Let's start this week's column with our annual disclaimer: NEVER make any conclusions about a young player's potential based on Summer League results. And yes, I know guys like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Jerian Grant have been standouts in recent years in the loosely competitive format in Las Vegas.
But after three games playing for the Bulls' entry this summer, top draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. has drawn nearly unanimous acclaim as an NBA-ready big man capable of making an immediate impact as a rookie. Carter has made a big impression as a rim protector with 11 blocked shots, while also showing the lateral quickness and close-out ability to defend smaller players on pick and roll switches. As you'll recall, that was one of the biggest question marks about Carter after playing a lot of zone defense in his one college season at Duke.
Carter showed off his versatile skill set in the Summer League opener against the Cavs, finishing with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocked shots and 2 steals. He knocked down a pair of 3 pointers, scored in the post and in the mid-range while showing a good knack for reading pick & roll plays to either get to the basket or pop out for a 15-18 foot jumper.
After playing in Marvin Bagley's considerable shadow at Duke, Carter is thriving as the primary low post scoring option on the Bulls' Summer League team. He showed off his full arsenal of post moves in a loss to Atlanta on Tuesday, including a nice baseline up-and-under lay-up, and a quick shot fake, driving floater. Carter posted his highest scoring game of the week with 23 points.
Still, it's the 6'10" rookie's play on the defensive end that's really opening the eyes of NBA talent evaluators. He's blocked shots in just about every situation, from 1-on-1 post defense, to weak-side help at the rim, to switching on to smaller perimeter players. The Bulls ranked last in the NBA in blocked shots a year ago, so adding an agile, quick off his feet post man fills a glaring need.
Only time will tell if Carter opens the season as the Bulls' starting center or if the coaching staff decides to open games with veteran Robin Lopez in the middle. (Incidentally, Lopez was in Vegas to check out his new teammates Tuesday, wearing his trademark Seattle Mariners' baseball cap sitting behind the bench.) But no matter which player gets the starting nod, Carter is prepared to contribute in a variety of ways, hopefully having the same kind of impact 2017 No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen had in his rookie season with the Bulls.
The Bulls' other 1st round pick, 6'7" forward Chandler Hutchison is still looking to find his offensive rhythm in the first three games in Vegas. Hutchison showed good quickness in attacking the basket and you can see how his ability as a secondary shot creator intrigued the Bulls' scouts and front office. He's already teamed up with Carter on a couple nice pick and roll plays, which could become a staple of the Bulls' offense if both play together on the second unit.
Hutchison is showing a knack for drawing fouls, which is another area where the Bulls were often lacking last season, and it was good to see him knock down a couple of 3-point shots late in the Bulls' loss to Atlanta. Defensively, the former Boise St. star has good positional size and will be able to switch comfortably to guard the 1 through 4 spots.
Fred Hoiberg and his staff will probably give both rookies a lot of playing time during pre-season games to figure out exactly where they'll fit in the rotation, but the early returns indicate both Carter and Hutchison have the ability to play the pace and space offense the Bulls prefer.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Speaking of the Bulls' rotation, they now have a bit of a logjam at the wing spots following Friday's decision to match the four-year, $78 million offer sheet Zach LaVine signed with Sacramento. LaVine will start at the shooting guard spot, with Denzel Valentine, Justin Holiday, Hutchison, Antonio Blakeney and possibly David Nwaba (if he's re-signed) competing for minutes at the 2 and 3 positions.
While some fans and media members are upset at the $19 million per season contract given to LaVine, the reality is the Bulls are in the talent acquisition phase of the rebuilding process, and you just can't let a talented, athletic, 23-year-old shooting guard walk out the door without any compensation.
LaVine should be much more efficient next season after a full summer of workouts and a complete training camp to build chemistry with the other young foundation players. He's still the same guy who was having a breakout 3rd season in the NBA before the ACL injury with the Timberwolves, and still was able to average 16.7 points in the 24 games he played with the Bulls that began with a strict minutes restriction.
Plus, with the salary cap scheduled to go up in the next few seasons, LaVine's contract will take on an increasingly smaller percentage of the Bulls' cap sheet, making it a better value. If the Bulls eventually decide that LaVine isn't a great fit with Markkanen, Carter and Kris Dunn, LaVine's contract won't be too rich to include in a trade.
Bottom line, the Bulls front office made the right decision to keep LaVine as a key piece in the rebuild. Now, we'll all get the chance to watch if he can fulfill his intriguing potential in Chicago.
With LaVine out of the picture, the Kings are still looking to add an impact player through free agency. They've shown interest in Cavs' restricted free agent Rodney Hood, but according to multiple reports, Sacramento's No. 1 target is Celtics' restricted free agent Marcus Smart.
Smart could be the most "gettable" player in this year's RFA class. The Celtics will be facing luxury tax issues in the not too distant future, and may not want to commit in excess of $10 million per season to a bench player. At the end of Boston's playoff run, Smart told reporters he was worth more than $12-14 million a season because of the intangibles he brings that don't always show up in the box score.
Smart emphasized his ability to impact the game on both ends with his all-out hustle and physical play, qualities that would be extremely valuable to a young team like the Kings that's still trying to figure out how to win. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported Sacramento loved Smart in the 2014 draft and would have taken him if he had fallen to their pick at No. 8 overall.
It's unlikely the Kings would make the same type of offer they extended to LaVine, but something in the $14-15 million per season range should be enough to steal him away from Boston. The Celtics already have three max contract players in Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, and young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be due for huge extensions in the not-too-distant future. Whether Danny Ainge is willing to pay big money to keep a valuable reserve like Smart will be one of the more interesting stories to watch as NBA free agency starts to wind down.
Similar story in Milwaukee, where Chicago native Jabari Parker is still trying to drum up interest in a tight market. With just about all of the available cap space dried up, Parker could be forced to return to the Bucks on the one year qualifying offer and go back into free agency next summer.
Milwaukee is already over the cap for next season, with 5 players making in excess of 10 million dollars a year. Plus, sharp-shooting wing Khris Middleton will be looking for a sizable raise when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Teams have been reluctant to commit long-term dollars to Parker because of the two left ACL tears he's already suffered. Most likely Parker will have to prove he's 100% healthy again by making it through the 82 game regular season and playoffs without any setbacks. Then he could be in line for the big contract he hoped to land this year.
Finally, it looks like Carmelo Anthony may soon have a new team for next season. Anthony's reps are working with Oklahoma City to come up with the best formula to get Melo off the roster and give the franchise some much-needed luxury tax relief.
Houston is the overwhelming favorite to sign Anthony once he becomes free. Melo and Chris Paul are long-time friends and the Rockets could use a quality reinforcement at the forward position after losing both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute in free agency.
Problem is, Anthony and current Rockets' coach Mike D'Antoni clashed when they worked together in New York, and it's difficult to project Melo being able to play at the pace that made Houston so successful last season. Defensively, the Rockets will miss Ariza and Mbah A Moute, especially if they meet up again with Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. Anthony is a huge liability on the defensive end, even if D'Antoni tries to hide him at the power forward spot.
So, Paul and Anthony might be the best of friends, but it's hard to imagine them leading the Rockets to an NBA title in their mid-30's.