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Examining new-look Bulls' player development after 2020-21 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
When the Chicago Bulls made their rush of front office and coaching staff hires last offseason, all stated from the start an organizational emphasis on player development.
“The biggest attention that we will have to pay attention to is player development,” executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas said at head coach Billy Donovan’s post-hiring presser. “We have to develop our own players. They have to get better in order for us to succeed.”
They followed those words by building out the department, hiring Henry Domercant, Ronnie Burrell, Ty Abbott and Max Rothschild as player development coordinators, whose contributions as former players Donovan has praised. Multiple of Donovan’s assistant coaches also entered with player development duties at the top of their agendas, as did vice president of player personnel Pat Connelly.
Then, there was talk of the roster. Lauri Markkanen was to see more diverse offensive usage; Wendell Carter Jr. was to test his mettle as a facilitator and outside shooter; Coby White was audition at starting point guard; Patrick Williams was to flash his positionless skill set. The list goes on.
Donovan often describes the player development process as all-encompassing, and of course, in many cases it requires patience over a multi-year sample. But after one season, let’s take stock of the results from the Bulls’ rookie contract player pool:
The Good: White found a sustainable role in his final 18 games as a starter. Not only did his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage tick up (38.7 percent on 5.9 attempts) in that stretch, his decision-making — both scoring for himself and creating for others — improved as the defensive attention Nikola Vučević attracted opened up clean long-range looks and driving lanes off of closeouts. White averaged 5.9 assists against 2.3 turnovers in his final 18, ending the season with an average 13.1 percent turnover rate in non-garbage time minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.
“Last year I just got hot scoring the ball and making shots and getting more of an opportunity toward the end of the year,” White recently said of his 10-game heater at the end of his rookie season. “This year I feel like I’ve been playing my best basketball as a Bull.”
Even in White’s dark stretches, he also consistently displayed what Donovan calls “fight-back ability.” He’s resilient enough to put a poor shooting quarter, multi-game stretch or benching behind him and rebound in big moments. While intangible, that quality has permeated White’s first two NBA seasons and makes him a fit for Donovan’s directly challenging coaching style.
The Bad: Running the point for the first time in his professional career, the meat of White’s season was rocky. Turnovers were a bugaboo, as were missed passing reads to open teammates, many of which led to stalled offensive possessions. Donovan pulled White from the starting lineup on March 14, and shortly after the trade deadline conceded that White and Lauri Markkanen were “probably not going to be featured guys” moving forward.
White eventually bucked the latter trend, as he rejoined the starting lineup when Zach LaVine entered protocol and earned his keep. But the season-long scope of his playmaking (his assist percentage of 21.8 ranks in 20th percentile for point guards according to Cleaning the Glass), finishing (his rim field goal percentage of 52 rates in the 23rd percentile) and defense highlight work still to be done.
All told: White’s strong close to the season was notable from a development perspective, but the ups and downs lend credence to the belief management will address the need for a true point guard this offseason.
The Good: After surprising the NBA world by drafting him fourth overall, the Bulls took a baptism-by-fire approach to Williams’ rookie season. He started all 71 games in which he appeared — leading the team — and gained valuable experience guarding opposing teams’ top scorers on a nightly basis. He took his lumps, but also showed some tantalizing abilities, making for an overall solid foundation.
Then, on the offensive end, he shot an encouraging, albeit low volume, 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent on shot attempts produced by cuts, according to NBA.com. As a first-year, he was assist-dependent, but showed ability to get to his spots in the midrange (shooting 43.4 percent on pull-up 2s) and push the fast break; the Bulls intentionally schemed him ball-handling reps as the season went along.
Further, Williams got to immerse himself in the day-to-day rigors of NBA life in unprecedented fashion. Donovan publicly preached the importance of routine in diet, fitness and game preparation ad nauseum, so one can bet he was in Williams’ ear privately, as well. As the Bulls coach said from the day he was hired, player development is about building habits on and off the floor, and Williams went through the ringer in both categories this season.
The Bad: The offensive flashes didn’t sustain, especially in the second half of the season. Williams’ scoring average dipped month over month from February to April and he finished the year seventh among current Bulls in shot attempts per game (7.4) and ninth in usage rate (14.9 percent) — excluding Devon Dotson and Adam Mokoka’s small samples.
This was not from lack of encouragement from teammates or coaches, which can be taken a few different ways. On the one hand, the Bulls recognized Williams’ importance and potential, and were intentional in attempting to unlock it (and by the end of the season, Williams seemed to be on the same page). On the other, his responses were sporadic.
But as a 19-year-old that just completed his first NBA season, Williams doesn’t need to have all the answers just yet. Year 2 will be a big one, especially after the benefit of a full offseason and Summer League. The organizational belief is there.
The Good: Markkanen shot a career-best 40.2 percent from 3-point range in his fourth season on 10.9 attempts per 100 possessions, the highest per-possession volume of his career. This may seem trivial in the grand scheme of Markkanen’s season, but it’s not; entering the year, he was a 35.6 percent 3-point shooter for his career, and bore the burden of proving that his shooting in practice matched the projection on paper. He did.
And Markkanen had another roughly one-month-sized sample where he teased his offensive potential. In his first 14 games of the season, he averaged 19.1 points on 51.4 shooting from the field, 39.6 percent from 3-point range, and looked to be thriving in the Bulls’ movement-based offense, posting six 20-point performances.
The Bad: It didn’t last. Almost all of Markkanen’s counting statistics finished as career-lows, including his points (13.6), rebounds (5.3), assists (0.9), free-throw attempts (1.8), field goal attempts (10.2) and minutes (25.8) per game averages. Before the season, Donovan said that he didn’t want Markkanen to be just a “catch-and-shoot forward,” and talked often throughout the campaign about him needing to affect the game outside of shots falling. By season’s end, 85.2 percent of Markkanen’s made field goals were assisted upon and 55.9 percent of his field goal attempts were catch-and-shoot 3s (both career-highs), meaning he didn’t take steps forward as an offensive initiator. As a defender, the same sentiment applies.
The Bulls featured Markkanen at the beginning of the season, running him as the team’s de facto backup center in some lineups that showed promise offensively. But after struggling post-All-Star break — when he returned after missing 14 games with a shoulder sprain — things unraveled. Donovan started Markkanen at power forward for one post-trade deadline game alongside Vučević, but pivoted quickly to move him to the bench, where he stayed the rest of the way except for two spot starts. Markkanen averaged just 22.3 minutes in his last 27 contests, and though his shooting sustained, he spent many of those ticks playing out of position at small forward.
Markkanen and Vučević were clearly a poor fit together and the addition of Daniel Theis made the frontcourt over-crowded, so the handling of Markkanen in the second half was understandable. But Karnišovas’ public contention that Markkanen is a valued piece moving forward doesn’t square with all of the above, and it’s no surprise Markkanen has plans to explore other options in restricted free agency.
The Bulls traded three players on rookie contracts during the 2020-21 season. Part of player development is identifying which players fit your long-term vision and acting accordingly.
Wendell Carter Jr.: A 1-for-16 mark from 3-point range in four preseason quelled optimism about Carter developing as a long-range shooter (on meaningful volume). Though he certainly took steps forward as a facilitator, averaging 2.2 assists in 32 games with the Bulls, he was pulled from the starting lineup in mid-March, and the entire package didn’t come along fast enough to pass up the opportunity to include him in the trade for Vučević. Carter ripped out of the gates hot for Orlando, but his per game numbers with the Magic (11.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.8 blocks) finished not too different from his Bulls figures.
Daniel Gafford: He was at his best as a Bull when playing within himself as an energetic rim-runner and shot-blocker, but struggled in a starting stint with Carter injured when asked to take on advanced playmaking responsibilities. In a three-team deal that netted Troy Brown Jr., Theis and Javonte Green, Gafford was traded to the Washington Wizards, where he has thrived playing alongside Russell Westbrook and in a role suited directly to his strengths.
Chandler Hutchison: Appeared in just seven games for the Bulls this season. Had a tough bout with COVID-19 early, then later missed 22 contests for personal reasons. He was shipped to Washington with Gafford.
Part of the intrigue of Karnišovas derived from the Denver Nuggets’ reputation for identifying and developing unheralded players on the margins. Nikola Jokić, Monte Morris and Bol Bol were second-round picks. Jerami Grant was an under-the-radar trade pickup. PJ Dozier went undrafted in 2017 and was plucked from the G League.
That’s not solely crediting Karnišovas for all of those finds, but more a statement on the front office where he made his name. Even in the moves of this ilk that didn’t work, an organizational intention to exhaust every avenue to find talent was apparent.
No such successes totally panned out for the Bulls this season. Each of their Two-Way players (Dotson, Mokoka) spent time in the G League bubble with other franchise's affiliates, but didn’t garner run with the NBA squad. Neither did Cristiano Felício, who clung to a roster spot until the end of the season and, in turn, the expiration of his contract.
Brown might be considered in this category. An underrated by intriguing deadline pickup, the 21-year-old former 15th overall pick showed promise as a wing defender and shot-creator (both traits lacking on this roster), but missed the final 15 games of the season with a sprained ankle. Call his grade incomplete for now.
In any event, this offseason presents more opportunity for Karnišovas and Co. to reshape the team in their image, not the one they inherited last year. With droves of roster spots likely to clear this offseason, and the Windy City Bulls poised to return for 2021-22, how the Bulls treat the back end of the roster moving forward will be interesting to monitor. So will the status of 2020 second-round stash Marko Simonović, who Karnišovas said at his end-of-season presser is in the Bulls’ future plans, though they’re still evaluating a potential fit for next season.
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