NBA Free Agents: 4 potential targets to address Bulls’ need for size

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4 potential FA targets to address Bulls’ need for size originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

You don’t need to analyze the Chicago Bulls’ depth chart to know the team plans to address its lack of size in the coming weeks. Just listen to the words of the franchise’s second-leading basketball decision-maker on NBA Draft night.

“(That is) certainly something that we've discussed as a staff, getting somebody to complement what Vooch (Nikola Vučević) does, particularly rim protection,” general manager Marc Eversley told reporters. “Just kind of patrolling that paint and making sure that we have somebody there who can lock it down. It's something that we intend on addressing.”

Reading between the lines, it sounds like the Bulls will be in the market for a third big to bring off the bench behind Nikola Vučević and Patrick Williams this offseason. Someone who, at the very least, can spell Vučević’s off minutes, supply reliable rim protection and rebounding, and allow the team to effectively play bigger when it wants to. That was not a luxury last season, when Billy Donovan was often forced to lean into small-ball regardless of matchup.

While Tony Bradley reportedly picking up his $2 million player option for 2022-23 has roster-spot ramifications, don’t expect it to steer the Bulls off that path. Bradley began last season with a shot at reserve minutes, but his role diminished over the course of the year.

The good news is there are a bevy of options in this department who should be available for around or under the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which the Bulls will likely have at their disposal and this year projects to carry a maximum first-year salary of $10.3 million.

Here’s a look at a handful of realistic potential targets to monitor in free agency, which opens Thursday at 5 p.m. CT:

Isaiah Hartenstein, C, Los Angeles Clippers

Age: 24

2021-22 Stats: 8.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.1 bpg | 62.6% FG, 46.7% 3P (14-for-30), 68.9% FT

Hartenstein is an all-around basketball player, plain and simple. Standing 7-feet tall and with savvy shot-blocking instincts, he is a plus rim protector. With solid ball skills, he can facilitate from the short-roll and high-post — plus, when called upon, finish scoring chances with soft floaters or loud dunks.

He is exactly the type of player that would thrive as an understudy to Vučević in that he provides a complement to the Bulls starting center’s defensive limitations and enough of a facsimile of Vučević’s offensive game to mitigate the drop-off in rest minutes. That was a consistent problem for the Bulls during the 2021-22 season, when Thompson, Jones Jr., Bradley and Alize Johnson each took turns as Vučević’s primary backup.

Hartenstein, a second-round pick of the Rockets in 2017 that has also had stints with the Nuggets, Cavaliers and G League, was a bit of a hidden gem last season, but there are sure to be plenty of mid-level suitors if he does explore the open market. News that the Clippers plan to sign John Wall using their taxpayer mid-level exception, and fellow center Ivica Zubac to a three-year extension, has invited speculation he will do just that.

Mo Bamba, F/C, Orlando Magic

Age: 24

2021-22 Stats: 10.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg | 48% FG, 38.1% 3P, 78.1% FT

Bamba’s career got off to an inauspicious start after being selected sixth overall in the 2018 draft — in part due to injuries, in part due to struggles adjusting to the pros at both ends of the court. But last season was a banner one in many respects.

Not only did the 7-footer average career-highs in scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking, he also shot a career-best 38.1 percent from 3-point range on solid volume (5.5 attempts per 36 minutes). Finally, his multi-faceted two-way potential began to shine through.

An ascendent young big man that protects the rim, spaces the floor and has upside yet to be tapped sounds too good to be true for the Bulls. And it might be. The question of whether Bamba can sustain his production from last season — particularly in a winning environment — is an open-ended one. And the Magic will have the opportunity to extend him a qualifying offer before the start of free agency, which would make him a restricted free agent and grant the franchise the right to match any offer sheet he signs.

Teams interested in Bamba’s services can hope that the drafting of Paolo Banchero, emergence of Wendell Carter Jr. and Chuma Okeke, and the return of Jonathan Isaac will motivate Orlando to balance its roster moving forward. Either way, Bamba is worth an inquiry.

Mitchell Robinson, C, New York Knicks

Age: 24

2021-22 Stats: 8.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg (4.1 offensive), 1.8 bpg | 76.1% FG, 48.6% FT

Robinson is another potential restricted free agent, meaning expectations of a successful pursuit should be tempered to start. The Knicks, who just traded reserve center Nerlens Noel to the Pistons in a cap-space-clearing move, hold the cards as it relates to Robinson’s future.

But if the fifth-year big man does slip through the cracks, he would check a lot of boxes for the Bulls in their search for quality frontcourt depth. He is a dynamic athlete with shot-blocking prowess and explosive finishing ability — and would be of particular value as an offensive rebounder for a team that ranked 28th in offensive rebounding rate and second-chance points per game last season. Plus, at his age, there is plenty of reason to believe his trajectory is on the upswing.

The Bulls have actually already been linked to Robinson this offseason via this June 11 report from New York Post. A lot can change in three weeks, but certainly he is a name to monitor.

Thaddeus Young, F/C, Toronto Raptors

Age: 34

2021-22 Stats: 6.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg | 51.8% FG, 35.4% 3P, 46.9% FT

How about a homecoming? Young was a fan favorite during his two seasons with the Bulls, but especially in the 2020-21 campaign, when his slick passing earned him Sixth Man of the Year votes and the nickname “Thagic Johnson” from Stacey King.

Young’s Bulls tenure ended unceremoniously, with a surprise move to the San Antonio Spurs as part of the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade. And he’s not necessarily a traditional shot-blocker or physically-imposing interior presence. But his defensive versatility and veteran savvy were once a boon in the Bulls’ frontcourt rotation, including as a small-ball center. Could it be again in an off-the-bench role?

It’s also worth noting that, given his age and the fact that he is coming off a disjointed season in which he was relegated from the Spurs’ rotation then traded to Toronto, Young may wind up less expensive than the above options. But he is much more of a known commodity, as a player and locker-room presence. And his close friendship with Zach LaVine endures.

Other names to monitor: Andre Drummond, C, Brooklyn Nets | JaVale McGee, C, Phoenix Suns

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