Who will the Bulls pick at the 2018 NBA Draft?

Sam Smith looks at the trend among players in the NBA ahead of the draft

Everyone was looking for hints from Bulls Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson Tuesday night after the NBA lottery drawing gave the Bulls the No. 7 pick in the June 21 NBA draft.

Paxson in comments to reporters just after the lottery TV show, seemed to describe Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges as the type of versatile player needed in this era.

Though many believe the Bulls at No. 7 will be most tempted by the likes of centers Mohamed Bamba of Texas and Wendell Carter of Duke. Perhaps even dynamic guards Trea Young and Collin Sexton.

This is why it’s going to be a very interesting next five weeks for the Bulls.

"The two biggest things are versatility, guys who can play multiple positions and guard multiple positions, and guys who can get where they want on the floor," Paxson said when asked about the most important attributes for NBA players in the evolving game. "Those are the things outside the shooting components—everyone loves shooters—those two things are the way the game is going. You see in these playoffs everyone is switching. You need versatile guys to do that and to guard perimeter players."

Obviously, talent is most important, and it helps to have players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

But the trend in the NBA these days is to go with smaller, more versatile lineups, players who can stretch and open the court with shooting and defend through switching. The theory is the switching negates the favored pick and roll offenses of virtually all teams, and has become epidemic around the NBA.

Just look at the four teams still playing.

None has a player considered an elite center.

Golden State doesn’t even start anyone whose position is center and they are the favorites to win the championship. The Rockets center is Clint Capella, an obscure 25th pick in 2014. He’s primarily a defensive player who’ll roll to the rim. The theory among many around the NBA these days is if you cannot draft a super center, like Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns, it’s better to get a role playing big man later in the first round like the Rockets did with Capella and the Jazz with Rudy Gobert.

There are players like that in this draft, including Robert Williams, Mitchell Robinson and Jontay Porter.

In the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are succeeding with a roster of versatile young wing players along with Al Horford, who plays forward and as a small center who can rotate. The Celtics use role playing centers like Aron Baynes. They rarely even list anyone on their roster as a center. The Cavaliers usually play Kevin Love at center and have gone to using Tristan Thompson as their big man; he’s mostly a defensive forward.

Then you see teams with highly paid centers and they rarely can be on the court in the fourth quarter because of the way teams downsize so much late in games, like with Hassan Whiteside in Miami. Though now Golden State starts early with their small lineup that has various nicknames.

The Bulls young core is Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. They have the potential to become that kind of interchangeable, switching, athletic group. So do you draft a small forward to complement them? Do you draft a big guy because, well, you do need rebounds. And you still do have to face the likes of Embiid. Though some among the Bulls envision Markkanen as the prototype "center" for this era with his ability to switch and chase shooters outside.

So it suggests this draft for the Bulls is more than just adding a quality player; it’s also a potential blueprint for how the team intends to try to compete with the best in the conference, likely Boston and Philadelphia and Cleveland if James decides to return.

"Everybody has opinions (on the top players)," Paxson acknowledged. "That’s what makes this whole process interesting. We’re good with where we’re at; we know we’ll get a player we like. You’re always hoping for the best, but we got a really good player at No. 7 last year and I’m confident we will do the same this year."

Though no one wants to express disappointment during the lottery, the Bulls also were hoping for a lucky break. It did not come. In fact, the Bulls fell back one spot to No. 7 after coming into the drawing in the No. 6 place. Sacramento at No. 7 (they lost the drawing for the extra lottery ball with the Bulls to fall to seventh) and Atlanta at No. 4 moved into the top three. Memphis fell from projected No. 2 to No. 4.

Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf represented the Bulls on the dais for the ESPN TV production that preceded the Eastern Conference finals game. Michael’s son, Joey, represented the Bulls at the actual drawing. That was done in a private, locked room about an hour before the TV show. There were lottery ball selections of four digit numbers assigned to teams. Michael Reinsdorf offered a sardonic smile when the countdown came to the Bulls at No. 7, meaning the Kings has passed them to move into the top three.

Michael Reinsdorf, President and COO of the Chicago Bulls, represents the Chicago Bulls during the NBA Draft Lottery

It was the 10th anniversary of the Bulls moving from the No. 9 spot to No. 1 to get the right to select Derrick Rose. Elton Brand was on stage representing the 76ers. The only other time the Bulls jumped to No. 1 in the lottery was in 1999 and they took Brand. The Bulls had a 5.3 percent chance of moving to No. 1 and 18.3 percent to get into the top three this year.

"You wish you walk in the room and they tell you what the deal is; it is drawn out," sighed Paxson. "Every team in here is hoping for some luck and good fortune. Sacramento got it tonight, so good for them. That franchise has had some bad luck. That’s all a part of the NBA draft and lottery and we are going to move on and do the best with it."

The lottery drawing, which has become a TV event like other sports league meetings, was conducted outside the New York area for the first time. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a basketball fan, was present Tuesday at the Palmer House Hilton. He had lobbied the NBA for the event as well as the coming NBA All Star game in 2020. NBA legends like Chicagoan Isiah Thomas were present in the ballroom audience along with familiar local figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Though it quickly became anticlimactic for the Bulls by failing to get lucky. Though it was at No. 7 last year where the Bulls selected Markkanen. Plus rookie star Donovan Mitchell wasn’t even selected in the top 10 and Kyle Kuzma not in the lottery. This is a good draft, but it lacks the superstar type like a James or Durant.

Also, remember Paxson when he became Bulls general manager in 2003 built a pretty good team with No. 7 picks, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng. The last decade has produced some excellent selections at No. 7, including Jamal Murray of Denver, Julius Randle of the Lakers and Harrison Barnes then of the Warriors. Stephen Curry was taken No. 7 as were Hall of Famers Bernard King and Chris Mullin. Longtime Piston Richard Hamilton was a No. 7 pick. Though so was former Bull Quintin Dailey. Luc Longley was also a No. 7 pick.

"Obviously, you’d love to get up there so you can control things for your franchise," Paxson agreed. "But we got Lauri last year at No. 7. I’m very confident we’ll get a player we like who will fit the direction we are heading with the seventh pick. You are always hoping for the best, good fortune coming your way; it didn’t. But we’ll find someone we like. There are so many different things positionally in this draft. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; every team has guys they like. You see it every year; we’re the same way."

Which is what should make this draft most intriguing.

It’s pretty much agreed that in some order DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and Luka Doncic are the top three players.

But then there’s little certainty. Players like Carter, Porter and Young could be taken fourth or 10th.

The NBA has almost eliminated the center position, at least in the traditional sense, and top big men also are expected to be three-points shooters. The problem is whether they can defend out to the three-point line and beyond. Teams rely so much on switching on defense that it produces frequent mismatches. The Golden State success, other than having extraordinary shooters in Durant and Curry, is to have a core of players 6-6 to 6-8 (with Durant 7-0) who switch on defense with ease. That’s a formula that also has been successful for the Boston Celtics with their young stars, like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Success produces imitation and that has become a formula and necessity to play against those teams.

There’s been speculation that Villanova’s Bridges and the unrelated Miles Bridges from Michigan State fit that profile for the Bulls. Both figure certainly to be available at No. 7. Mikal is more highly regarded, but not particularly as a ballhandler. One issue the Bulls are trying to address is adding players who can finish at the basket with power. Porter is an unusual talent at 6-10, but had that back surgery and missed almost all season. Scottie Pippen had back surgery after his rookie season, but there is a risk when a kid has back surgery.

Kentucky’s Kevin Knox also fits that wing description, though he’s a bit skinny now. Of course, so is Markkanen.

And what about a guard like Young who is such a good shooter he’s drawn comparisons to Curry while also being a great passer? The Bulls sure could use three-point shooting since they were among the league’s poorest. And, sure, they have Dunn, but he’s big enough and good defensively to play off the ball and add an athletic finisher like Sexton. The Bulls always talk about running and pushing. Sexton excels at that.

NBA Deputy Commissioner, Mark Tatum awards the Chicago Bulls the number seven pick in the 2018 NBA Draft during the NBA Draft Lottery on May 15, 2018

Paxson was asked about trading up in the draft and he admitted, "it’s hard to do unless you have something really valuable."

None among the top three likely are trading down this year, and it’s not worth going to four in this draft and giving up much of anything.

So what will the Bulls do? What should they do?

"The game is at such a state that versatility is a big thing," Paxson emphasized. "Especially at the wing. You’re looking at some of the teams still playing, how versatile they are. It shows when you have some versatility in your roster what it can do for you. The game has changed. These young players expect to play, they expect to contribute. Whether off the bench or a starting role and at No. 7 we’ll be counting on that. We’ll have our rankings and determine the best player available and go with that when we have our chance pick."

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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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