With the Bulls headed to a third straight trip to the NBA Draft Lottery, the focus over the final two months of the NBA regular season now shifts to the development of the team's core players.
Wendell Carter Jr. should be ready to go after missing the last 18 games before the All-Star break because of a high ankle sprain. Carter Jr. has already established himself as a quality defender and screener, but we still don't have any idea what his ceiling could be as an offensive player. Before he was injured in early January, Carter Jr. had started mixing a couple of 3-point attempts into his shot profile, and while his success rate of 21.4% is nothing to get excited about, his shooting form suggests he should be able to improve over time.
Not many NBA teams are using dumping the ball into the low post as a big part of their offense, but the Bulls should try to get Carter Jr. more touches with his back to the basket to keep defenses honest. During his one collegiate season at Duke, Carter Jr. showed the ability to finish with either hand near the rim, and he has the ability to draw fouls against taller centers. NBA analytics will tell you layups, dunks and 3-pointers are the way to go in the modern game, but Carter Jr. is capable of getting some easy baskets inside and stepping out to knock down mid-range jumpers. Whether Carter Jr. becomes a consistent 3-point threat or not, he still can be a bigger part of the Bulls offense.
The Bulls are also hoping to get starting forwards Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. back at some point in the coming weeks. We pretty much know what Porter Jr. is at this point, a capable 3-point shooter and solid third scoring option. Problem is, Porter Jr. has been dogged by injuries over his NBA career, the latest being a fractured foot that's cost him most of the season. There's virtually zero chance Porter Jr. passes up his $28 million player option for next season, so he'll be on the roster next season.
All kinds of questions about Markkanen, who was going through a puzzling third-year slump before being sidelined with a stress reaction to his pelvis. Markkanen was expected to make the jump to All-Star level status this season, but he got off to a poor shooting start and didn't show the kind of aggressiveness on the offensive end we had come to expect. Markkanen says the new offensive system calls for him to be more of a spot-up 3-point shooter, which has limited his ability to attack the basket or post up against smaller defenders.
Whatever the reasons for his regression this season, the Bulls would love to get Markkanen back on the court at some point over the final two months just to give him a chance to reestablish his effectiveness at the offensive end and give him some positive feelings heading into the offseason. Markkanen will also be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this summer, and those negotiations could prove to be difficult with the 7-foot forward having missed so many games because of injury over his first three seasons.
Another big question mark for the Bulls involves the point guard position. Tomas Satoransky was signed as a free agent last July with the idea he would handle the starting position until top draft pick Coby White was ready to run the offense on a regular basis. The Bulls have used White as an instant offense shooting guard off the bench, but he has been getting more chances to run the point in recent games, dishing out a career-high nine assists against the Pelicans on Feb, 6 and seven helpers against Washington in the last game before the All-Star break. Why not give White more opportunities to play as a point guard with Zach LaVine on the court, giving the Bulls another shot creator to ease some of the defensive pressure against LaVine.
While the season began with talk of making the playoffs, the bigger objective was developing the players who can make the Bulls more than a seventh or eighth seed in future seasons. If you're looking for bright spots, it looks like Chandler Hutchison has figured out how he can be effective at the NBA level as a slashing small forward who can finish at the rim with power. If Hutchison can improve his outside shot and stay healthy, the Bulls might just have a long term answer at that position.
Now it's about continuing to develop the so called "core four" of LaVine, Markkanen, Carter Jr. and White. The Bulls are hoping they'll have a better idea by season's end whether this is the right nucleus to build around or if it's time to consider significant roster changes this summer.
Developing the young core remains the focus over final 27 games for Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago