A STATEMENT SELECTION
WHOM BULLS DECIDE TO PICK WITH NO. 4 CHOICE WILL SAY A LOT ABOUT CURRENT ROSTER
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.
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.
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.