Although the Chicago Bulls lack a (current) top-shelf superstar or the depth to be an Eastern Conference contender, they have an intriguing stable of young talent. If they stay healthy, these up-and-coming prospects can grow into a legitimate core to build upon.
Chi-town has 12 players under contract who are 25-and-under, and some of them have tangible star potential. But they still need time to polish strengths, address weaknesses and establish their identity. It’s exceptionally difficult to become a well-rounded NBA player, so many prospects make the climb in incremental steps, if at all.
We looked at a few of the Bulls’ key young returnees and broke down how each one must take the next step in their career. This isn’t a matter of simply pointing out weaknesses, it’s also about examining how these rising stars can build on their budding strengths to make progress.
(NOTE: Somehow, do-it-all forward Otto Porter is 26 already and didn’t qualify for this exercise, even if he certainly is seen as a key part of the core.)
Wendell Carter, Jr.
Age/Experience: 20 years old, 2nd season
Key to Taking the Next Step: Slight shift to the perimeter
Carter barely played more than half of his rookie season thanks to a thumb injury, so we were deprived of any potential growth after mid-January. However, the former Duke prospect’s ceiling remains lofty.
His 44-game sample in 2018-19 was encouraging in many ways, particularly his glimpses of scoring touch and passing talent. The 6-10 neophyte displayed footwork, timing and ambidexterity beyond his years, along with a keen awareness as a high-post passer. Perhaps most importantly, he was one of Chicago’s most aggressive shot-contesters.
Curbing the fouls (he committed 6.6 per 100 possessions last year) is a good way for Carter to evolve defensively. But the key I want to focus on is his outside shooting consistency, something that may unlock his offensive upside down the road.
For starters, Carter should aim to take a few more jumpers than he did last season. Just 19.1 percent of his field-goal attempts came from outside 16 feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com. While he shouldn’t abandon his mid-post and low-post forays altogether, he should sprinkle in more high-post jumpers and pick-and-pops. Cole Zwicker of The Stepien explained that WCJ will become more valuable if he steps outside more often:
Carter is a far superior projection as a perimeter playmaking big than an interior play finishing big, and Carter’s efficiency in year one was dragged down mostly due to his inefficiency trying to post up bigger centers inside. Once the Bulls get Carter trading these like-sized post-ups for face-up situations via shooting 3s and playing more often in the pick-and-pop, short roll and dribble hand-off screen/re-screen game, Carter’s overall offensive game is going to flourish.
Although WCJ has a smoother shooting motion than most players his age and size, it didn’t translate to great percentages last year. He shot 37.7 percent from 10-16 feet, 35.8 between 16 feet and the arc, and just 18.8 percent from deep. He didn’t get into a rhythm from mid-range and the perimeter, and he didn’t show 100 percent confidence on pull-up jumpers, either. According to NBA.com, he hit just 27.6 percent on such two-pointers.
In addition to simply hoisting more perimeter shots, Carter should aim for more consistency with his lower-body mechanics. His arm motion and follow-through are fairly consistent, but his footwork and leg positioning are not. Sometimes he shoots off the hop, and sometimes he shoots from a 1-2 step. Therefore, his rhythm and shot preparation are inconsistent. Sometimes scenarios require a 1-2 step, but it would behoove Carter to shoot off the hop more often.
Establishing more confidence and consistency from the mid-range would be a useful stepping stone for him. He has the skill level to grow into a versatile scorer who stretches the defense, and this is especially important since his frontcourt partner (Markkanen), as well as the team’s guards (LaVine, White, etc.) need frequent lane space to operate when varying their own offense as well.
Age/Experience: 22 years old, 3rd season
Key to Taking the Next Step: Off-the-dribble shot creation
Finland’s rising star is also coming off an injury-shortened 2018-19. Fortunately, Markkanen made progress in several key areas during his 52-game sophomore campaign, and the tools are there for him to reach the next rung on the ladder—and perhaps the highest and quickest of the entire group.
The 7-foot forward is known for his perimeter scoring talent: He has the mechanics to become one of the top shooting big men in league history, and he’s already made 265 treys in 120 games. While he must continue to sharpen his efficiency from long range, Markkanen should pay special attention to improving his shot-creating repertoire.
The Basketball Writers‘ Adam Spinella explained that Markkanen’s path to stardom will be paved by improved off-the-dribble scoring. He noted that Markkanen showed glimpses of shot-creation in space last season, so keep an eye out for more ball-handling progress:
There are times when he will rebound and run, coming off either a Pistol action or dribbling through a drag ball screen into the lane. If these skills are transferrable to the half-court, there’s a whole new box of untapped potential…
Markkanen shot 35.0 percent on two-point pull-ups as a rookie, and 37.0 percent last season. He should aim to get better separation this season and generate a higher percentage, preferably at or above 40 percent.
We’re not asking Lauri to become as maneuverable as James Harden or Chris Paul, but more assertiveness and creativity off the dribble would be great so that he’s not so dependent on being set up for his shots. He has the dexterity to punish defenders on drives more often, so when he becomes a true threat to create more of his own offense, the Bulls’ attack will reach a new threshold.
Age/Experience: 24 years old, 6th season
Key to Taking the Next Step: More decisive playmaking
LaVine is entering his sixth year and is much closer to his prime than Carter or Markkanen. However, he’s only in his second full season with Chicago (one of which was injury-marred), and he’s yet to play alongside the entire evolving Bulls’ core for a long stretch.
He posted career-highs in a slew of categories last season and continues to be a high-flying, rim-attacking, long-distance dynamo. But he hasn’t yet reached his ceiling as a scorer or playmaker. LaVine has a chance to close that gap this season, provided he makes individual progress and the Bulls optimize their new rotation.
The high-flying slasher piled up buckets last season (23.7 per game), along with 4.5 assists. Unfortunately, he coughed up 3.4 turnovers with a turnover percentage of 14.2. While he obviously deserves much of the blame, we can also attribute some blame to his lackluster supporting cast and an old-school, predictable offense force-fed by coach Jim Boylen.
LaVine didn’t have too many talented targets last season and often resorted to forcing questionable shots and plays.
This year’s rotation should be a notch better. For example, LaVine will likely be spending more time collaborating with newly acquired competent combo guard Tomas Satoransky than the erratic Kris Dunn. Bringing a steady veteran like combo forwardThaddeus Young should also translate to better chemistry and higher-caliber playmaking opportunities.
I’m not trying to let him off the hook. LaVine faltered in three critical ways as a floor general last season: He was often indecisive, he often left his feet before passing, and he threw sloppy pick-and-roll passes. Those things have plagued him his entire young career dating back to his even flashier days with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The unassertiveness led to some traveling calls, his jump-passes led to easy interceptions, and his pick-and-roll skip passes were frequently deflected. He needs to enter 2019-20 with an agenda to play more decisively.
Given LaVine’s hyper-athletic and creative playing style, there will always be a few questionable shots or turnovers. As long as he continues to sharpen the fundamentals and meshes well with Chicago’s tweaked rotation, we’ll see an uptick in his per-possession production and efficiency.
Age/Experience: 19 years old, 1st season
Key to Taking the Next Step: Shooting reps/ Patience and balance in pick-and-rolls
The Bulls’ backcourt now also includes rookie Coby White, a 6’5” slasher who could eventually become their primary point guard. During his electrifying freshman year at North Carolina, he showed flashes of scoring prowess and playmaking finesse that hinted at dual-threat NBA value.
White shot 35.3 percent from three-point range for UNC last year, a solid mark for a freshman. However, his 3-of-30 performance in Summer League suggests he might not be comfortable from NBA range yet.
In order to be a truly dangerous all-around weapon these days, you need to space the floor from three-range. White’s teammates will only be maximized if defenses are forced to chase him on the perimeter and go over screens. He’ll have to work on acclimating to the NBA line as much as possible.
On a positive note, White’s jump shot isn’t drastically flawed; He splashed in a bunch of mid-range pull-ups throughout Summer League. He needs to build off that mid-range confidence and work his way out.
White’s playmaking was more positive than negative in Las Vegas as well, and he showed improvement as a pick-and-roll initiator. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton explained White’s development throughout Summer League:
In his debut…White was looking primarily for the screen setter diving on the pick-and-roll. Since then, he has been more comfortable kicking the ball out to shooters when he drives off a ball screen. With time and experience, White will balance those two options…
His playmaking reps may come mostly in practice and garbage time, but White should focus on being patient in pick-and-rolls. He doesn’t need to be a star orchestrator immediately, so patience and repetition is the name of the game. His high-energy playing style and defensive intensity will take care of the rest.
Age/Experience: 25 years old, 4th season
Key to Taking the Next Step: Scoring in the paint
While Dunn’s minutes and touches might take a hit with the arrival of Satoransky, he’ll still be a key part of the rotation, though there have been rumblings about yet another change-of-scenery trade. (Dunn was also acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota that brought LaVine and the draft pick that became Markannen.)
In order for the Bulls to capitalize on his speed more often, he must become a more complete scorer near the hoop. Unfortunately, he must also continue to improve in several other offensive areas, as well, including as three-point shooting and half-court facilitating. But converting plays within 5-10 feet of the hoop is a skill that would dramatically enhance his scoring impact.
Dunn boosted his at-rim field-goal percentage (within 0-3 feet from the rim) each of the last two seasons, but his percentage from 3-10 feet went down each of the past two campaigns. He shot just 33.9 percent from that range in 2018-19.
Despite not being a particularly fluid scorer, he has enough body control and length to improve his scoring opportunities from the paint. Dunn should consider using the glass a little more when angles present themselves.
Dunn is at a crossroads in his career, and his future with the Bulls could be in jeopardy. Chicago has a full stable of guards, and they make look to ship out one or two of them. However, there’s still plenty of time for him to iron out his game and evolve. Better bucket-getting punch from close range would be a gigantic step in a positive direction.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball