Ask Sam Mailbag: Questions about Onyeka Okongwu, Obi Toppin, and more

Sam Smith has a full mailbag as we inch closer to November's NBA Draft.
by Sam Smith
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Tom Plonowski:

Your article on the Bulls making a trade in the draft. I doubt Minnesota will give future considerations especially unprotected. The 1st overall pick, the #17 overall pick, Culver, and fillers such as James Johnson seems reasonable. I would do that trade, though I'm not really sure who I'd take. Take Anthony Edwards is my thought, but you have just acquired Jarrett Culver. Would the Bulls take Ball at number one? Couldn't they take him at #4? You bring up James Wiseman. I think he will be an interesting talent, but then do you break up Lauri and Carter? That can be a monstrous tandem up front. A few months back, there was an article about the Hawks being in play for LaVine. Now, the Hawks have the #6 pick and some good pieces. If I'm Chicago, I ask for Hunter, the #6 pick, Kevin Huerter.

Sam Smith:

This is why NBA GM is the best job in the world. Consider that there's no test, education or license requirement to be a GM, like someone needs to be an accountant or an electrician. And this is pretty much what they do all day, also. They sit around and come up with trades, and since most don't know much about math they have a guy around who can interpret the salary cap. Or plug it into the ESPN trade machine to see if it works. It could be because of the virus, but the Bulls new management team, while competent and professional, is keeping a safe distance from media and prying questions. A virus to avoid media! Why didn't we think of that before? And based on the relative surprise hirings and firings, they're good at keeping secrets. So I think we're all going to be trying out scenarios right up to the draft pick.

I messed around with Minnesota this week because they have the No. 1 pick, Zach was there and fans loved him and he's by far the most valuable player on the Bulls roster because of his rare combination for the Bulls of good health and high level performance. There's been blind speculation the Bulls would trade up, albeit without any specifics. So I added some speculation, though I think Minnesota ends up using the pick. Golden State's No. 2 supposedly is up for auction, and I assume they'd love Zach with his shooting. But I can't see anyone on that roster they'd give up in exchange for someone like LaVine whom I'd want in order to move up just two spots. Down two spots?

The Hawks are one of those teams said to want to trade its pick since with Trae Young an All-Star and adding Clint Capella they believe they can make a playoff run next season. They have cap room for a free agent, and I can see them loving to have someone like Zach. The Bulls didn't like Hunter in the last draft, but it's a new management. So who knows. I do like Huerter. Maybe management likes Reddish. The Bulls would have Nos. 4 and 6 and two young Hawks players. Probably something you'd have to consider, though that's going even younger and is this the right draft to begin yet another rebuild? Probably not.


Zach LaVine

Dennis Gray:

The Bulls need an upgrade to the roster. Basically, the whole team is not very good. Yes, we have LaVine. LaVine is not going to save this team. LaVine looks like a superstar on this team because you have nothing else. Furthermore, he is not a team player he wants to hog the ball and make all the points. Coby is headed in the same direction. The team needs to have at least 3 great players on the first unit. Trade LaVine and the rest and start over. This team is not a team for the future.

Sam Smith:

That's pretty harsh. I bet you don't like Tony LaRussa, either.

I'm not sure it's a great team, but the all—new guys are on the record with the belief it's better than that. I've droned on about this for months. But we've all seen much more from Markkanen, Carter and Satoransky. Young and Porter have their careers on the line. There's a lot for a lot of guys to prove, which provides a lot of motivation to go with a proven, professional coach who has gotten results with various levels of talent. It's a combination that suggests an immediate improvement and the very least no reason to push the eject button quite yet. There's plenty of time for that. I know fans often prefer the zero sum view of sports—championship or bust it up. I prefer the Pat Riley philosophy of thinking you can compete for a title every year and trying and trying and trying, and then something might happen, like this season when the Heat made the Finals after failing to make the playoffs three of the previous five seasons. Sure, they added Jimmy Butler. But it wasn't exactly the LeBron free agent sweepstakes. Plenty of teams passed. It's not the team for the future until it is. It's worth for the most part another look, though with the new guys I doubt it will be exactly the same for long.


Onyeka Okongwu

Ealan Smith:

I believe that Onyeka Okongwu is going to be a star in the NBA. He was awesome and completely overpowered college players in his freshman year at USC. The kid has got elite athletic and basketball skills to not draft him if Wiseman and Edwards are gone. He has not gotten the media hype that he really deserves. He has been a super superstar since his high school championships days in his 4 years of high school. You take the best player available and after Wiseman and Edwards, that would be Okongwu.

Sam Smith:

It's why this draft is so confusing because I agree Okongwu could be special. He looks really good and fearsome and why I suggested in my fantasy move of the week this week that the Timberwolves would want him as sort of a bodyguard for Towns. There are many questions for the new Bulls management with the latest consensus being they want a playmaker in the draft, either a point guard or perhaps a wing/point forward like Avdija. Two players I like are Okongwu and Toppin for their force and physical presence at power forward. I know a lot of this season is supposed to be about recovering Lauri Markkanen because two years ago we thought he might be as good as Jayson Tatum. Lauri's had injuries, but a significant flaw in his game has been his retreat with physical play and aggression. He's clearly skilled. But is he determined enough to play through the contact? He seemed to be two years ago. So there's a three there. Not so much since. Okongwu and Toppin, though one more defensively oriented and one more for offense, look like those players who could displace Markkanen. Select one of them and let Markkanen compete with them? Look to fill another need since there are many? Karnisovas has said it's all about the best player available. Which seems an arbitrary judgement in this draft.


James Harden

Mike Sutera:

Was playing around with the trade checker and Horford and Simmons for Harden works straight up. Money wise matches. Of course Sixers would have to send some picks.

Sam Smith:

With Daryl Morey's surprise hiring by the 76ers, the Simmons/Embiid "Who's Gone" debate began immediately. And given it's Morey, many immediately speculated he'd try to get Harden, who was his greatest coup and why he got close. Morey is associated with the micro ball the Rockets played. Mike D'Antoni is a small ball/analytics guy, but not the way the Rockets played. Mike's game was about movement even if the point guard did so much moving. His game wasn't with Harden's standing dribble. That was Harden, who overtook the franchise. Morey is a fantasy ball GM. He likes the next star. Once it actually was Omer Asik, one of his first big free agent acquisitions. So it's not just about mini ball.

I don't think Embiid will be gone. Everything being said now in Philadelphia has been sticking with Embiid and Simmons, which most don't believe. They don't seem to play nice with one another, and you get the sense Embiid has seen enough. I immediately thought of Bulls trade ideas for Simmons, whom I know doesn't shoot well. But he's a heck of a talent and really can defend. The 76ers need shooting. Zach and Lauri? Unfortunately, Bulls players are undervalued because of the poor records and absence from Orlando. I don't see a lot of trading before next season. I can see Morey viewing Harden as the missing piece with Embiid. Morey figures to be so anxious to get Harden, whose game should endure because he can't jump anyway, that I'd throw in Gordon's longer deal for Josh Richardson. The 76ers have all their lottery picks for the next five years, so it also would be a chance for Houston to restock since Morey traded away so many picks. It is something to watch with the 76ers now. Like Riley, Morey always has been a go-for-it-now guy. Every now and not then.


Otto Porter Jr

Tom Golden:

I think Otto, due to the cynical reason of contract year, plus he's had two years to get healthy is the Bulls only true value trade possibility. I know you and many fans like the potential of Hutch, Denzel and others, but if you keep Otto, they're either gone or not used. I like to think of Otto during his healthy playing time, but we're a young team and one and done at best next year so why try and fit Otto into a young team with a potentially roller coaster year. I'm not even advocating dealing Otto, I'm just saying he's the only guy we could possibly get something of value for.

Sam Smith:

I'm not sure about Hutchison. He has tried, but he hasn't been able to endure and escape injuries from the physical play of the NBA. He came in an older player with supposedly a body that should have held up better. And he needs to show confidence in his shot. It's why this season also is so huge for him. There's an old NBA saying that after three years you are who you are. It's changed some with one and doners. But Hutchison came in at 22.

I disagree regarding Otto. It's also a career defining season for him, which is why I expect more from him and less caution that he's exhibited. He's in that final season—soon to pick up his option we assume—of his contract. And good for him for getting it. But not only if he wants to get another deal, but if he wants to continue to a serious NBA career he has to show he can play a full season and contribute. He's shown that only in brief glances for two years. People forget quickly in the NBA with 30 first rounders coming in every year. I think Otto's playing for his career this season, which suggests the Bulls will get a good season from him. He's been impressive at times. But I can't see another team taking a risk now on someone no one has basically seen do much in two years at close to $30 million for the season. Unless the Bulls were to take back a long Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/John Wall-type contract a team wants to move. I doubt the Bulls now are in the market for that.


Obi Toppin

Nicholas Hill:

It seems that the NBA is eyeing a return in December. Honestly, I don't know if the NBPA would approve such an early start but if they did, I wonder how that would affect the view of players in the NBA draft. Continuity is going to be very valuable with such a quick turnaround and you have a bunch of teenagers trying to learn a playbook in about a month. Plus the fact that their bodies aren't fully developed means they may get banged up very quickly without the usual prep time before the NBA season. Teams have already been reported trying to trade out and that mindset probably picks up steam now. However, if everyone is trying to trade out of the draft then that also begs the question of who is left to trade picks to?

That said, if I'm the Bulls, I start looking at older players like Obi Toppin. He probably is the best available player in this scenario if he isn't picked before 4. I know a lot of people worry about his age but Lauri, Wendell, Zach and I think even Coby are all 20 or older. So, I don't see how adding a 22/23 year old player hurts. Even if he doesn't "fit" which Arturas already said isn't how they're going to select a player. I can't help but think of how great a fast break with he Coby and Zach would be to watch. He might be a bit redundant but that didn't sway the previous regime from taking Lauri when they had Niko and Bobby. Lauri ended up being the best of the 3. Who's to say Obi won't be the best out of he Wendell and Lauri after next season? Let him do what Thad didn't like doing last year. Come in and play 20 minutes a game, shoot some 3s, dunk on somebody and scream at Lebron. The Bulls lack that player right now.

Sam Smith:

Good point. As I stated, I've been impressed watching Toppin score like an NBA player. There's obviously a debate going on now with the season start dates, the league hoping for Dec. 22 and the players thinking about it. I agree it will be unusually difficult and unprecedented on these young rookies to have a Nov. 18 draft and then with no summer league be in camp to start December. I'm not sure so many teams are trying to trade out, but I have doubts there'll be so much trading down available as speculated since there don't seem to be many teams who have to have a certain guy. Which is why if you like Toppin, whom many have falling between Nos. 5 and 10, just take him at No. 4. Defense gets mentioned as a weakness, though I don't see many two-way rookies. Unless the Bulls can get Noah back, often speculated because of Billy Donovan, the lack of taunting LeBron does remain a weakness.


Gordon Hayward

Burt Amos:

Is this a realistic trade possibility if Boston does not have Gordon Hayward in their long-term plans? I think the salaries match up: Bulls get Hayward and Boston's #14 pick, Boston gets Otto Porter and #4 pick. For giving up the better player Boston moves up in the draft and saves a few bucks. Bulls get the better player with the hope that he recaptures his old all-star performance and really likes Donovan and Chicago and decides to resign a long-term deal effectively giving the bulls a star for the 2021 free agency sweepstakes. Bulls still keep a draft pick high enough to get someone who could contribute.

Sam Smith:

This seems like the lose/lose sort of deal. Perhaps it's better for Boston long term moving up 10 spots in the draft, though many still are saying you can get someone at No. 14 who'll surpass someone at No. 4. Just who? The much injured Hayward has just one year left, like Porter. But then he's a free agent and hardly that final piece for the Bulls. And it doesn't advertise well and perhaps becomes beware of them to other free agents if Boston were to trade a top free agent acquisition to a team with a losing record. But let's keep the suggestions coming. There's still three weeks with nothing but suggestions.


Fred Van Vleet

Mike Hasemann:

If the Bulls can move Young and/or Sato and rescind Valentine, can they free up enough money to make a run at (Fred) Van Fleet? Seems like they need to add quality players even if its at positions they're solid at. I'd like to see them go with Van Fleet and LaVine and then white off the bench. Then draft Toppin and call it a day.

Sam Smith:

It's unlikely that teams with salary cap room would use that for players like Young and Satoransky. I suppose it is theoretically possible. But if you had saved salary cap room—and no offense as they are good players—are Young and Satoransky the players you'd like to tell your fan base you acquired after conserving for cap room? I expect Toronto to let go free agents Gasol and Ibaka and make a strong offer to VanVleet, who is popular and effective and a big part of the way they play, especially with Kyle Lowry going into his final contract season. I don't see the Bulls involved in free agency this offseason other than possibly using their exception of about $8 million.


Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen

Joe Jebuzz:

For a multitude of reasons I'm not a LaVine fan. What do you suppose is the market for him? Brooklyn would seem to be a natural fit for him, and they have some pieces that would interest me. Dinwiddie, LeVert and Allen come to mind.

Sam Smith:

I've never fully understood the antipathy toward Zach other than the overall lack of team success, which has many fathers. I think a lot of teams believe they could steal Zach because of comments they may hear from various fans and media. So you probably could get one of those players, which seems a lopsided trade the Bulls lose. I often make this comparison: I'd take Zach anytime over Khris Middleton, who has the good fortune of standing next to a guy who gets double and triple teamed. With the Bulls, it's only Zach who gets the extra defender. His defense is never going to be elite. James Harden seems to make that work. Zach is skilled with a clutch gene. Perhaps he's not in the Bulls future because we don't know who is with no one in management or the coaching staff committing to anyone yet. But I know, for example, LeBron would love him on his team to play for a championship.


LaMelo Ball

Lachlan Everett:

I saw in the mailbag it was suggested to try get Wiseman. I honestly think that could be a top 10 mistake in Bulls history. He could be like the uber Tristan Thompson. Additionally I think the Bulls are in a decent position to move up to #2 and try get Ball. Throw in future firsts, Denzel (or another young guy) and Thad Young and it could be a serious way to get Ball.

His ability in the pick and roll/pop is outstanding and fits with Lauri and Carter and his size (6'8") allows him to guard the SF's while Zach and Coby cover the guards. I'm not saying they'd be an elite defense but with time, discipline and structure it's not impossible to be like Nuggets. Average on D and great on offense.

I think Ball could be more passive as a shot taker in the NBA and Donovan could hopefully reign him in — couldn't do it with Westbrook but he was already a multiple time all-star by Billy's hiring. Even if LaMelo Ball isn't perfect I think his upside is better than Wiseman and he is likely more tradable as centers have extremely bipolar trade values.

Sam Smith:

I actually like about eight guys in the draft, and I don't even know half the suspected first rounders. Of course, in the highlight tapes I see on YouTube they never miss a shot or a pass. Wiseman seems considerably more athletic and supple than the robotic Thompson. And taller and faster. Not the comparison I'd make.

When I look at the fan commentary after I write about the draft, Ball produces the most ambivalence. Many love the possibilities, like you do. Others say run and don't look back. He'd scare me because of his seeming desire to be noticed. Which also is often what NBA stardom is about. He does demonstrate a position fit for the Bulls given they really don't have anyone who is a true facilitator to complement LaVine or White. Can White be a point guard? In this NBA I think so. We don't know what Karnisovas thinks. I'd probably pass on Ball even if his passes often are something to behold.


Andre Roberson

Brodie Larsh:

Which seems more likely; Keeping Kris Dunn or adding Andre Roberson in free agency? Roberson could be good for Donovan, as somebody who knows and understands what he's wanting. Kris Dunn is younger, and just had a great year on the defensive end.

Sam Smith:

Roberson did seem to be Billy Donovan's favorite player for his defense and he is a free agent. But he's been injured so much. So who knows if he can play. He did finally come back in Orlando and played a few games for the Thunder. But he didn't finish and I can't recall having seen him play. Which is why I've thought the Bulls might want to qualify the defensive-oriented Dunn and make him a restricted free agent where they could match an offer. But with missing the minicamp, who knows. They should have to make decisions on Dunn and Valentine pretty soon. With limited Bulls roster spots and two draft picks to come and perhaps a free agent, it will be interesting to see if both players get the offers.


Michael Jordan

Alejandro Yegros:

Wanted to throw this LBJ/MJ angle: I think both are great, and I don't think there's a ton of point to saying one is definitely better than the other. However, there is one difference between the two. LeBron is motivated by winning championships. MJ was motivated by beating your butt. Those are similar but not identical motivations. And this is why the constant use of championships to measure a player is something I find boring. It's incentivizing players to say "forget competition, what's the most stacked team I can join?" Pretty soon Giannis is going to learn the LBJ lesson and just force MIL to trade him to DAL for KP to go play with Luka and that's... just boring. At least for me. The LBJ approach has neutered my interest in the Finals. Maybe I'm just old, though.

Sam Smith:

Perhaps misinformed. The Jordan legacy has become skewed because so many love that romantic "killer" narrative. That's not what Jordan was about. He was always about championships first. After all, he averaged 17 points in college to get to that title, which he did with a winning shot. With the Bulls he had to score like he did because there was so little talent around him, and then the talent was built with defenders and not scorers. Which is why Phil Jackson still wouldn't give Pippen the shot even when Jordan wasn't there. Fans and media like the Michael-take-no-prisoners story, but that wasn't him.

He saw Magic as his biggest rival early in his carer because everyone was saying Magic was a winner of championships. Michael had the misfortune of playing in the most competitive era in NBA history. When rivals like the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers had at least three and often four Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, the Pistons three as well. It was much more difficult then to get there in a league with fewer teams. It also was an era when the NBA was just emerging from near financial ruin and teams had to compete each season for attendance because there was no significant TV revenue. So no team could clear the budget for free agents. And then there wasn't enough flexibility to add multiple free agents. TV changed all that. Thus the annual roster stability back then. Players didn't always benefit financially as much. So now they can and good for them. They should have the right to move more freely. Though I don't see how that player movement has produced a stagnant, predictable field of play instead of many more teams with a chance to win than say could in the Western Conference during Magic's run. It was an entertaining playoffs this season, actually, because there really weren't any great, dominant, stacked teams.


Deni Avdija

Kirk Landers:

You posed the question, "what would you do?" in your last column about the top three players in this year's draft. Personally, I wouldn't touch any of them, especially not Ball. Ideally, either the Bulls trade down and pick up a hard nosed hustler like (Auburn's Isaac) Okoro or the USC big (Onyeka Okongwu), or they take a flyer on the Israeli forward Avdija.

Sam Smith:

Thanks for the input. Any idea what Karnisovas is thinking?

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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