Now that college basketball's NCAA Tournament is underway — the "First Four," or play-in games concluded Wednesday, with the round of 64 starting Thursday — everyone from casual fans to NBA executives will be tuning into "March Madness."
In fact, the latter group has been paying attention to the college game all season, given the much-ballyhooed potential 2014 NBA Draft class, but started evaluating more earnestly over the last week or two, bird-dogging the various conference tournaments. How impactful the top college prospects will be upon arrival in the NBA has been downplayed as of late, but it's widely accepted that there should be a deep group of rotation players to choose from in June.
The Bulls will be in a more favorable position than usual, as their own selection should be high enough that they can select a role player talented enough to be inserted in the lineup as a rookie, not to mention the pick that will in all likelihood be conveyed from Charlotte from the 2010 Tyrus Thomas trade. The Bobcats are poised to be a playoff team this spring and thus, the top-10 protected pick they owe the Bulls--it would be top-eight protected in 2015 and unprotected in 2016 — should be handed over.
Of course, the Bulls could always trade one or both of the choices, but in the climate of today's NBA, with the restrictive collective-bargaining agreement, bank on the organization holding on to them and adding two rookie contracts to the organization's payroll. Players such as the Kansas freshman duo of Canadian swingman Andrew Wiggins and currently-sidelined center Joel Embiid, as well as Chicago native Jabari Parker of Duke (assuming all of them declare for the draft) are highly unlikely to be on the board when the Bulls make their pick, but there will still be a plethora of instant-impact prospects at their disposal.
While the "best player available" strategy is a factor in any franchise's decision-making process, the Bulls have an established core moving forward and will need to seek out players to complement the likes of former league MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star center Joakim Noah, sixth man Taj Gibson, swingman Jimmy Butler and even rookie wing Tony Snell, not to mention 2011 first-round draft pick Nikola Mirotic, who could arrive in Chicago as soon as next season. The team's most obvious needs to be addressed are a backup post player and a perimeter scorer.
In the former category, some of the realistic options include Kentucky sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, Louisville sophomore power forward Montrezl Harrell and Michigan State senior power forward Adreian Payne. Cauley-Stein is extremely raw offensively and has struggled with bouts of inconsistency, but 7-foot-1 and possessing excellent athleticism, envisioning him being tutored by Noah and blossoming into a similar defensive force isn't out of the question. Harrell is a bit undersized for his position at 6-foot-8, but his explosiveness and power combats some of that, and his ferocious nature around the basket, relentless rebounding ability and hard-playing demeanor would seem to jibe with the Bulls' approach. Payne, being a senior, isn't thought to have as much upside, but he can stretch the floor at 6-foot-10, has improved throughout his college career and played for a coach in Tom Izzo known for developing pro-ready players.
Two other big men to consider are international prospects Clint Capela of Switzerland and Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic. Capela is an athletic power forward and Nurkic is more of a traditional center.
Despite having veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. under contract for another season, the Bulls could also go the small-forward route. Creighton senior Doug McDermott could already be off the board, but if he isn't, the Bulls would have to think long and hard about drafting him, due to his ability to stretch the floor, a major deficiency on the team, despite his perceived defensive shortcomings. It should be noted that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau had the opportunity to see McDermott up close last summer during USA Basketball's Select Team mini-camp, so he already has an idea of how the nation's leading scorer looks in a semi-NBA setting.
Other small forwards who will warrant a look include sophomores Jerami Grant of Syracuse and North Carolina State's T.J. Warren. Grant, the nephew of former Bulls power forward Horace Grant and son of his twin brother Harvey, who played for the Washington Bullets, is an excellent athlete, but still needs work on his perimeter game. Warren, the ACC Player of the Year, is a top-tier scorer, albeit an unconventional one who isn't an upper-echelon athlete or three-point threat.
When it comes to players who have the versatility to play either wing position and could perhaps function more with the ball in their hands than the Bulls' current swingmen, Duke sophomore Rodney Hood and Kentucky freshman James Young, both long left-handers, fit the bill. Hood, in his first season at Duke after transferring from Mississippi State, starred as the aforementioned Parker's sidekick, showing that he's a talented outside shooter, can score off the dribble and has some ability on the defensive end of the floor. Young has had an up and down campaign, as has the rest of his team, but his aggressive slashing game and capable outside stroke bode well for his future.
If the Bulls chose to go the pure-shooting route, viewing both Butler and Snell as more small forwards than shooting guards, Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas and Washington senior C.J. Wilcox are two intriguing names. Stauskas, a native of Canada, made major strides in his game over this past season, showing improved ability to create his own shot, be a playmaker for others and finish around the rim with his underrated athleticism, to go along with his knockdown shooting. Wilcox has gone under the radar because of his age and his team's struggles, but is also a pure shooter who has rounded out the other parts of his game.
A trio of guards who could man both backcourt positions at the NBA level, possibly spelling Rose at the point on occasion, could also appeal to the Bulls. Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris has battled injuries and regressed as a shooter this season, but his two-way potential is still something that can't be taken lightly. Missouri junior Jordan Clarkson, a Tulsa transfer, has an NBA-ready frame, though his decision-making and outside shooting tailed off in the second half of his team's disappointing season. Nevada senior Deonte Burton, while not having great size, has the strength and bounce to be effective as a professional, especially in today's guard-oriented game.
There is also a pair of perimeter players who didn't complete their junior seasons due to off-the-court issues, but are still highly-regarded prospects and could be solid fits for the Bulls. Former Notre Dame combo guard Jerian Grant — the older brother of the aforementioned Jerami Grant of Syracuse — can play both guard spots, having great size for a point guard and before his season ended prematurely, displayed improvement in his outside jumper. For the record, he hasn't officially announced whether or not he intends to return to school next fall. P.J. Hairston, on the other hand, has made his decision, as the ex-North Carolina sharpshooter has been excelling in the D-League. A big wing, Hairston is taking the same path as Washington Wizards rookie Glen Rice Jr., a second-round pick last June, but is even more talented.
It's clear that the Bulls will have plenty of options when it comes to the upcoming draft and while the organization has surely been doing plenty of research throughout the season in the hopes of mining another gem like Gibson or Butler, with a more favorable situation this year, it's more likely that this year's selection could be playing on center stage during "March Madness."