NBA

Ranking and Projecting the Chicago Bulls Young Players

John Paxson left the Bulls with a fairly promising young core, but the jury is out on whether these pieces can coalesce to form a winning whole.

“There is no quick fix.” The words ring in the ears of Bulls fans to this day. Although John Paxson is no longer making the decisions, these words remain true if a little hollow coming from him.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending who you ask) the Bulls’ season is likely over and that means no fix is coming any time soon. Alas, the rebuild continues under new decision-making duo Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. Their task is simple: return the Chicago Bulls to greatness.

Whether the eventual fix comes from development and amplification of the current core or a cashing in of their chips for a star or two, the starting point remains the same: the Bulls front office needs to assess what they have and determine how best to maximize those assets going forward.

In an effort to determine the baseline for assessing the moves this nascent front office makes in the future, we must first determine the value of the assets at hand. Value determination requires us to assess a player’s current talent and production and project what that worth might be in the future.

So how good are these young players and what might they reasonably add to their game to maximize their production in the league and ultimately increase their value? Today we’ll rank the Bulls young players, taking into account what they’ve already done and what they project to do next. Then, we’ll propose one skill each player could add between now and the beginning of next season to put themselves in the best position to succeed.


1. Wendell Carter Jr.

Carter Jr. was misused by head coach Jim Boylen in just about every imaginable way this season. Karnisovas, Eversley, and (hopefully) a new head coach will hope to make the most of Wendell’s diverse skill set.

The argument for having Wendell Carter Jr. number 1 in this list is pretty simple. In many ways, Carter Jr. is the consummate example of what makes a great connecting piece on a winning team, and he’s the Chicago Bulls young guy I feel most confident will contribute to winning playoff basketball. From a fit standpoint, Wendell offers the fewest barriers to roster construction of any player currently on roster. Put most simply: he takes almost nothing off the table and his skill set should be scalable no matter who the Bulls put around him. For this reason, WCJ is the Bull I would be least likely to trade at this point in time.

On offense, his passing ability is a positive, especially for a big. He’s been cast as a roll threat more frequently this season (roll man in 3.2/75 possessions this season, 88th percentile per BBall index) and with this shift, his usage has dropped (down to 15.2% this season from 18.2% last season per Cleaning the Glass) but Carter Jr. showed flashes of high level passing acumen when given the opportunity.

These flashes had the scouting community glowing prior to him entering the league, and it’s something the new front office must do better to maximize. Wendell consistently finds the open man on the short roll and when the defense collapses on him in the paint. This creates easy looks for teammates.

While slightly undersized for a center at 6-9, Wendell utilizes his strong lower body to box out to great effect, walling off the paint consistently. Once in position, Carter Jr. takes advantage of his plus wingspan to secure tough rebounds. He’s especially effective on the offensive glass, where he grabbed 4 offensive rebounds per 75 possessions (92nd percentile per BBall Index). These second chance opportunities lead to easy buckets for the Bulls and help keep the machine running when offense stagnates, a common issue the team experiences in the half court.

On defense, Carter Jr.’s advanced feel for the game and impressive length at 6’10” in shoes with a 9’1 standing reach give him the ability to clean up after defensive breakdowns. He posted a block rate of 2.8% last season (85th percentile among bigs per Cleaning the Glass) and contested 36% of shots at the rim this season (86th percentile per BBall Index).

Unfortunately, since the Bulls played a hyper-aggressive blitz P&R scheme this season, he was pulled away from the rim where he can best affect the game and thus had less impressive block numbers. However, I still have immense faith in Wendell to make the most of his positioning, strength, and length to deter attacks at the basket and snuff them out when they do occur. If anything, his success in this relatively ill-fitting situation showed me he has better lateral agility and perimeter chops than I anticipated.

While Carter Jr. offers a lot to like on both ends, suggesting he’ll be a high level starter on a good team, his inability and unwillingness to shoot jump shots negatively affects spacing in the half court. I’m not sure if Boylen and Co. instructed him not to take jumpers, but he wasn’t even looking at the rim at points this season, and he was left open a lot as a result.

The Bulls already lack a reliable primary initiator. For a club so dependent on ball movement to find the best possible shot, not taking wide open jumpers mucks up spacing and exacerbates the struggles that Chicago’s various back court combinations face in trying to create and capitalize on advantage situations.

As you can see in the above clip, his jump shot looks mechanically sound and consistent. His free throw numbers are nothing to write home about (73.7% this season) but he’s solid enough at the line and he’s demonstrated soft touch around the rim. Wendell should be shooting whenever he’s open in an attempt to extend his range and become a more versatile offensive player. If he can bump his free throw numbers up to around 80% on greater volume and shoot a respectable 35% from 3 on respectable volume, his offensive game would really open up. These relatively small improvements would present him more opportunities to take advantage of his high level feel and decision making, resulting in a greater impact on each game.


2. Zach LaVine

LaVine has proven that he can score with the best, but he needs to find a way to provide value elsewhere before he can complete his ascent to star level.

Zach LaVine is one of the most polarizing players in the league. Some say he’s an elite scorer who has been miscast in his role as the number 1 option for Chicago. Others argue that his subpar defensive IQ and limited playmaking chops result in a player who is best described as a floor raiser for bad teams. In reality, I think he toes the line between the two.

Let’s start with the positives. LaVine is a nuclear athlete who maximizes his significant athletic advantages to create space both attacking the rim off the dribble and shooting off movement. LaVine’s stroke is effortless and he gets it off quickly, which allows him to excel at making difficult shots, an ability the Bulls get plenty of mileage out of.

In addition, Zach and the Bulls coaching staff have done a great job this season of cutting out a lot of long mid-range attempts in favor of more 3s; his shot chart looks like it came out of a Kirk Goldsberry fever dream.

Courtesy of NBAShotCharts.com

LaVine’s superb scoring efficiency (56.8% true shooting on 31.9% usage per BBall Index, good for 62nd percentile and 98th percentile respectively) is derived mostly from his success using his shot to set up downhill attacks and vice versa. This duality forces defending teams to respect Zach’s scoring ability basically anywhere on the court, and puts immense pressure on defenses to adjust.

The result is warped defensive schemes and easier scoring opportunities for teammates. Ben Taylor’s Box Creation metric (where he ranks in the 94th percentile among all players) backs up what can be gleaned from the film: Zach LaVine’s scoring prowess would be a highly effective tool for any NBA team’s offense.

On the other side of the ball however, the outlook isn’t so rosy. Much has been made of LaVine’s off-ball defense (or lack thereof). He frequently falls asleep off-ball, resulting in back cuts that make a scout cringe.

While he’s improved on the defense end this year, I’m not entirely convinced that he’s notably more useful on defense than he was last season. Sure he put up a career high number in steals (he averaged 2 steals per 75 possessions per BBall Index) but all the defensive lapses were still there, and the Bulls aggressive P&R scheme was specifically designed to force turnovers at a high rate at the cost of an increased risk of getting put in rotation if the initial blitz didn’t force a turnover. And boy, the Bulls were in rotation a lot!

So where does this leave the Bulls in their evaluation of Zach LaVine? He’s going to get you buckets at a near-elite level, but what else can he offer to further increase his effect on the game? I’m of the opinion that he is what he is at this point on defense. I don’t think he’s going to get significantly better. What he CAN improve is his passing ability.

One major reason why LaVine seems miscast in his role as the number one guy for the Chicago Bulls is that, despite his immense gravity as a scorer and his ability to get wherever he wants on the court, he does very little to convert that gravity to scoring opportunities for teammates (0.69 assist to usage ratio per Cleaning The Glass). He’s done an admirable job of looking to pass, but he’s far too aggressive at times and often telegraphs his passes, resulting in a high number of turnovers. Those turnovers often become easy transition layups for opponents. Between his sub-par defensive positioning and his proclivity for turning the ball over on the other end, much of the value Zach creates as a scorer is washed away due to simple mistakes.

The most significant improvement LaVine can feasibly make is to get better as a P&R ball handler. He’s never going to be a reliable primary initiator, but having the ability to go to a borderline elite scorer in secondary P&R will take pressure off the Bulls developing point guard, Coby White. Zach tends to get sped up when the defender guarding his screener comes up to the level of the ball. Traps are problematic for him, and teams know they can attack his handle and make things happen. Becoming more composed in the P&R and adding some counters to his handle around screens will add another layer to his on-ball game, making him difficult to predict and better maximizing the talent of more dependent teammates.


3. Coby White

White followed in the footsteps of previous rookie point guards and struggled early, but his late season heroics provided a glimpse into how good he can be when his shot is falling.

The Bulls have been looking for a reliable primary initiator since they dealt hometown favorite Derrick Rose. Is Coby White the guy? Your answer to that question may depend on how you feel about small sample sizes and late-season basketball. While the jury is still out on what Subzero can potentially become, Coby showed flashes of the speed and shot making that offensive identities can be built around.

White is a freak downhill athlete, boasting the kind of speed that makes teammates want to run with him. When he gets the rebound in transition, Coby is well known for pushing the break aggressively. Scouting the draft last year, I believed in Coby White as a high level combo guard option early in the draft. His combination of speed, spot up 3pt shooting, and size at 6’4″ gave him a solid floor entering the league that would keep him on the floor while he worked on developing better ancillary skills.

That assessment has been more or less correct thus far in his fledgling career. Coby has been a good-but-not-great shooter on catch and shoot (36.9% per BBall Index). He’s been tasked with pushing the pace in transition, and the Bulls were good for a 102.51 pace in minutes Coby White played, which would be good for 8th in the NBA overall (per NBA.com). While his wingspan is unimpressive for a 6’4″ guard, his size has given him the ability to guard the 1 or the 2 in most lineups, meaning he’s more easily integrated into the rotation. The opportunity is certainly there for Coby White to explore the studio space and work out what works and what doesn’t. This is a hugely positive point for me in determining White’s projection.

What I didn’t anticipate was Coby’s on-ball scoring game exploding like it did in February, where he had three straight 30+ point games and 8/9 games straight with > 20 points. I didn’t anticipate the on-ball gravity that he demands when he’s hot, and boy is he a human flamethrower when he’s got it flowing.

That said, there are pretty big strides that White will need to make to become a reliable on-ball option as anything more than a microwave scorer who won’t kill you off-ball. While he showed flashes of plus passing out of P&R and off the dribble, the flashes were too few and far between at times. It’s clear that Coby is a developing playmaker who will make mistakes early on, it’s a young point guard’s birthright in the league, but he shows glimpses of the same foibles that have bogged down Zach LaVine’s development as a guy who can create for others.

Let’s start with mentality. White did more scoring than diming in college as he was relied on to be the go-to guy for a team with less-than-ideal spacing outside of Cam Johnson. Most knew the playmaking would be a work in progress, but even with that in mind, Coby’s production as a passer his rookie year was subpar (5.0 assists/100 possessions per Basketball Reference). It’s clear he leaned on his scoring ability to the detriment of his aggressiveness as a passer; White put up an ugly 0.67 assist to usage ratio, good for 13th percentile among all combo guards per Cleaning the Glass.

That said, his turnover numbers were better than you’d expect for a young rookie combo guard, 11.5% TOV% is relatively solid, especially so early in his career. Unfortunately, it’s possible that the low turnovers are a result of a low level of passing aggressiveness, and indeed BBall Index estimates his passing aggressiveness at about middle-of-the-pack among guards in the league.

Realistically, as long as he keeps developing a complimentary mindset and gets guys involved when he can, I think he’s at a solid starting place for his development. In the long run, I see Coby White as a secondary playmaker in his most ideal role; of course he’ll have opportunities to create against a tilted defense. I do think he’ll be more of a scoring 2 guard that can push the break in transition than a real half court initiator.

What I’d like to see from Coby White next season is actually more to do with his scoring game, surprisingly enough. I’d like to see him drop the height of his handle to increase shiftiness, which would help him collapse the defense and create opportunities to kick out to shooters. I’d also like to see him be more fearless attacking the rim when he beats his man off the dribble. He added significant weight after the season ended, and this will bode well for his ability to play through contact at the rim. Those capabilities should do wonders for him as an isolation scorer, and I firmly believe he’s capable of developing in all of those areas.


4. Lauri Markkanen

Markkanen suffered from injuries, saw decreased touches on offense, and struggled to adapt to the Bulls hyper-aggressive defensive scheme, but he remains a promising young player with plenty of room to grow.

Lauri Markkanen was once the crown jewel of the Bulls’ rebuild. Injuries and inconsistency have dulled his shine, but he still has a chance to be a special offensive player. Markkanen boasts maybe the prettiest jump shot for a big since Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a fluid downhill athlete for a true 7 footer, capable of grabbing defensive rebounds and pushing the break himself at times. He has shown flashes of plus passing, both in half court and in transition. His outlet passes especially are a thing of beauty.

Lauri is a capable scorer from all three levels, but his best skill is as a shooter from distance. However, while his shooting mechanics look gorgeous, Markkanen’s shooting numbers have been fine but not spectacular. He shot ~36% from 3 on ~7 attempts per 36 minutes (per Basketball Reference) in his first two seasons with a slight dip this season. Although his early season shoulder injury explains some of that inconsistency, Lauri will need to shoot closer to 40% on spot ups going forward as he will probably always be a net negative player on defense.

Lauri’s ball-handling and multi-level scoring yield the most advantage on offense if you can line him up against slower-footed traditional 5s. However, he lacks the length and strength to compete effectively against those players on the other end of the floor. This results in a roster building conundrum: if you want to get the most out of Lauri, you need a very specific fit next to him in the front court. The limitations he imposes on the front office’s flexibility to build out the rotation are the biggest reason why he’s lower on these value rankings than you’d expect.

That said, Lauri has the potential to be a very effective offensive player if he can work out some of the kinks in his game and if the Bulls can do a better job getting him in his spots. He shot a lot of catch and shoot 3PA this season (52.4% of his half court possessions per Synergy) that resulted in a very predictable shooting profile. Jim Boylen loved to run one pick and pop screen action with Lauri and then relegate him to the corner if he didn’t get the ball. The coaching staff and perhaps a new primary initiator must help Lauri generate a greater diversity of looks. Taking advantage of his scoring versatility is the best way to unlock Lauri’s unique offensive skill set.

While the play calling did Markkanen no favors, he seemed to settle for tough shots instead of attacking closeouts which further solidified him as a dependent player, a floor spacing catch and shoot option. To improve as a scorer and demand the increased volume of looks he wants, Markkanen will have to put the ball on the deck when defenders close out hard and score more efficiently attacking the rim.

Markkanen has a solid handle for a big and is a fluid downhill athlete who has shown the ability to create off the bounce a bit. He should better utilize those skills to attack the basket off of big/big P&R action or when defenders close out, even if he can’t always convert, because he’s a very good free throw shooter (82.4%, 87th percentile among bigs per Cleaning the Glass). This would have the added benefit of keeping him engaged while decreasing the predictability of his shooting profile and allowing him to get off clean looks more often.


5. Kris Dunn

Dunn is probably the best point of attack defender in the league, but his inability to shoot provides major roadblocks to roster construction flexibility moving forward.

Kris Dunn is a frustrating player. He’s an incredibly hard worker, a massively impactful guard defender both at the point of attack and off-ball, and a savvy on-ball playmaker on occasion. He’s very close to being an ideal lead guard type, but there exists one hole in the armor, and that hole is fucking massive.

Kris Dunn is one of the worst shooters I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think it’s getting better. He shot a woeful 25.9% from 3 (per Basketball Reference) on 2.2 very easy attempts per game (88th percentile openness rating per BBall Index).

So what do you do with a player like that? The Bulls tried shifting him to more of a spot up role, but teams just didn’t bother guarding him. They tried to play him on-ball and that definitely helps, but then you have to surround him with four shooters and Chicago doesn’t have that kind of personnel (nor is on-ball Dunn really worth that Cirque du Soleil tier balancing act).

Enough of the negative though, because Kris Dunn boasts INCREDIBLE value as a defensive player. We’re talking all-NBA defensive team caliber here. He’s fierce on-ball, where he was most often tasked with guarding the other team’s strongest offensive player. Dunn spent 5.5% of his time guarding mega creators and 41.6% of his time guarding primary creators, with 96th percentile matchup difficulty among all guards (per BBall Index). He’s also insane off-ball; Dunn accrued 2.0 steals per game, good for second in the league behind only defensive wunderkind Ben Simmons (per NBA.com).

So the real question becomes: What can Kris Dunn do to become passable enough on offense that the Bulls can feel good about cashing in on his insane defensive play? Since he can’t shoot and he likely won’t ever shoot, I would try to maximize his development as a cutter. You can get creative with screens to get him open moving towards the rim. He’s strong, big for a guard, and a fine vertical athlete. Dunn has a pretty high level of feel too. I’m confident with enough time in the film room and some creative coaching, he can be a passable offensive player as a cutter, allowing Chicago to let his ball-hawking defense shine.


6. Daniel Gafford

Gafford has a long way to go before he can play consistently at the NBA level, but his vertical athleticism and shot blocking ability are difficult to teach.

Daniel Gafford has been a pleasant surprise for a second round pick. His vertical athleticism, shot blocking timing, and reliable rim pressure from the dunker spot make him a solid option as a bench center already. Gafford illustrated his value in fairly limited opportunities, leading all rookies in both blocks and FG%.

What he does well is pretty obvious every minute he’s on the court. Gafford fits an archetype similar to DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela before him: he rolls hard, he catches lobs, he blocks shots. His vertical athleticism allows him to sky high for lobs, his large catch radius gives him the ability to track imperfect passes and contort for difficult dunks. Both traits also give him significant value as a rim protector in drop P&R coverage.

So why so low on the list? Well to start, Gafford struggled to stay on the court. While the film showed a fierce shot blocker, Gafford also struggled with foul issues, biting on pump fakes frequently.

On top of that, his lackluster defensive footwork on the perimeter amplifies his poor lateral agility. This limited his ability to play any other coverage except drop which, as you might imagine, was a big issue for a coach that loved to blitz the screen.

While Gafford’s impact is fairly straightforward, it’s also pretty limited in scope. To maximize the amount he can offer, he’ll need to do a better job staying out of foul trouble. More game time should help Gafford to get a better feel for when the shot is coming and avoid racking up early fouls. Young bigs frequently struggle with this (see also: Wendell Carter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr.). Once he’s regularly playing good minutes, he can begin to improve his hip flexibility and get a better feel for other P&R schemes.


7. Denzel Valentine

Valentine got buried by the previous regime, but his shotmaking and plus passing offer avenues to contribution if he can stay healthy.

Although Jim Boylen doesn’t seem to agree, Denzel Valentine is capable of having an impact on the offensive end of the court in the modern day NBA. Denzel is a solid ball-handler with good feel for orchestrating a few P&R possessions a game. He can shoot the 3 in a variety of different situations (career 36.6% 3PT% on ~4 3PA per game per Basketball Reference). For a team who struggled on offense (106.6 points per 100 possessions, good for an uninspiring 26th percentile per Cleaning the Glass) and with the injury problems Chicago battled all year, you’d think Valentine would at least get some minutes, right?

Wrong. Jim Boylen did not want to play Valentine no matter what. After a short run in December where Valentine played reasonably well overall, Denzel was relegated to the bench again. He publicly complained about his lack of playing time, but still no minutes.

While it’s pretty inexcusable to not play him at least a bit given the situation at hand, Boylen did have a reasonable excuse to keep Valentine on the bench. He’s an awful defender, falling asleep off ball and struggling to fight over screens regularly due to his poor lateral agility and low level of overall strength. While his next minutes likely won’t be with Chicago (Valentine is a free agent this off-season) I think Denzel can find a role somewhere.

To help his cause, I would recommend that Valentine get more comfortable attacking the rim by adding more upper body strength. Although his floater game is EXTREMELY funky:

Denzel gives up valuable free throw opportunities by cutting his drives to the rim short. The floater is fun and it’s effective in a limited capacity, but without taking it to the rack more consistently, defenders know they don’t need to commit and floaters are shots they’ll always be okay giving up.


8. Adam Mokoka

Mokoka got few chances but managed to show flashes of floor spacing and team defense equity.

The sample size is admittedly small, but Mokoka can shoot the 3 and play pretty good defense, and he’s wing-sized. That has solid value in a league lacking reliable wing depth options. Since the Bulls are unlikely to add wing help anywhere else but maybe through the draft (Devin Vassell, anyone?), I would like to see Mokoka get more run next season, especially if either of injury-prone Chandler Hutchison or Otto Porter Jr. go down again.

Mokoka should be working on his shot to maximize spacing in lineups he plays with. His defensive ability is already apparent and he can guard the 2 or the 3. Offering more consistent shooting would maximize his ability to provide value as a floor spacer even with limited opportunity.


9. Chandler Hutchison

Hutchison can’t stay healthy and his game lacks the cornerstones of what makes an NBA level wing, but time is on his side and he may turn things around yet.

Somebody has to be last. I like Hutch; he’s a vicious dunker and he runs the break well. He has a little bit of on-ball ability. His hairline is the envy of every man who ever lived. Unfortunately he can‘t seem to stay healthy. I’m all for giving Hutch more run next year for sure, and he should work on improving his shooting consistency over the off-season to maximize the spacing in lineups he plays with.

The shot doesn’t look terrible, but the results have so far in his short career. Hutch doesn’t shoot often (only 1.4 attempts per game this season) and shoots a woeful 31.6%. Without the threat of a 3pt shot, teams just don’t really need to guard him at the line. The Bulls are already giving bench minutes to Kris Dunn, there can be no other non-shooters in his minutes without severely restricting spacing. If Hutch can’t add a 3pt shot, I feel his days in Chicago might be numbered.

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