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Checking in on the Bulls ‘developmental’ players: Cameron Payne, Noah Vonleh, and Cristiano Felicio

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the part of the NBA season where it’s difficult to care about the Bulls right now. All we really have to keep us interested at this point is the development of the younger pieces on the roster. The three-man tandem of Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine needs more minutes together to develop their chemistry. Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, and David Nwaba have emerged as key rotational pieces moving forward, and should continue to be given more responsibility.

Largely, though, we know what the development curve looks like for these players moving forward. What we don’t much of is the potential growth of the players on the fringes. Let’s check in on each of Cameron Payne, Noah Vonleh, and Cristiano Felicio, to see how they’ve performed since given minutes after the All-Star break.

Cristiano Felicio

No Bull has disappointed more this season than Felicio. His promotion into the starting unit is one made in mockery, done so the losing process can be expedited. The losses have naturally come, but thankfully, so too have glimpses of the last year’s more productive player.

Part of what initially made Felicio an interesting center option long-term was his ability to be a low usage roll-man who did his best work at the basket. The Bulls have rarely had a big man on the roster that could create gravity by diving to the hoop, routinely finishing easy looks around the rim. In order to be that player, you need to be supported by a willing and able facilitator. That two-man connection existed between Felicio and Dwyane Wade, but has largely been missing through the beginning of a rebuild.

By design or instinct, almost immediately, a synergy with LaVine in pick-and-roll developed.

We’ve seen these powerful finishes at the rim before, and it’s been good to see more of it. But what we haven’t consistently seen from Felicio, is his ability to space the floor and hit jump shots. He can do it, and did so against the Hornets, opening the first two possessions of the game with two nice, soft midrange jumpers.

Working with Dunn and LaVine initially as a screener, then as a secondary avenue to score as a pick-and-pop option, is huge for the center’s development. Diversifying his offensive repertoire will allow Felicio to become a more active participant in the offense. And that doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of shot making.

Creating scoring opportunities with quick, crisp passing reads from the high post is something the Bulls offense has lacked since Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol made their respective exits. If Felicio can morph into a passing hub within half court sets, it would be a boon for the offense.

Felicio has undoubtedly been better since replacing Lopez – his 12 points, six rebounds and four assists against the Hornets was easily his best game of the season. There still may be a player within him which can be molded into a serviceable role player. But he’s also been fairly terrible defensively (fouling at a very high rate), which is discouraging as the versatility shown on that end was part of why he earned that 4-year contract last offseason.

Weight of expectation after signing new, hefty deal has changed Felicio’s value proposition. A missed defensive rotation or a turnover in the post is expected from an undrafted rookie earning less than a million a season. But when you show enough signs of development that lead to a long-term deal, and immediately regress as a prospect, it’s fair to be graded on a different scale.

Cameron Payne

The only reason fans cared about Payne’s return was solidifying a stalling tank. Returning via the G-League and being handed the keys to the second unit, even Bulls management weren’t expecting anything more than replacement-level NBA point guard skills.

“As a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said of what he wants to see out of Payne. “His role is to get us into offense quickly, efficiently and then make the right play with the ball.”

A routine and overly-simplistic role has been cut for Payne. He should be graded on it accordingly, and to his credit, he’s largely done what has been asked. The ball has moved up the floor quickly, he’s competed against his opponent and has been aggressive in getting his looks for himself and others during his minutes. It was an impressively low bar to clear, but thus far, he’s done so.

Sure, the jump shot still looks ugly and someone his size, without elite athletic gifts, will always struggle to make an offensive impact.

If possible, the next step should be trying to lift his scoring efficiency — a 40.6 true-shooting percentage is stuff of nightmares. But he hasn’t been the colossal train wreck many expected. That’s something!

Noah Vonleh

Before he arrived in Chicago, if nothing else, Vonleh projected to be an impressively athletic big man capable of rebounding misses and, on a good day, knocking down deep jumpers.

In his limited time to date, there haven’t been any signs of lifting those projections. What has been encouraging, though, is his three-point shooting. As a Bull, appearing in five games and playing 66 minutes, Vonleh has put up seven threes, making three. In isolation, that may seem insignificant. But consider this: Vonleh only made two three-pointers in 33 games for the Trailblazers this season. In a four minute span against the Timberwolves, he had already matched his output in Portland.

We shouldn’t expect the forward to become an immediate threat from distance, but this small – and perhaps meaningless – observation is noteworthy.

Unfortunately for Vonleh, he has two important variables working against him: Time and money. That may seem like a bizarre statement given his age (22), but with only 21 games left this season and his free agent status this offseason, it’s difficult to see Vonleh being back next season given the Bulls already have five salaries guaranteed to power forwards and centers in 2018-19.