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The RokDeez Bulls Blog State of the Roster Part 4: Star Light, Star Bright

Over the last 3 weeks, I’ve laid out the hopes and expectations, best/worst case scenarios, and keys to a successful upcoming season for most of the Chicago Bulls roster. Part 1 covered the rookies and fringe players. Part 2 flipped over some wild cards. Part 3 handled the glue guys. This week, we finish the series with some star gazing. These four players are the reason you should watch the Bulls this season. They are players with the potential to go supernova. With the right work and development, anyone of them could explode into a superstar.

In some ways, Wendell Carter Jr feels like a forgotten man this offseason. His season ending injuring in January, and the surgery to repair his sports hernia earlier this summer, have kept Carter out of basketball action for more than 6 months. Despite these setbacks, the Front Office and the experts are expecting big things from the Duke alum. Before I go any further, if you haven’t already done so, I insist you check out this incredible breakdown of WCJ by Cole Zwicker of The Stepien, if not now then at the very least when you finish reading this post. In his piece, Zwicker lays out every bit of the young center’s game, and explains why he is a prime candidate to have a breakout sophomore campaign with the Bulls. Zwicker does such an amazing job pouring over who Wendell Carter is on the court (lot’s of video!) and how he can improve, that I won’t sully his work by trying to paraphrase or condense it here. What I will do is add some of my own thoughts to the conversation, particularly what I think will be key for Carter this season. Confidence. Wendell needs to grow in confidence this season, that’s the key to his success. I don’t know if I have Zwicker’s faith in Wendell to become a force in the league right now, he is still only 20 years old, and missed a big chunk of last season (and this summer) recovering from injuries, but I hope he can do it. I do have faith that he will eventually become an elite NBA player, but probably not this season. I will say, the sooner Carter believes he is the One, the sooner he’ll know Kung Fu. It’s kind of a sad cliché to use, but all he has to do is believe in himself and he can achieve stardom. As advanced defensively as Carter already is, and with his latent offensive talent waiting to be unleashed, it’s not impossible to imagine his NBA ceiling being even higher than that of teammate Lauri Markkanen. Carter’s career arc is still a mystery. I fully expect he will start at center this season, and I am anxious to see how he is utilized in Jim Boylen’s rotations. I am also anxiously waiting to see how the NBA officials treat Carter in his second year as a professional. He got tagged with a lot of ticky-tack, B.S. fouls last season, fouls that only young players seem to get called for in the NBA. He spent too much time on the bench with unwarranted foul trouble instead of on the floor gaining valuable experience. Another year into his career, let’s see if the refs swallow their whistles this season. Staying out of foul trouble will boost Carter’s self-confidence, and keep him in the game so he can grow in experience as well.

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Lauri Markkanen working on his handles. Photo from chicagobulls.com

Much like WCJ, a lot of Lauri Markkanen’s future success will come down to confidence. After the devastating elbow injury to start the season, and the frightening health scare at the end, Markkanen spent most of last season just trying to regain his groove. He did have a spectacular February, turning into a double-double machine and playing with the aggressiveness of a top tier NBA-er. We need to see more of that from Markkanen. We need to see an entire season of aggressive play. In February, he averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, 2.4 assists, while shooting 48.6% from the field, and 34.8% from beyond the 3 point arc, per game. Those are the numbers of a top big in the league. They rival the numbers Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant put up last season, the difference being those 3 players did it over an entire season and not just a single month. A great springboard to stardom for Lauri will be stretching those February stats over the entire 2019-20 campaign. Defense is another area that requires serious growth before he can be considered “Elite.” The Front Office continues to push for Markkanen to play a lot of minutes at the center position. While the idea of a stretch 5 with Markkanen’s offensive ability is tantalizing, Lauri has not shown the instincts of a rim protector or great post defender. I’m not saying the Bulls shouldn’t develop him at the 5, I’m just worried they are trying to make a duck sing instead of quack. Also, what does pushing Markkanen to play Center do for Wendell Carter and his confidence? With the addition of perennial starter Thaddeus Young to the roster, I could see the FO wanting Markkanen to start at the 5, with Young at the 4, and Carter on the bench. That’s a worst case scenario in my eyes. Why push a duck to sing when you have a songbird on the block already? Let’s get off the gloom-and-doom and focus back in on my hopes for Markkanen. I hope he stays healthy. As important as his confidence and aggression are for the upcoming season, so to is the Finnisher’s health. Out of the 164 possible games he could have played in during his short career, Lauri has managed to be healthy for 120. He has yet to play more than 70 games in a season. You can’t be a star in the NBA and only play 60 games a year. I fully expect him to play more than 70 games this season. I also hope Markkanen can improve his defense. There are a ton of pictures online of Markkanen working out and bulking up this summer, which is great, he could certainly use the strength, but I would love to see him practicing his rim protection and help defense in the block. If the Bulls are going to use Lauri at the 5, then he needs to work not just on his strength, but also on his quickness, defensive awareness, and lateral movement. The Bulls newly hired assistant coaches, Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers, have both recently worked with young big men (Jarrett Allen and Clint Capela respectively) improving their play on both ends of the court. I’m hoping they can do the same for both Markkanen and Carter. My vision for a championship Bulls team includes the twin towers of Markkanen and Carter dominating the league both at the rim and on the perimeter. They probably aren’t ready to do that this upcoming season, but this could be the year they both breakout and start to shake the NBA.

Zach LaVine is well on his way to being a superstar in the NBA. He has the flash. He has the swagger. He’s even putting up the numbers. What he doesn’t have are the wins. The biggest knock against LaVine is that his teams don’t win games, and they don’t make the playoffs, and so far that’s been true. Zach LaVine has never played in an NBA playoff game. At 24 years old, and with 5 seasons under his belt, that doesn’t speak well of LaVine’s ability to impose his will on the game. Most people consider him to be nothing more than empty statistics. Sure, his per games look good, but the lack of W’s says what he is doing has little to no effect on the game or his teammates. I think all that is about to change. Considering the strides we saw him take last year in his efficiency on offense, the effort he put in on defense, the role he took on as the only healthy starter and lead ball-handler, the fact that he put the team on his shoulders and carried them for the 1st three months of the season, I think LaVine is on the cusp of pushing the Bulls to a large number of W’s. The key for Zach this season is selflessness. He has to play for the team. If it means giving up shots so other players get easy looks, if it means putting in extra time watching video and drilling in the gym to improve his defense, if it means taking a back seat to Markkanen or Carter or Otto Porter Jr, Zach needs to do it. If there is one guy LaVine should emulate on this team, it’s Ryan Arcidiacono; Not in how well Arch plays, but in how he works and motivates, how much effort he exerts in all facets of the game. When was the last time you saw Zach LaVine dive for a loose ball? Zach LaVine is an elite scorer. He is becoming an efficient assassin from all over the court, but that seems to be the extent of his talent and skill set. If the Bulls are going to win all the games we hope they win, if LaVine is ever truly going to reach NBA super-stardom, then he has to start making plays more than just shots. The great thing about LaVine is that he knows this. While it’s perfectly reasonable to doubt LaVine’s numbers, you cannot doubt his work ethic. The dude is non-stop self improvement. Last summer, he knew he had to become a more efficient scorer, so he worked on that and became one. He knew he had to put more effort into his defense, so he worked on it and started to show the effort on the court. This summer, Zach knows he has to become a better distributor and decision maker with the ball in his hands, I’m confident he’s working on those skills and it will pay off for the Bulls this season. As he grows into a leader and the face of the Bulls, we should expect LaVine to make the All-Star team this season, especially with the game being held in Chicago. While that will be an important personal step for him, it should be secondary to the goal of winning games and making the playoffs. When fans see how important winning is to LaVine (and I believe it is important to him), when they see his heart on the floor, his will to win, that’s when the numbers will change from empty stats to stepping stones to stardom.

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Otto Porter Jr attacks the rim and his former team. Photo by David Banks of USA Today Sports

I’ve saved the best for last: Otto Porter Jr. At 26 years old, Porter is just entering his NBA prime. With a player option available to him at the end of this season, Porter could be in a contract year. Finally free of the Washington Wizards grand offensive strategy of sticking him in a corner and using him as a safety valve for Bradley Beal and John Wall, Porter flourished in the Bulls multi ball-handler system. With his plus defense, budding pick-and-roll play, and solid 3 point shooting, Porter could be in for a huge pay day if he opts out of his contract next summer. Porter was the key to the Bulls success last February. His presence on the court opened up gobs of space for both LaVine and Markkanen to operate. His intelligence and defense filled major holes in the Bulls roster. I expect we’ll see more of Porter’s all around brilliance next season. He is the fulcrum for this team. His numbers probably won’t be the best in any one category, but he will be top 3 in every major category for this team. His steady production and play on the court, will allow the other budding stars to lean on him throughout the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Porter finds his way onto the All-Star team next year. As LaVine, Markkanen, and Carter learn to be effective basketball players, Otto Porter has been a silent catalyst for several seasons in Washington. He will make the Bulls a winning team next season. The key for Porter will be his steady production. If his teammates know they can rely on him for a bucket or a stop, then he’ll get more opportunities to make those plays. With the prospect of a big pay day looming on the horizon, it might tempt Porter into trying to do too much. He might try playing beyond his capabilities, going it alone, ignoring the unselfish play that has made him so successful in the past. But I think that scenario is highly unlikely. Otto Porter is too smart and motivated by team success to get sucked into individual stat chasing. He’s the perfect compliment to the rest of the young stars(?) on this Bulls roster. His presence makes them a better team, and his production will be the fulcrum for a successful season.

That about does it for this iteration of the RokDeez Bulls Blog State of the Roster. In the next couple of weeks we’ll take a look at expectations for the Bulls coaching staff and Front Office, as well as the Bulls schedule, and some Bold Predictions. I also plan on taking a week or two off from writing just to recharge before the season starts. Until then, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!