Bulls came out of the gate running to get their first win in Summer League play.
First the ground shook in the Thomas & Mack Center Friday during the opening day of the NBA Las Vegas Summer League.
Only much later was there a 7.1 magnitude earthquake centered in California halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The rattling experienced earlier was from the shock waves after Bulls rookies Coby White and Daniel Gafford opened the Bulls 96-76 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers by combining on a pick and roll lob dunk for the hustling Gafford, who led the Bulls with 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in his pro debut.
"Most definitely (we complement one another). It's always good to have a guard who knows how to throw the ball up as high as you want them to," said Gafford, who also was nine of 10 shooting (mostly dunking). "I always told him, ‘Just throw it up, I'll go get it.' That's what he did. That was our game plan throughout.
"My athleticism is crazy even to me because sometimes I do stuff that can surprise myself," Gafford said. "Just being able to jump like I can and do the things that I want to do with my athleticism is big for me. I can get (Coby) open and he can knock it down. I can get myself open when it comes to screens and stuff. He's quick. So wherever he's going, he's going to get there fast."
It was an incredibly fast start for the Bulls rookies in perhaps the best combined debut of Bulls draft choices since Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant altered the team's arc in 1987.
White didn't shoot well, six of 18 and zero for seven on threes. But in 31 confident minutes he had 17 points and a team most seven free throws. He also played off the ball as well with the hustling Shaquille Harrison, who ignited a strong defensive effort cum transition with four first quarter steals among his five and 14 points overall. Chandler Hutchison making his return after a January broken toe had 15 points. Two-way G-league player Adam Mokoka ran his way into 10 points and eight rebounds while Walt Lemon Jr. led with five assists, several of the Magic Johnson jaw dropping kind.
GAME RECAP: Bulls defeat the Lakers, 96-76
Though in some respects all of that was eclipsed shortly after the Bulls players left the arena as Zion Williamson made his debut against former teammate RJ. Barrett. Early in the fourth quarter following a Williamson knee bruise that benched him after halftime, most everyone went scrambling for cover when the earthquake rattled the arena. The giant overhead scoreboard swayed as players and courtside fans felt the floor swaying. The game was stopped and eventually postponed as fans and players departed the arena after about 30 minutes of nervous glances.
Though if there was disappointment about an abrupt ending for both Zion and the schedule, there had to be at least restrained jubilation for the Bulls to see both their rookies, especially second rounder Gafford, with so few gaffes and so much confidence and maturity.
"He was a monster at the rim, running the floor," White said of Gafford. "When he says he runs the floor like a deer, he really runs the floor like a deer. I think we're playing great off each other. Finding him off the rolls, stuff like that. But as rookies, we're still learning and finding our way. We've got a long way to go. But Daniel's going to be a great player. I think Gaff was a steal for sure. You see how tall he is, how good a player he is, how athletic he is, how hard he plays and what type of motor he has. So if it carries over to the league, we'll be able to do a lot of things."
It was an impressive start for the duo, though we also know that Summer League success (or failure) doesn't necessarily follow logically or continuously.
Gafford, the second round pick, actually showed more of an NBA-ready game than White. Which despite their draft gap—White selected No. 7 and Gafford No. 38—should not be that surprising since point guard is the more complicated position and Gafford stayed a second year at the U. of Arkansas to sharpen his game.
"I thought I played solid, I made some good reads," said White. "Couldn't make a three to save my life, but I played solid. We got our first win, so that's all that matters. I was nervous before the game. I was nervous in warmups. And my first few shots, I was settling down a little bit. Once I was in a rhythm, it was good. The best thing I did was just playmaking. Getting into the paint, drive-and-kicks, making the right reads. I just need to continue to work on that. The shots are going to fall for sure. I was able to get to the rim a good amount. I learn easy, so everything is in a good place.
"I think people questioned my playmaking ability coming into the league, and that's something that I've worked on a lot and got a lot better," White added.
As advertised, White is exceptionally fast, often getting the ball into a transition game even after made baskets and dead ball turnovers. He has a funky push to his shot that seems a bit awkward. And while he is quick, he doesn't always follow the words of John Wooden to not also hurry.
White doesn't appear particularly explosive, so he often was unable to finish drives against NBA size. That will also require more of the learning and study he realizes is required. He met with reporters outside the locker room wearing ice packs on his ankle and knee, though he said he was cleared to play the next game Sunday.
"I've still got a ways to go," White acknowledged.
The Bulls got going fast, 29-14 after a first quarter that featured nine Bulls steals and 15 first quarter Bulls fast break points and 28 for the game.
LeBron James was in the building to watch (scout) the junior Lakers. It would be a bad day all around as there didn't appear to be anyone on the Lakers' Summer League roster who could matriculate at Lakers/LeBron U. And Kawhi Leonard apparently agreed to shun LeBron and join the rival Clippers.
But it was a good day for the Bulls, who led virtually all game.
"I loved how both of those rookies set the tone with the first play of the game," said assistant Nate Loenser, who is coaching the Summer League team. "I thought it was great they were able to connect and make that (lob) play. I thought that took the edge off everybody and we just competed."
It became a first quarter track meet with Gafford Bolting up and down the court like a Jamaican sprinter.
"They asked me to bring energy, go grab rebounds, set a lot of screens and get a lot of dunks," said Gafford. "Sometimes I get gassed. But that comes with the game, so you gotta push through it. That shows a lot of toughness when you can push through mental and physical fatigue. That's one of the things I really want to be big on."
Gafford kept rolling in for dunks, Lemon supplying the assists in place of White. The Lakers made 12 threes to one for the Bulls (on 20 attempts; ouch), and stayed relatively close with their shooting.
Harrison doesn't have a deal with the Bulls yet. But it will be difficult to let him go with the kind of transition game the Bulls want to play. Several times he just ripped the ball away from opponents and started breaks he often finished. Gafford also seemed to fit seamlessly into that Clint Capela style of taking off running after blocks or turnovers.
That sort of high octane play the Bulls have envisioned enabled them to lead 50-40 at halftime. Since Summer League game are 40 minutes, it's rare when teams score 100 points even with less defense. The Lakers made a move early in the third quarter and led briefly by one. But Mokoka had an impressive offensive rebound slam dunk, White went all the way for a score after a block, Hutchison had a sweet post up score, Gafford ran out and scored on a Hutchison assist on the fast break and Gafford cleaned up at the rim after a miss. The Bulls led 70-63 after three and then broke it open down the stretch with a couple of more Gafford dunks, Hutchison making the team's only three and White with a fancy full court isolation drive and finish.
"Push the ball, play at a higher pace than we did last year," said White. "Anybody from one through four can push the ball, whether it's Shaq, Hutch, Walt, myself. Just get out and run is my main focus. I feel good with contact. I don't want to pretend I like contact, but it draws fouls and stuff like that. I got to the line a little bit today. I got to the paint and made some nice reads but created my own shots, also. We made a positive impact. Like I said, we still have a long way to go."
Perhaps the Bulls are not trembling with excitement quite yet. It wouldn't be a fault if they did. But there is seismic activity in the Eastern Conference with Leonard shifting West and the defending champion Toronto Raptors showing cracks. It's a good time for the Bulls to be fortifying their structure.