Sam Smith predicts who the Bulls could select in the 2020 NBA Draft with Karnisovas leading the way

"This is the rare draft where one team’s No. 1 might be No. 10 on another’s list." -Sam Smith
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Sam Smith takes a look at Arturas Karnisovas' past draft selections with the Denver Nuggets and previews who the Bulls make select with their first-round pick.

Chicago is renowned as an international city. There's Greektown, Chinatown and Little Italy with proud natives claiming Hispanic Pilsen, Swedish Andersonville, the Polish and Ukrainian villages, the Croatian and Lithuanian centers. It may also begin to become a melting pot for the Bulls starting with the potpourri of talent in this NBA draft.

Not necessarily because the Bulls new Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations, Arturas Karnisovas, is a native of Lithuania and played for the national team. But that the Denver Nuggets, where Karnisovas had his most NBA influence as general manager for seven years, built much of their recent success with international prospects in the NBA draft.

International prospects, long overlooked by NBA teams, have gained increasing credibility with the stardom of Nikola Jokic in Denver and more recently Luka Doncic with the Dallas Mavericks. Both are now considered top 10 NBA Most Valuable Player candidates. The Nuggets were on the way to improving their record for the fifth consecutive season before the virus stopped play in March. The Nuggets have done so with an emphasis on the international game, which the NBA has much imitated in recent years with big men shooting from farther out and less physical, isolation play.

Karnisovas has been known in the NBA for his international connections, savvy and expertise. He was international scout for the Houston Rockets for five years before going to Denver and before that directing the European predraft tournament. Employed in the NBA office in the early 2000s, Karnisovas worked with Basketball Without Borders, FIBA and the league's global developmental.

Not that Karnisovas would pass on LeBron James if he were in this draft—every top NBA official has Best Player Available tattooed on him somewhere—but the Nuggets clearly had a recent bias and specialty for international prospects.

And there are several good international players in this draft who fit the Bulls needs. So it only makes this draft that much more intriguing for the Bulls.

Arturas Karnisovas never picked higher than No. 7 in the draft as a Denver Nuggets executive.

Arturas Karnisovas never picked higher than No. 7 in the draft as a Denver Nuggets executive.

Jokic, the 2014 second round Denver selection at No. 41, obviously was the coup for the Nuggets. He's their best player who turns a team of essentially high level role players into a potential champion. Their makeup demonstrates the influence of a superstar in the NBA. It's apparent with the Lakers, who immediately went from lottery regular to contender with the addition of LeBron James. The problem is there generally aren't enough of those players to go around.

Unless you discover one, as the Nuggets did with Jokic.

Beyond the versatile Jokic, the Nuggets have a credible roster basically without an All-Star. Jamal Murray, a Canadian who played at the U. of Kentucky, is generally regarded as their second best player. Though he's probably not as talented athletically as Zach LaVine. It often depends upon who you're standing next to, like Khris Middleton in Milwaukee.

The Nuggets found that guy without going deep into the lottery. But their emphasis seemed to be on the international game. Which had some big misses as well.

The highest draft pick the Nuggets had during Karnisovas' tenure was No. 7 in both 2015 and 2016.

In 2015, the Nuggets struck out at No. 7 with Emmanuel Mudiay, a 6-3 point guard from Africa who played one season in China before the draft. After three seasons in Denver with his role declining, Mudiay was traded to the Knicks in a deal that included Doug McDermott, whom the Bulls acquired with a draft pick from the Nuggets in 2014. In that 2014 draft, the Nuggets traded No. 11 to the Bulls for Nos. 16 and 19. The Nuggets used those picks for Gary Harris, a modest scoring combo guard, and Jusuf Nurkic, a center from Bosnia. Jokic eventually outplayed Nurkic, who was traded to Portland for Mason Plumlee as those 2014 international selections built the Nuggets base.

The Nuggets had drafted Rudy Gobert in 2013 just before Karnisovas was hired and traded him to Utah for a second round pick and cash. The Nuggets actually helped build the Jazz with the 2017 draft trade of the rights to Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick.

But the Nuggets remained a team expert in international talent and it has benefitted them.

They selected France's Evan Fournier in the 2012 draft. He was traded to Orlando after two seasons. The Nuggets also used a No. 1 pick in 2016 after they selected Murray for Spain's Juan Hernangomez. He was traded to Minnesota earlier this season. The Nuggets gave Brooklyn their 2019 first round pick so Brooklyn would take the contract of Kenneth Faried. Denver also took a chance on injured Michael Porter in the 2018 draft at No. 14. Porter played well last season after missing a year. About half the Nuggets top draft picks during the last decade have been for international players, a rarity in the NBA.

Arturas Karnisovas meeting Nuggets first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. in 2018.

Arturas Karnisovas meeting Nuggets first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. in 2018.

Will that pattern follow with the Bulls?

The NBA draft lottery was originally scheduled for this week, Tuesday May 19 in what would have been the second round of the NBA playoffs. It's been delayed because of the shutdown. Estimates now are the draft will occur sometime in late August or September if the NBA can compete a playoffs. That still remains uncertain.

This NBA draft will be unusual for many reasons other than the timing. Personal workouts and interviews have been limited or not even possible. Scouting was curtailed because of the cancellation of the NCAA tournament and post season camps.

Plus, it's not regarded as a draft with a clear star or two, like recent drafts that included Zion Williamson and Ja Morant (one and two), Doncic (third), Ben Simmons (one) and Karl-Anthony Towns (one) and Joel Embiid (third).

Georgia guard Anthony Edwards.

Georgia guard Anthony Edwards.

The general consensus is there are four top players: Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, Dayton forward Obi Toppin, point guard LaMelo Ball who played in Australia and Memphis center James Wiseman. Though all have questions surrounding them. Edwards is an erratic shooter, Toppin is a smaller inside player in a perimeter era, Wiseman is a thin center and Ball is from a notorious family and somewhat ball dominant without a defensive component.

The Bulls currently have the No. 7 spot in the lottery. There likely are not going to be enough games played, if any, to move them much out of that spot. The lottery drawing gives teams a chance to get into the top four.

But this kind of draft also gives teams a good chance to address needs because there is no true best talent available. It's more of the eye of the beholder than most drafts. This is the rare draft where one team's No. 1 might be No. 10 on another's list.

So it's a draft to address needs.

As for the Bulls, they don't need another power forward or shooting guard.

I believe the team's greatest needs are point guard and center.

Many believe it's the wing position, though it's generally easier to acquire a wing player than a center or point guard. I expect Otto Porter Jr. to return from injury and have a productive next season. After his injuries his market could be limited as a free agent after next season. Plus with salary cap issues with the changing economics in the NBA because of the pandemic, teams might find their best opportunities are to resign their own free agents under the Bird exception. Porter has played well when healthy and could be a valuable veteran to retain.

Though the top European prospect in 2020 NBA draft is said to be a wing player, 6-8 Deni Avdija from Israel. Many mock draft projections have him being selected between Nos. 5 and 10. He would fit the Bulls well as a versatile ball handling wing player who can pass and play in transition. He seemingly would be too good to pass if the Bulls were to get a chance to select him.

Though Coby White had an outstanding finish to his rookie season, he projects more as an NBA combination guard who is more scoring oriented. It's possible to see he and LaVine in the small forward and shooting guard positions with a transition point guard like Ball.

Memphis center James Wiseman.

Memphis center James Wiseman.

If I were the Bulls and got the chance, I might lean to Wiseman even though there are concerns about his lack of Noahism (ability to continue running with interest) because of his size and athletic ability.

But there are a pair of 6-5 point guards from France who might be worth the stretch, lefty Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon. The Bulls would get the draft night D-grade from ESPN for picks like that at No. 7 because both generally are projected in the 8-15 range.

But they fit what the Bulls need with Hayes generally regarded a bit more highly than Maledon.

Hayes is somewhat bigger, but very left side oriented. Of course, so is James Harden, who some have likened him to with step back moves. But both fit the Bulls requirements as tall, transition, pass first point guards with capable shots.

Iowa State's Tyrese Haliburton is the other point guard regarded in their range, though Karnisovas might lean to the European pros. If he asked me, which he doesn't plan to, I'd go for the French products.

The Nuggets have said their decision making was group think. Though the buck-stops-here-guy was Tim Connelly. But it's reasonable to assume Karnisovas with his international expertise was the most influential when it came to overseas prospects. This is Karnisovas' first time being the final decision maker. He also has talked about an ensemble approach, but he is the final authority in the Bulls new management structure.

Something of the point of the spear. The adventure begins for the Bulls new point man perhaps to get to the point.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

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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