payne said.  “We’ve got to build a good chemistry and it starts here. That’s going to translate into the regular season.”