5 Bulls takeaways from NBA preseason action

Rob Schaefer
·15 min read

5 Bulls takeaways from NBA preseason action originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bulls played four preseason games. As a young, developing team acclimating to a new coach and fresh systems on both sides of the floor, there are things to take away -- if in the process if nothing else.

Here are five:

Coby White made strides in the point guard department

Coby White wants to make the leap to “head point guard.” And he figures to be the Bulls’ starting point guard in name. To fully embody that moniker, though, his second NBA season and beyond must contain improvements as a playmaker, rim finisher and defender.

We got a dose of the status of each of those skill sets in the preseason. As a playmaker, White flashed willingness -- and, at times, proficiency -- driving and kicking and facilitating out of the pick-and-roll:

Coby White-Lauri Markkanen make slick connection

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White’s gravity as a scorer has the potential to open windows for his teammates, and he’s clearly making more decisive reads than his rookie season. Ultimately, his 5.4 assists and 3.8 turnover per 36 minute averages (1.42 ratio) was emblematic of progress made and room still to improve. He remains sometimes prone to errant passes and dribbling head-long into crowds. There’s a balance to be struck, says Bulls coach Billy Donovan.

“There may be some games where he has a big first half and maybe has more of a playmaking second half. Maybe it’s a game where it’s all playmaking. Or maybe he has to score. I think he’s got to be able to balance that,” Donovan said after the Bulls’ third preseason game. “I think as a point guard on any team, it’s almost like that mentality that you’re going to have to eat last so to speak. It’s not about getting Zach (LaVine) shots or Lauri (Markkanen) shots. It’s about our offense functioning and us generating good shots. There will be times he’ll need to do that for us, and there will be some times that he’ll need to let the offense do that for him.”

RELATED: White’s pick-and-roll play stands out in Bulls win over Rockets

In his rookie season, White was also prone to struggles finishing through contact at the basket. In the 2019-20 campaign, Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time possessions, pegged White’s field goal percentage at the rim at 49 percent, 13th percentile for guards.

This preseason, on an admittedly limited four-game sample, he shot 7-for-18 from inside of five feet, according to NBA.com. 38.9 percent. Now, White’s 4.5 attempts inside of five feet per game mark an increase over 3.7 per game last season -- again, pointing to an intention to improve in what has ailed him early in his career. And he converted a few notably difficult finishes, to be sure (like here at 0:27, or the first two plays here).

But that percentage needs to tick up drastically in the regular season. Something to watch: Last season, White was blocked on 56 of his 242 attempts inside of five feet, a whopping 23.1 percent of the time. At times, his speed separates him, other times not.As for the defense: White’s head-to-head matchups with John Wall in the first two games were perfectly emblematic of his ethic. After being bulldozed over for a lay-in by Wall in the Rockets guard’s first possession on an NBA floor in nearly two calendar years, and a handful of blow-bys throughout the game, White came back in game two and drew two charges on the Rockets guard, blocking him once to boot.

Coby White defensive highlights on John Wall

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“The first game he came out and punched me in the mouth. So this game I came with a different mentality. I didn’t like the way I guarded last game,” White said after that contest. “I was just doing my best to keep him out of the paint.”

That’s a competitor. 

Still, White picking up two early first-quarter fouls in games two and three, and being beaten off the dribble by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on multiple occasions during the Oklahoma City leg, reminded that that end remains an improvement area. 

The unabashed good news: White’s scoring prowess hasn’t fizzled in the nine-month layoff. Even with a 1-for-10 dud in the preseason finale, he ended the Bulls’ four-game slate 16-for-32 when shooting from 9-29 feet (he shot 8-for-21 -- 38.1 percent -- from 0-9 feet). That includes 48 percent 3-point shooting on eight attempts per game. He (27) and LaVine (24) dazzled to combine for 51 points through three quarters in game three. Infernal.

The Re-education of the starting frontcourt: A mixed bag

In the preseason, the process is arguably as important as the results, if not more so. And the process for integrating Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. into fresh, respective offensive roles was sound.

Let’s take them one by one, and begin with Carter. Training camp featured talk of the Bulls center expanding his ball-handling and facilitating duties, and extending his range beyond the arc. In turn, he got up 16 3-pointers in the Bulls’ four games (four per game), a lot of them clean looks. Good. He made one of them. Bad.

Yes, it’s preseason, and, worse, preseason following a nine-month layoff that no doubt contributed to rust. But without a 3-point shooting body of work to fall back on, it’s concerning to see Carter stumble out of the gate. Fourteen of Carter’s 16 attempts came from above the break, with the vast majority coming on the back end of some variation of a screen-and-pop (though his one make was from the corner).

Overall he's gotta get a little bit more comfortable back there,” Donovan said before game four. “He’s got I think good discretion. Like he only took three [3-pointers on Dec. 16], he didn't make any, but he's getting good looks and you've just gotta be patient with him. This is the first time in his career he's done that, and I think one of the things that he's really gotta work on and we've gotta help him as a staff, is he's gotta get his feet down better. I think a lot of times where he's coming out of pick-and-rolls and he's coming out of actions, like, being able to get away and get his feet down is gonna be important. 

“And, listen, it's different for him. I think any player, not just Wendell, if they're standing there stationary and they can catch the basketball and shoot it stationary, that's fine. But a lot of times it's hard to find shots like that, especially out of the corners for a guy who's just standing there and throwing the ball to him. So I think it's something we've gotta just keep working with him and building with him and showing trust and confidence in him.”

That’s also been a theme. This is all new for Carter. He took just 29 3-pointers all last regular season. As mentioned, he just hoisted 16 in four preseason games.

The bright spot on the offensive end for Carter was his passing, especially in a six-assist performance in the finale. The high-low chemistry he and Markkanen have flashed in the past made a couple nice cameos. But his ceiling as a facilitator is directly tied to the development of his long-range shooting. If opponents don’t feel threatened enough by his jumper to guard Carter closely on the perimeter, defenses will be able to sag and clog driving and cutting lanes for teammates. In a vacuum, Carter has the passing chops to excel in the role prescribed for him, but NBA games don’t exist in a vacuum.

Now, to Markkanen. Again, sound process -- even, it could be argued, in the first Thunder game, which saw him shoot 4-for-15 from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range. He at least displayed commitment to getting downhill and hunting attempts at the rim. He found oceans of space from which to fire from deep. But there was a lid on the rim.

In the finale, those shots went in more often, and the ancillary components of his game shined. Markkanen finished with 22 points, five rebounds and a 9-for-17 shooting mark from the field (4-for-10 from 3). Allow Donovan to explain how he got to that line.

“He’s getting it in a lot of different ways,” he said. “We’ve got him coming off of pindowns. He played in some pick-and-roll. I really liked him in pick-and-roll with Wendell. He got some pick-and-pop, catch-and-shoot situations. He had some drives. I think he had the same kind of shots he had the last few games. The ball just didn’t go in the basket. Maybe that helps him and gives him the confidence of seeing the ball go in the basket. But he offensively had it going.”

That delineation of offensive responsibilities stands in contrast from Markkanen’s usage last season -- when even Markkanen has copped to primarily being a floor-spacer -- a trend he views as a positive. Testing Markkanen’s offensive versatility and getting him on the move more could, in a best-case scenario, spur a bounceback campaign.

RELATED: Markkanen enjoying revamped offensive role under Donovan: ‘Night and day from last year’

But he must establish himself as a consistent shot-maker and above-average 3-point shooter for it to matter. The latter might sound silly on its face. But Markkanen sits at 35.6 percent from deep for his career, and is coming off a third year in which he canned 34.4 percent of his 3-point attempts (the league average line typically hovers around 35). He shot 31 percent this preseason, weighed down by the middle two games, when he shot 5-for-25 from the field and 2-for-14 from deep. 

Inconsistency defined his third year, a trend that can’t continue. We’ll see if that fourth contest sparks something sustainable.

The Bulls have wings!

For reasons largely pertaining to injury, wing has been the Bulls’ most glaring position of need since the start of the rebuild. Health provided, this preseason illuminated an intriguing complement of options in that department for the team to tinker with this year. 

Patrick Williams, the rookie, showed time and time again he belongs on an NBA floor with steady, assured play. Across four games, he shot 18-for-37 (48.6 percent) from the floor and 3-for-7 (42.9 percent) from 3, while offering glimpses into the ball-handling ability that was so fervently billed by the Bulls in the aftermath of the draft. He notched just two assists, both in the final game, but his passing continues to project as a legitimate tool.

There were defensive missteps -- mainly, allowing sharp-shooting guards to pull him off his feet on pump-fakes -- but that famous versatility, physicality and defensive headiness reared its head on multiple occasions. His off-ball instincts are acute, and his length is both disruptive and allows leeway to recover. He started the Bulls’ final two preseason contests (notably, at the small forward spot), and looked natural doing so. That’s all you need to know about the 19-year-old.

Otto Porter Jr., meanwhile, made it through the slate with his health, looked comfortable as a scorer and attacked the glass admirably. His ability to toggle between starting lineup connector and bench spark plug could be an X-factor.

Chandler Hutchison, though, may have been the most glaring surprise of the bunch. His defensive activity was tremendous and produced a number of wasted possessions for opponents. The dunks popped off the screen. He even made two of four 3-pointers in the finale.

“It’s just good to feel good out there and be able to be explosive and not have any second guesses of worrying about this, that and the other, or something holding me back,” he said after a recent practice. “Right now my body feels tremendous.”

Hutchison has always played hard and always been tools-y. Availability is the key. For where this team's expectations are this season, he showed he can certainly play a key reserve role -- wings of his size that can switch, slash and spring off the floor will always have utility. Last season featured some of the best stretches of his career before a shoulder injury ended it in February.

With a number of rotation pieces missing, Donovan frequented a three-wing lineup of Williams, Porter and Hutchison -- often, with Markkanen at center -- in multiple contests while staggering rest for other starters.

“It’s been good. Just really all three are interchangeable,” Hutchison said of the three-wing lineup. “When we can all handle our own defensively, then it makes it that much harder because then on the other end, we’ve got a slower four man who’s either got to pick up me, Otto or Pat, which is really tough for anyone. Guys that can put it on the floor, run the lane, space the floor, stretch it out, things like that makes us really hard to guard. So there’s been some success with that.”

That’s been a badly missing element from the Bulls in years past. Perhaps it can help cover the losses of Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison, though the Bulls looked leaky at times in the preseason. It could also prove a preseason anomaly once Tomáš Satoranský, Thad Young and others return.

Zach LaVine is still Zach LaVine

We don’t need to spend too much time here. LaVine looked every bit the Bulls’ best -- and, crucially, most consistent -- player across the four-game slate. Here are his game-by-game stat lines:

  • Game 1: 12 points, 1 assist, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks | 4-8 FG, 2-4 3P

  • Game 2: 23 points, 5 assists, 9 rebounds, 1 block | 8-14 FG, 3-7 3P

  • Game 3: 24 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal | 9-14 FG, 3-6 3P

  • Game 4: 20 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals | 8-16 FG, 2-5 3P

That’s good for a 19.8-point scoring average on 67.4 percent true shooting in just 26.2 minutes per game. He looked typically smooth doing it.

Two additional encouraging notes: LaVine’s defensive activity was noticeable en route to averaging 1.8 “stocks” (steals and blocks) per night in preseason action. And, on a night when he and Coby White took turns flamethrowing, LaVine was thrilled to step aside and let him shine. While playmaking and defense remain improvement areas for this starting backcourt, willingness to share the rock shouldn’t be one.

“That’s basketball. If you want to win, you should ride the hot hand. It’s the smart thing to do,” LaVine said after that third game. “Obviously, this is the preseason and we’re going to try to get everyone a rhythm. It doesn’t matter who it is -- me, Coby,  Wendell, Pat, Otto. If that guy is hot, you gotta go to him. I’m perfectly fine with that. If it results in wins, I’m all for it.”

That last sentence has been a theme of LaVine’s training camp comments. But...

This is going to be a work in progress

The Bulls played four preseason games and won three. On a team-wide basis, two -- games two and three -- could be considered steps forward, two -- games one and four -- steps back.

On the offensive end, there were moments where the ball and player movement-based offense that was promised burst to fruition. On others, the team either stagnated or fell prey to the turnover bug. In four games, the Bulls averaged 18.5 cough-ups per contest, though their 24.8 assists per game bested their team-wide average for last season by 1.5.

“The more ball movement you have, the more cutting you have, the more you do that, you’re going to make yourself susceptible to turnovers,” Donovan said after the preseason opener, when the Bulls committed 21 turnovers.

Defensively, there were highs and lows as well. The low-point came in the finale, when they allowed 90 points through three quarters -- and 46.4 percent 3-point shooting -- to what, on paper, is a truly woeful Thunder team. Shot closeouts and sporadic connectedness plagued them. Donovan even mixed in some zone to inject some life.

RELATED: Bulls fail to get defensive in final preseason tuneup against ThunderDonovan has repeatedly preached response to adversity as something he demands from teams. Between travel and tough opponents, the first month of the season could provide plenty of opportunities to prove themselves in that regard. 

We’ve had two good games, two bad games. We’ve shown that we can bounce back from the bad games,” LaVine said. “It’s a new group. We’re still learning. I think we’ve got to fight a little bit more.

And that’s without mentioning that, between Garrett Temple’s COVID-19 positive test, multiple excused absences and injuries to Thad Young and Denzel Valentine, the Bulls played without a handful of rotation mainstays. This will be an NBA season like no other. Soon, the minutes count.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Chicago
+230+6.5O 227.5
Dallas
-286-6.5U 227.5