Chicago Sun-Times - - BULLS BEAT - BY JOE COW­LEY jcow­ley@sun­times.com | @JCow­leyHoops

It’s a vague term sports ex­ec­u­tives love to throw around at draft time: “Best player avail­able.’’ Bulls ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions Ar­turas Kar­niso­vas isn’t above that.

Af­ter the Bulls moved up from the pro­jected No. 7 pick to the No. 4 se­lec­tion in the draft lot­tery last week, Kar­niso­vas talked about strat­egy with­out ac­tu­ally giv­ing any­thing away.

It was the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of bas­ket­ball ops-speak, and ‘‘best player avail­able’’ was part of his ver­nac­u­lar.

‘‘Ob­vi­ously, I’ve never picked that high [dur­ing his days as the Nuggets’ gen­eral man­ager],’’ Kar­niso­vas said. ‘‘So I’ll let it al­ways play out. We’re do­ing a bunch of rank­ings. By the time the draft comes, we’ll have our draft board and a lot of opin­ions. Then we’ll min­i­mize the noise and pick the player that’s best avail­able on the board. So that’s go­ing to be the strat­egy.

‘‘A bunch of things hap­pen in the draft. You’re go­ing to move up. You’re go­ing to move down. Who knows? There’s go­ing to be a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with other teams.’’

And af­ter the pick is made, there are go­ing to be some hard con­ver­sa­tions with his play­ers.

This 2020 first-round draft pick is more than just an­other piece of the Bulls’ re­build. It will let the ex­ist­ing foun­da­tion of the re­build know ex­actly what the new regime thinks of it.

The Safe Route

With small for­ward Otto Porter Jr. ex­pected to opt in at $28.5 mil­lion for the 2020-21 sea­son, he will be play­ing for his next con­tract — one that un­doubt­edly won’t be with the Bulls.

The Bulls’ depth at small for­ward has been an is­sue since Jimmy But­ler was traded in 2017, and 2018 first-round pick Chan­dler Hutchi­son has shown lit­tle to ease the their con­cerns about the po­si­tion.

That’s why pick­ing Deni Avdija or Isaac Okoro would re­sult in the fewest waves to the ros­ter.

Both are small for­wards — al­beit with dif­fer­ent strengths — and would be groomed to take over for Porter when he’s else­where.

Okoro is con­sid­ered the best perime­ter de­fender in the draft, and Avdija is more of the in­ter­na­tional man of mys­tery, show­ing MVP abil­ity in the Is­raeli league this past sea­son.

Be­cause of his abil­ity to play either for­ward spot, Obi Top­pin might be the pick. He has skills that would al­low him to play along­side Wen­dell Carter Jr. or Lauri Markka­nen. Plus, if talks with Markka­nen about a con­tract ex­ten­sion don’t go well, the Bulls can wait un­til he be­comes a re­stricted free agent in 2021, see where Top­pin is by then and weigh his ceil­ing against what the mar­ket sets for Markka­nen.

Mes­sage sent

Zach LaVine has two more sea­sons on his con­tract but can get a three-year, $76 mil­lion ex­ten­sion as early as Oc­to­ber. If the Bulls draft shoot­ing guard An­thony Ed­wards, how­ever, it would let LaVine know his days might be num­bered.

It might even lead to LaVine be­ing traded in the next two sea­sons.

Big pick

Carter wants more play­ing time at power for­ward, and he might get it if the Bulls draft 7-footer James Wiseman.

The domino ef­fect of that would be Carter and Markka­nen hav­ing to com­pete for min­utes at power for­ward, al­low­ing the Bulls to get a real as­sess­ment of which is smarter for the foun­da­tion mov­ing for­ward.

With pos­si­bly $50 mil­lion in cap space for the highly pub­li­cized 2021 free-agent class, the Bulls need to know whom they have as a sell­ing point to try to at­tract su­per­star tal­ent.

Point of con­tention

Kris Dunn will be a re­stricted free agent, and Coby White still has to show he has point-guard skills, start­ing with court vi­sion.

But what if the Bulls draft LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Hal­ibur­ton or Kil­lian Hayes? Ball is a pure point guard, while Hal­ibur­ton and Hayes also can play off the ball. Any one of the three likely would close the book on Dunn’s time with the Bulls and put White in com­pete mode. ✶

Men­tion this year’s Most Valu­able Player race to the Sky’s Court­ney Van­der­sloot, and — af­ter a brief mo­ment of say­ing she’s hum­bled to be in­cluded in the con­ver­sa­tion — she’ll po­litely prefer to change the sub­ject. Go through the ca­reer-best stats she’s put­ting up, and she’ll bash­fully roll her eyes.

Van­der­sloot would rather talk about win­ning as a team or her team­mates’ ac­com­plish­ments than make her own case for MVP. But there’s no doubt the 10-year vet­eran be­longs on ev­ery­one’s MVP watch list.

She has el­e­vated her game ev­ery year for the last nine sea­sons, and this year is no dif­fer­ent.

For the fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son, she leads the league in as­sists — and by a large mar­gin.

Van­der­sloot has 131 as­sists in 15 games. The sec­ond-clos­est player is Storm guard Jordin Canada with 81. Van­der­sloot also boasts the league’s best as­sist-to-turnover ra­tio at 4.09.

If that wasn’t enough to win you over, Van­der­sloot has four dou­ble-dou­bles and six dou­ble-digit as­sist games. She’s av­er­ag­ing a ca­reer-high 13.5 points and is on pace to be­come only the sec­ond WNBA guard to have a 50-40-90 sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Across the Time­line’s data­base. (That’s among play­ers who have played at least 15 games.) The only player close to Van­der­sloot is Sparks guard Syd­ney Wiese.

If Van­der­sloot isn’t will­ing to toot her own horn, her coach and team­mates hap­pily will.

“She’s MVP of the first 14 games be­cause of the way she’s played,” coach James Wade said.

“She brings so much to us,” guard Kahleah Cop­per said. “With­out Court­ney, we wouldn’t be where we are . . . . Don’t let her have a game where she’s scor­ing and fa­cil­i­tat­ing for us and lead­ing us be­cause it’s over. But I think she’s the most valu­able player be­cause she holds so much value for us, and what she’s do­ing, no­body else is do­ing.”

Sure, there are other de­serv­ing play­ers in the chat­ter for this year’s MVP, in­clud­ing Storm star and 2018 league MVP Bre­anna Ste­wart, Aces for­ward A’ja Wilson and Sparks for­ward and two-time MVP Can­dace Parker.

But what makes Van­der­sloot stand out is that her value ex­tends far be­yond the box score, Cop­per said.

“It’s the lit­tle things, for me,” said Cop­per, who pointed to one in­stance in the Sky’s win over the Fever last Satur­day when Van­der­sloot cor­rectly told her how the Fever would de­fend her and ad­justed the game plan. “She knows where every­body’s gonna be, and she’s got su­per­pow­ers. She’s just a leader and she’s just so smart, so I think it re­ally helps us.”

Van­der­sloot is a big rea­son why the in­jury-rid­dled Sky (10-5) are off to their best start since 2013 and are among the league’s top teams.

The Storm (12-3) sit atop the stand­ings. The Aces and Sparks are a half-game back at 11-3, fol­lowed by the Lynx (10-4) and Sky.

“She’s car­ried this team even though the makeup of this team looks a lot dif­fer­ent than what it was sup­pos­edly pre­sumed to be,” Wade said. “We’ve ac­tu­ally played ahead of where we were last year, even though we’ve lost a lot of bod­ies . . . . She’s the head of our snake. I think that says a lot about her and how she’s el­e­vated her play and helped oth­ers el­e­vate their play, and so it’s big for us.” ✶

Lauri Markka­nen (left) and Wen­dell Carter Jr. (right) might find them­selves com­pet­ing for play­ing time at power for­ward if the Bulls de­cide to draft a big man. PAUL BEATY/AP


Sky guard Court­ney Van­der­sloot leads the WNBA in as­sists by a big mar­gin and is av­er­ag­ing 13.4 points.

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