Sam Smith: Keep or trade the 18th pick? Bulls' options are intriguing

Burt Bacharach’s opening lyrics for the 60s Dusty Springfield hit song may also describe the Bulls 2022 draft.

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin’; 

Plannin' and dreamin’...

Not to suggest Bulls management doesn’t have some great or grand plan to improve from last season’s 46-36 record and first-round playoff loss. Step 1 is Thursday’s NBA draft, where the Bulls have the No. 18 selection in the first round. 

Which often is just good enough to be not quite good enough.

There always are players selected in the 20s and second-round of the draft who become NBA stars as I detailed in Tuesday’s Bulls.com story. But that’s often some combination of luck and don’t-tell-anyone-we-had-no-idea.

There’s usually seven or eight can’t miss prospects in the draft, though not always in the first seven or eight selections as the Bulls discovered in recent lotteries. Some slip toward the end of the lottery, like Donovan Mitchell, and some into the mid teens like, gasp, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And then the Bulls will be hoping one slips just a bit farther to No. 18.

There’s been media speculation the Bulls are trading, moving up or out of the draft. So we’ll have to wait until Thursday night for that one.

I’d guess they end up using the draft pick since the combination of value with a lower salary and potentially five years of control is worthwhile given the current roster. At No. 18, the Bulls could get a rotation player. If they are fortunate, they could stumble into a really useful one.

That’s where the wishin’ and hopin’ comes in.

One of the team’s most urgent needs is also one of the NBA’s lesser priorities these days, which suggests the Bulls could get lucky. If they do, I take the guy. That would be Jalen Duren, the 6-11 Memphis State center, or seven-foot Duke center Mark Williams.

I know none of the four teams in the conference finals played a seven-foot center. So what’s the big deal about a big? 

All did have active, athletic power forward/modern center types like Bam Adebayo, Kevon Looney and Robert Williams. But the Eastern Conference still also has Joel Embiid, 21 feet of inside in Cleveland, Brook Lopez and Giannis in Milwaukee, Clint Capella and maybe Rudy Gobert showing up somewhere. The Bulls Nikola Vucevic could use some relief, especially on the defensive side. Once healthy the Bulls defensive perimeter looks good with Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Somebody monitoring the rim would help.

Duren would be landing the big one. He’s huge and quick and athletic, and mostly considered a certain lottery selection. The Bulls hope would be once teams start selecting they realize that the champion rarely used any big guys. Wings! Bring me wild wings! Saucy ones!

There’s also been speculation about trading Coby White because of the Bulls’ guard surplus, which I don’t expect. Maybe things change after a summer of strengthening following surgery last year. The mystery team for the Bulls probably is Charlotte, which is said to need a center. But there’s a lot going on there with rumors they may lose free agent Miles Bridges. And if Mike D’Antoni is hired, he doesn’t have much use for tall people. The Hornets have two picks just ahead of the Bulls.

Coby and No. 18 for No. 13 or No. 15? Coby back in North Carolina, where he broke owner Michael Jordan’s high school scoring record? At No. 13 or No 15, the Bulls would be in ideal position to grab Duren or certainly Duke’s Mark Williams.

Some mock drafts speculated Williams could reach No. 18, but that seems more prayin’ and dreamin’. Williams is extra long and athletic and who cares that he’s not much of an offensive player. No one throws it to centers anymore, anyway. Not when you can shoot a 36-foot three. Would Charlotte want the Duke guy? Or could he just get to No. 18 because the NBA doesn’t like centers anymore?

If either of those players were available to the Bulls it would not only address a need exposed last season, but an important addition for the next several years.

NBA.com surveys most of the mock drafts and found nine players in the lottery in every mock draft. So it’s safe to say none is likely to fall to the Bulls. They are Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, Jaden Ivey, Keegan Murray, Shaedon Sharpe, Benedict Mathurin, AJ Griffin and Johnny Davis.

For the Bulls, the close your eyes and hold your breath guys as the lottery selections are made probably are 6-8 forward Tari Eason from LSU, 6-5 shooting guard Ochai Agbaji from Kansas and physical 6-9 Baylor forward with the Dennis Rodman hair colorist Jeremy Sochan.

They’ve all been mentioned as lottery possibilities, and any who slip through would make a nice addition at No. 18.

Eason has a quirky shot, which isn’t uncommon among some Bulls players, but could fit in with an impressive high speed defensive second unit with Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu. He’s athletic and attacks the basket and appears to play physically. He played his freshman year at Cincinnati, where they seek out tough players. Adding Ball to the threesome would give the Bulls a look they haven’t had.

Somewhat similarly with Sochan, who though just 19 is man-sized. His shooting isn’t great, though could be adequate. More importantly for a team like the Bulls he’s physical, goes hard to the rim and can defend even up to centers with his size.

Agbaji doesn’t have their defensive wing presence, but he checks the box for a high level spot-up shooter, a gaping void on the Bulls roster. Especially with the predominance of three-point shooting in the NBA and particularly with the teams playing late in the playoffs. The Bulls have long ranked among those attempting the fewest threes while Agbaji gets them up, plays solid defense and is older at 22 and more ready to play.

Which could mean all are off the board when the Bulls select at No. 18.

There’s been some buzz lately around the Bulls to select mid-major 6-6 wing Jalen Williams from Santa Clara. He’s said to be one of those late rising guys, though I’d go for Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell. Almost none of the mock drafts have him off the board before No. 18, likely because he’s undersized in that Draymond Green/Paul Millsap model. Again, we prefer comparisons to stars.

Liddell is perhaps the most ready to play with excellent basketball instincts. He’s a strong, physical player whose shooting has improved enough to become a 3-D type forward. He’s likely more the second unit role player type, but he brings enough of what the Bulls need with shooting, defense and physical and smart play. He’s athletic enough, if not the fastest. He’s the kind of player who’ll be around awhile. So stay tuned and maybe dream with the Bulls.

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