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Mid-Season Draft Review Part II: The Prospects the Bulls Could Have Had

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Part I examined Denzel Valentine up to this point in the season. Part II will do the same with the other Bulls draft targets.

NBA: Summer League-Philadelphia 76ers vs Chicago Bulls Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed Part I on Denzel Valentine, you can read it here by clicking the link.

So, once again:

A: Hindsight is 20/20

B: It’s difficult to give a concrete overall verdict on a player who is still on a rookie deal.

That last one rings with even greater truth when the player in question isn’t actually on a team that you watch religiously. I’m sure there are a few positive and negative elements with the following players that I’ve missed given these are more “drive-by analyses” than deep dives, but I still think they give a good glimpse into where these prospects are at in their rookie seasons relative to their counterparts. Only time will tell what these players will ultimately become, but for right now, it’s still fun to evaluate where they are against where the guy the Bulls actually went with is at. “Fun” of course in this case is an abstract term used to mask and distract from the soul-crushing gloom that inherently comes with being a Bulls fan in the age of GarPax.

Anyway, on to the alternatives:

Wade Baldwin IV

Baldwin was one of the most popular names being floated around BaB last summer in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, and it’s easy to see why. A 6’4” point guard with a nearly 7’ wingspan that shot 42.2% from distance in college and isn’t set to turn 21 until the end of March seemed like a no-brainer pick for a Bulls team that desperately needed point guard depth even before the Derrick Rose trade. Though he projected as as a high-floor player due to his shortcomings in other traditional point guard areas, it was still fair to expect Baldwin to be a 3&D contributor in the NBA right away.

That simply has not been the case this season through his first 300+ minutes of professional basketball. Offensively, Baldwin has been almost completely unplayable for many of the same reasons that Valentine has disappointed thus far. Perhaps the most glaring discrepancy between projection and result has been his shooting, particularly from distance. Right now, Baldwin is shooting an ugly 31% from the field and an even more disgusting 11.1% on threes, and while he hasn’t had as much trouble as Valentine when it comes to getting to the basket, he’s still finishing at the rim at a very bad rate:

NBAsavant

Passing-wise, Baldwin has been better than Valentine (24% assist percentage when on the floor, not to be confused with assist ratio), but he has done a far worse job of taking care of the ball with a turnover percentage of 24%. That means Baldwin committs a turnover on nearly one in every four of the possessions he uses. When taking all of this into consideration, it’s no wonder why Baldwin hasn’t seen significant minutes since the start of December and has played 13 total NBA minutes in 2017.

Still, if you ask the guys over at Grizzly Bear Blues, they remain understandably optimistic about Baldwin. He continues to project as an elite defender given his substantial speed and length, and again, as of this writing the guy is still 20 years old and roughly two and a half years younger than Denzel Valentine. Much of what has made him unplayable to this point can be rectified with continued practice and game experience, which unfortunately isn’t something that can be said about much of Valentine’s shortcomings in non-shooting/passing areas. Given all of that and the fact that Baldwin has a lot more time than Valentine to fix the issues with his play, it’s my opinion that the Bulls would have been better off selecting WB4, at the very least when it comes to planning for the team’s future.

Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert is the only prospect in this piece that wasn’t profiled or even mentioned as an option last summer by someone at BaB, but I thought he was worth including because of how similar he and Denzel Valentine are. Both were Big Ten seniors projected to serve in combo guard roles upon arriving in the NBA, but Valentine got the lion’s share of the attention because he won AP Player of the Year and played on a far more relevant team.

Now, I have to admit, I did not watch college basketball at all last season because of how laughably awful Ohio State was (and still is), but I did watch the prior three seasons while I was in school, and that meant I got to watch quite a bit of Caris LeVert while he was at rival Michigan. I thought this guy had a sneaky good chance to be a sneaky good NBA player based on his 6’7” size, 3-PT shooting (40.1% for his career at Michigan), and the fact that he managed to raise his assists per game by one or more nearly every year in college. Of course, LeVert had a chronic left foot issue during his time at UM that severely hampered his draft stock, but he did everything he could to let GMs know that this problem was behind him and would not affect his development moving forward.

Fast forward to today, LeVert has already played 560+ minutes of NBA Basketball for the Brooklyn Nets. Perhaps those minutes have come out of necessity given how talent-starved his team is and will be for the forseeable future, but LeVert has been pretty great for a rookie in the time that he’s gotten to showcase his ability. LeVert is currently 8th among all rookies in points per game, is just outside the top 150 NBA players this season in true shooting percentage at 54.8%, and he’s finishing brilliantly at the rim at a rate of about 62.5%. His 3-PT shot hasn’t quite translated from college yet, but he is shooting pretty well from the corners:

NBAsavant

In terms of facilitating, LeVert is top ten among NBA rookies in assist ratio (20%), and actually just edges-out Denzel Valentine when it comes to taking care of the ball (11% turnover ratio—good for 14th among rookies, Valentine’s is 11.3%). Defensively, LeVert still needs to get comfortable going up against NBA level talent, but he nevertheless ranks third among all rookies in steals per game and looks good defending the pick & roll in clips like this one from Nets Daily. LeVert is also 3rd among rookie guards in rebounds per game, and the only other player that ranks among the top eleven rookies in points/rebounds/assists per game is Joel Embiid.

Should there have been a case for the Bulls selecting Caris LeVert, especially given they ultimately selected a very similar player with a much lower ceiling? Absolutely, and in retrospect I regret not making it because I loved watching LeVert play despite him being a Michigan man. It’s easy to point to the fact that LeVert projected as a second rounder due to his injury woes, but it’s not like Valentine came in with a clean bill of health (not to mention Valentine has already sprained his left ankle twice trying to finish in transition), and even Stevie Wonder can see which one of them is superior athletically. LeVert already does everything that Valentine supposedly was a genius at better despite playing on a worse team, is far better equipped to resolve his shortcomings, somehow seems to be healthier, and will not turn 23 until the end of August. If the Bulls were looking for a combo guard to help make them “younger and more athletic,” it now appears as though Caris LeVert was probably the best answer.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

TLC was the other popular name floated around here last summer that should have been on the Bulls’ draft radar, and understandably so when you watch the guy dunk all over Europeans. He obviously had all the physical elements you want from an NBA wing, wouldn’t turn 22 until early next May, and shot a respectable 37.2% from three on 5.6 attempts per game. “Younger and more athletic?” Check. “3&D guy?” Check. Seems like a no-brainer for a team convincing itself it could still work Tony Snell into its rotation at that point, right?

Right now, Luwawu is somewhat flying under the radar given the massive influx of rookie talent the Sixers suddenly finds themselves with (and Ben Simmons isn’t even in uniform yet). He looks good in some areas but is struggling badly in others. Perplexingly, TLC is shooting an anemic 18.8% on corner threes this season, yet is also shooting a scalding 47.4% from everywhere else behind the arc. At the rim, he’s finishing at a rate of about 53.4%, but the rim is also where 58 of his 93 total field goal attempts have taken place this season, which speaks to his ability to get there.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the positives end. TLC has the 4th highest turnover ratio among qualified rookies this season at 15.9%, and of those top four players has the lowest usage rate. Defensively, he has a nasty habit of leaving guys wide open in the corners for easy threes, and his team’s defensive rating drops nearly a full six points when he’s out on the floor. He’s been somewhat disappointing as a rebounder and passer as well, although his assist ratio is still higher than Denzel Valentine’s despite playing in the only offense in the NBA that fails to score 100 points per 100 possessions. And yet, despite those drawbacks, those that have watched as much of him as possible this season (such as Liberty Ballers) remain optimistic that with continued work and polish, he has the tools to one day become an NBA-level starter.

Would the Bulls have been better off drafting TLC than Valentine? Here’s how I look at it: Right now, you can’t count the number of Bulls on this team that are suited to play point guard on one hand. That is a major roster construction failure. Would you give up one of those guys (i.e. Valentine) for a younger and far more athletic wing that can knock in threes, get to the rim, and holds a way higher ceiling as a defender despite not being very good right now? I say “yes” every day and twice on Sunday.

Dejounte Murray

Murray was one of two prospects I examined at length prior to the 2016 NBA Draft, and he ultimately wound up falling (depending on your perspective) to the San Antonio Spurs at the 29th overall pick. Given the array of quality options the Spurs have for both guard spots, Murray’s selection appeared to be more of a stash-and-development pick for the future. However, given Murray’s youth and potential, placing him an organization that has mastered player development and wouldn’t need to pile large expectations on him early on seemed like a match made in heaven.

When Tony Parker got hurt and had to sit the last two weeks of January, it gave Murray a brief chance to showcase what he already has right now, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity. The first game after Parker got hurt, he dropped 24 points on 7-11 shooting in a win over the Nuggets. The very next game, he played the role of unsung hero—because Kawhi Leonard had 41 points that night—in an overtime win against the Cavaliers that saw him score 14 points on 7-10 shooting while dishing out 5 assists. He also illustrated why he’s already an open-court nightmare on this transition finish that featured him reducing Iman Shumpert to a collapsed heap:

Of course, in an article that utilizes smaller-than-preferable datasets to make sweeping early judgments on NBA rookies, Murray’s 236 minutes rank as the smallest sample size thus far. Tying that in with the fact that Murray plays on one of, if not the best team for young players to start out on means that we’re probably not going to get any sense whatsoever of how good Murray is at this point on the general NBA spectrum. This is further evidenced by the fact that the Spurs are 5-0 this season in games where Murray starts, and while he’s played very well in all but one of those games, he almost certainly benefits from having elite-caliber teammates that can reciprocate his current issues (such as his turnover percentage of 22.1%).

I have a tough time imagining that Murray would be coming along in the fashion he is with the Spurs had the Bulls selected him instead, primarily because the Bulls’ own player development post-Thibs has been pretty bad. That being said, he’s really only had one game this year with 10+ minutes where he hasn’t played well offensively, and almost all of his skills from college appear to have transferred over to the pros with the exception of his ability to create turnovers on defense. I won’t jump in with both feet and say the Bulls would be better off with Murray over Valentine right now, but it certainly appears at this point that Murray has the higher ceiling of the two. Then again, if the roles reversed, Valentine might be shooting 60% from deep for the Spurs and Murray might be behind Jerian Grant in the Bulls’ rotation.

Demetrius Jackson

I included Jackson because he’s the only player left the BaB staff profiled last summer that didn’t get selected before the 14th overall pick. Jackson has played 17 total minutes this season, so there is next to nothing anyone knows about him as an NBA player at this point. Alex Kungu at Celticsblog, the author that initially analyzed Jackson for Celtics fans after Boston picked him 45th overall, ranked him as the least valuable player on the Celtics’ roster in mid-January. That’s about all I’ve got on Jackson.

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So, in summary, through 50 games the prognosis for the Bulls having made the right move in this draft isn’t great. On top of the fact that Valentine has been substantially disappointing in almost every area of play, there were clearly other options available that would have been better for the Bulls both now and down the road, even in a perceived “weak draft.” It will be interesting to see how all of the players in this examination progress as their respective basketball careers move forward, but Bulls fans can only hope at this point that over the next three years, Valentine takes every step and makes every stride necessary to be the best NBA player he can possibly be. If that doesn’t happen, the Bulls could be looking at five straight first round failures.