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Who should the Bulls draft at No. 7? There are lots of appealing options, but no easy answer

Let’s figure out who the Bulls should pick at No. 7.

The most valuable asset the Bulls were getting back in the Jimmy Butler trade was always thought to be the value of their own draft pick in 2018, a line of thinking that exposes the franchise’s own flawed logic in the deal while also representing their best shot at landing another superstar. In that sense, the No. 7 pick equates to something like a worst-case scenario: the Bulls just spent the entire year losing on purpose, and they don’t even have a top-five selection to show for it, let alone the No. 1 pick.

This is a bummer, but not yet a certain disaster. Stephen Curry was once the No. 7 pick. Lauri Markkanen was also taken there, and he looks like a cornerstone piece even if the Bulls essentially admitted they got lucky and had no idea he was going to be this good, this quick. There will be a great player in this draft taken at No. 7 or later; all the Bulls have to do is find him.

The Bulls will have a lot of appealing options likely to be on the board when they come on the clock, but there is no obvious pick. This is my best attempt at sorting through their choices.

Wendell Carter Jr., C, Duke

This is a talented draft class, if one with odd timing. Five of the first seven picks could be big men at a time when traditional centers are becoming more marginalized than ever. The Bulls are one of the franchises at the forefront of this decision. How many minutes can Markkanen handle at the 5? And if he’s closing out potential playoff games at center, is it really worth it to take another center with this pick?

At the same time, the Bulls are not in a position to draft anything but the best player available. This roster needs talent in the worst way before anyone can really figure out what to make of it. That brings us to Wendell Carter Jr., who is probably going to be the only remaining “elite” big on the board when the Bulls come on the clock at No. 7.

Carter is 6’10 with a 7’3 wingspan. He played close to 270 pounds as a freshman at Duke but has slimmed down to around 250 pounds for the pre-draft process. Those physical dimensions are the start of Carter’s appeal: he’s a bruising big man with an NBA-ready body who can score in the paint and rebound, block some shots and hit face-up jumpers. Carter’s skill set has a lot of strengths and only one apparent weakness.

Let’s get to what Carter does well first. A major knock on Markkanen coming out of college was his lack of rebounding ability. It turned out Markkanen handled himself quite well in that area, nearly finishing top-20 in the league in defensive rebound percentage. Much of that can be credited to the selfless Robin Lopez, who would box opponents out and let Markkanen grab the board. Lopez won’t be around forever, so this remains something the Bulls have to consider moving forward. Carter will give the Bulls another strong rebounder on both ends of the floor. This might be his most NBA-ready skill and it complements Markkanen well.

Carter already knows how to score with his back to the basket, which is a lost art in the modern game. With Markkanen spacing out to the three-point line in the frontcourt, he should have plenty of room to eat. But don’t think his heavy frame and inside scoring touch makes him Jahlil Okafor: Carter has legit range on his jump shot, knocking down 19-of-46 threes as a freshman, good for 41 percent. That’s a low volume, yes, but he’s a confident and capable shooter already and it should be a major part of his game going forward. I’d be willing to wager he turns out to be the best jump-shooting big man in this draft not named Jaren Jackson Jr., which is saying something considering Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III each have potential as a shooter, too.

Carter can block shots as well, posting a 7.6 block percentage that ranked No. 64 in the country. You need some context to understand that stat: Duke played zone this past year largely because Carter and Bagley struggled to defend high ball screens. Carter’s biggest and maybe only question mark is his lateral quickness, which happens to be a major issue in a league that switches defensively more than ever and asks its bigs to stick with guards for a few seconds off ball screens.

Again: Carter isn’t Okafor in this area. He’s not that slow, and he also has high basketball IQ and plus-length. That combination should give Carter a chance to defend in space at the NBA level, though obviously he’s not as fleet of foot as someone like Clint Capela.

The book on Carter is that he’s a high-floor, low-upside guy. That first part is true, but I wonder how much the second part is. Wendell Carter Jr. is good enough to be an All-Star in this league. You need to have a pretty damn high ceiling to get there. I would agree it’s unlikely he turns into a top-10 overall player, though it’s possible if he becomes a Karl-Anthony Towns-like three-point shooter.

This really all comes back to the fit with Markkanen. Lauri is 7-feet tall and as such should probably be playing lots of center in this era. But if the Bulls think he needs help inside — or if they simply believe Carter is the best player available — he’s worth the pick at No. 7. He’s going to be a good NBA player, I have little doubt.

Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma

Trae Young is the most polarizing player in the draft. He was a phenom at the start of the college season, going from the No. 23 recruit in the country to the best player in the sport as a freshman. He essentially fell apart in the second half of the year. His shooting dipped, his turnovers skyrocketed and Oklahoma dropped out of the polls entirely after peaking in the top five.

But here’s the thing: Oklahoma never should have been that good in the first place. It was a team that won 12 games the year before and only had one other top-100 recruit in the rotation. Trae Young had to do everything for the Sooners, and he did.

Young is the best shooter and maybe the best passer (along with Luka Doncic) in the draft. Those are skills that translate. The question is whether Young will still be able to work his magic against NBA length, and whether his lack of size and poor defensive ability will ultimately submarine all of the value he has offensively.

Let’s start with the shot. Young only hit 36 percent of his threes this year, but make no mistake: he’s an elite shooter. He has deep range off the dribble and never hesitates to pull. This has always been the basis of those Steph Curry comparisons, and while that’s unfair to him, there’s no denying certain similarities.

Young’s shooting makes him a scheme changer. You have to go over every screen on him, and your big man better hedge, too. The rub is that he also has tremendous vision and passing ability to find the open man and put the offense at an advantage. He is a player with deep range who is ready and willing to pull from anywhere who uses his shooting to set up his passing.

Young is a below-the-rim athlete, and that’s putting it charitably. Can he dunk? I don’t think we’ll ever see it in a game. But even with his lack of explosion, he still has ways of finishing around the rim, mostly notably with a crafty floater that would make Tony Parker blush. Being able to score in the paint would make him a complete offensive player, but that will be difficult against NBA length and athleticism.

Defensively ... Young is bad. How bad? Like, maybe the worst defensive guard in the league. Curry’s defensive struggles are a bit overblown -- he’s bigger than Young, fights through screens, has quick hands and is attentive. Young doesn’t have or do any of that. A better comp might be the guy who helped usher in this era of spread-n-shred NBA style: Steve Nash. Nash couldn’t defend a paper bag, but his offensive value was so immense that he made up for whatever he was giving back.

Still, the defense and lack of size at 6’2, 177 pounds is going to be a real issue. Small point guards tend to get roasted in the playoffs unless they’re Chris Paul. There’s no doubt teams will pick on Young, particularly in the postseason, especially in a league that is consistently targeting the weakest defender on switches. You can’t switch with Trae Young, and that limits how good your defense can be.

The fit with the Bulls is fascinating. He’s theoretically a good match with Kris Dunn, who has the length and defensive acumen to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. You could always hide Young on the weakest offensive player, assuming he’s not dying on screens and being forced to switch. The problem is that Zach LaVine is also really bad on defense. A Young-LaVine pairing just doesn’t work. The Bulls need to decide if that’s a Trae Young problem or a Zach LaVine problem.

To me, here’s what’s so tempting about Young: no team had ever taken 30 threes per game until the 2015 season. This past year, the Rockets took 42 threes per game. What’s it going to look like five years from now, when Trae Young is 25? Will be teams be averaging 50 threes per game? Will some teams take 60?

Three is always going to be worth more than two. If the Bulls put two truly elite shooters on the floor with Markkanen and Young, they could hypothetically be on the cutting edge of the NBA’s new reality.

Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri

I am actually in a unique position to evaluate Porter, because I’m one of the few who actually watched him when he was healthy while covering recruiting for SB Nation. The first grassroots (or AAU) game I ever watched was in Lexington, Kentucky on Nike’s EYBL circuit. It was Michael Porter (and Trae Young) of Mokan Elite vs. Jayson Tatum and the Saint Louis Eagles.

I saw Porter as a junior and senior on the EYBL, saw him at USA Basketball minicamp, saw him at the McDonald’s All-American Game. That was before he had back surgery that stole all but two unimpressive games from his freshman year at Missouri. There’s a general line of thinking that Porter is going to be a stud if he’s healthy, but the back issues are just the start of the concerns. His skill set has some real question marks even if the back holds up.

Namely: How efficient will Porter be as a scorer? Will he defend anyone? And does he use his scoring to set up his teammates? Those are legit questions, and most of them come back to Porter’s general feel for the game.

The talent is obvious. The ideal version of Porter is a 6’11 go-to scorer who can get buckets from all three levels. He has been raised his whole life to be a 30 point-per-game NBA scorer, and earnestly believes he can be the next Kevin Durant, who he already counts as a close friend (Curry, too).

The question is the cost his scoring comes at. He reminds me a bit of Andrew Wiggins, another prospect who had all the talent in the world but hasn’t really lived up to the hype yet in the NBA, in part because he might be missing the mental component. I want to see Porter read the floor and hit teammates for assists. I want to see him use his physical gifts on the defensive end. We also have no real idea where his shooting and ball handling are at right now. Is this a 40 percent 3-point shooter? 35 percent? 30 percent?

If the Bulls take Porter, I want to see him at the four, not the three. I want him and Lauri Markkanen to split ball handling duties in 4-5 pick-and-rolls, which would catch just about anybody on their heels. I want them to focus on what he does poorly, not what he does well, because his natural talent alone will give him a baseline for a certain amount of success provided he’s healthy.

Porter to me is the biggest boom-or-bust pick in the draft. He’s a high-ceiling, low-floor guy. Maybe that’s perfect for a team like the Bulls who could just hope to find another superstar in the draft by tanking again if they whiff on him. But at a certain point, you can’t just keep wasting seasons in hope of some invisible savior. Maybe Michael Porter Jr. really will be a star, but there are quite a few questions he’ll have to answer before he gets there.

Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova

Bridges fits the Bulls’ historical draft profile, for better or for worse. He spent four years in college (he redshirted his freshman year) developing his game for one of the nation’s best programs. He leaves school with two national titles and an elevated draft status that has him in the conversation for the top 10.

Bridges is a straight 3-and-D guy. The jump shot was one of his biggest question marks heading into school, but he worked to become one of the very best shooters in this draft. He hit 43.5 percent of his six three-point attempts per game, mostly on catch-and-shoot opportunities within the nation’s clear-cut No. 1 offense. Bridges won’t splash threes off the dribble like Young, probably, but he can zip around screens like a young Kyle Korver or Rip Hamilton and rise-and-fire with a quick release. When you also factor in his free throw percentages (91 percent as a junior, 85 percent as a senior), it leaves little doubt he’s an elite shooter, at least from a standstill.

The problem with Bridges’ offense is that it essentially starts and stops at his shooting ability. He does not offer much value as a creator. He isn’t going to break you down off the dribble and finish at the hoop or kick out to a teammate. He mostly stays in his lane as a catch-and-shoot guy, which is valuable but certainly limits his upside.

If you’re going to take a perimeter player who can’t create at No. 7, he better be a lockdown defender. Like, the type of guy who can check LeBron, Durant, James Harden, ect., at least as much as anyone can defend those guys. Bridges is a very good defender, thanks mostly to his length (7’1 wingspan) and quick feet. The issue is his lack of strength, which has been a problem for him since he enrolled at Villanova.

The dude is skinny, only weighing in at 210 pounds at the combine. He should be able to defend most perimeter guys (I like him hounding opposing point guards), but in a switch-heavy league it’s fair to wonder if he has the strength to switch on frontcourt players. Also: will he be able to hold his own with someone like Jimmy Butler or Harden driving at him?

What Bridges can do is elevate the value of his teammates by spacing the floor and defending. He still feels more like a final piece to me than a first or second piece. He has the lowest upside in this group by a mile, as evidenced by the fact that he was redshirting when he was Carter, Young and Porter’s age. He is good and will be good, but the lack of creation ability ultimately weighs down his ceiling.

Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State

Bridges could have been a lottery pick last year, but he came back to school for his sophomore season at Michigan State without really helping or hurting his stock at all. After two years in college, he isn’t the shiny new thing in this draft, and as such has lost a little luster in terms of hype. But if you look at the way the NBA has evolved, Bridges’ game looks like it will translate well.

If you watched Cavs-Celtics or Rockets-Warriors in the conference finals, you saw a bunch of athletic wings on the floor who could switch on defense, make a play by putting the ball on the floor and hit a jump shot. Bridges can do all of those things, entering the draft as something like a jack of all trades but a master of none. He has baseline competency at every skill you want from a wing, while still being one of the best athletes in this draft at 225 pounds.

Bridges’ issue at MSU was that he settled for his jump shot too often. You want to see an athlete this explosive attack the rim consistently. Perhaps that’s because he wanted to prove to the NBA that he could hit shots off the dribble. It also wasn’t always easy for him to get all the way to the paint with Tom Izzo usually playing two big-man lineups that put Bridges at the three, when he was best suited in college at the four.

He’ll be able to play either forward spot in the league, and that versatility adds to his value. He’s a bit undersized for a modern 4 at 6’6 with a 6’9 wingspan, and he could still raise his skill level as a shooter and ball handler before he becomes an ideal three. But he’s still an athletic 6’6 wing in a league that values that type of player more than ever. If you’re concerned about investing the No. 7 pick in a center who plays next to Markkanen because traditional bigs have been devalued, then why not go the other way and pair Lauri with a 6’6 wrecking ball who can fly around the court and make plays above the rim?

Bridges might never be more than a third option, but he’s the type of player every good team needs. He offers more creation ability on the wing than Mikal offensively. He’s also stronger and more athletic. Mikal is longer and the better shooter. If the Bulls want a wing at No. 7 and Porter is gone, their decision between the two Bridges would be a fascinating look into what the Bulls value from the position.

So, who should the Bulls take?

To me, the two best players in this draft are Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. Neither is likely to be available, a symptom of the Niko Mirotic-powered seven-game winning streak midway through the season. The Bulls will have a few talented guys to choose from, but each of them comes with their own red flags.

I should have a strong opinion on this. I’ve been watching the one-and-dones live since they were juniors in high school as part of my recruiting coverage. I wrote a Mo Bamba feature when he was a junior. I got to know Carter’s parents when he was a senior. I chronicled the circus around Porter at the McDonald’s Game. I also was a year early in projecting the Mikal Bridges breakout, which happened for him as a senior and not a junior as I suspected.

Even as someone who has watched these guys for years, I am completely torn on what to do at No. 7. The best move would be trading up for Doncic or Jackson with a package of No. 7 + No. 22 + Bobby Portis, but it’s unlikely anyone would bite on that. I’d also look to trade down with the Clippers, sending No. 7 for No. 12 and No. 13, then targeting Zhaire Smith, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Robert Williams, one of the Bridges or Kevin Knox (I wrote a high school feature on him, too) with the picks.

Assuming they stick at No. 7, I think I’d rank them like this:

5. Mikal Bridges

4. Miles Bridges

3. Trae Young

2. Michael Porter Jr.

1. Wendell Carter Jr.

I just worry that Young has to be perfect mentally to hit his ceiling, and I have questions about that to go along with the obvious size/athleticism limitations. Porter has more upside than Carter, but the back injury is scary, and even if he’s healthy I think it’s fair to question his impact on winning.

There’s an argument for Porter that, even if he busts, the Bulls are just back in the lottery again next year. Well, the Bulls are going to be back in the lottery again next year regardless, because no 19-year-old will have that great of an impact on winning, and because tanking for another year is in the Bulls’ best long-term interest. Still, you can’t just waste draft picks, especially when the Bulls wasted an entire year of our lives to get this selection.

Carter is going to be good. The Al Horford comps are legitimate. He also reminds me a bit of Elton Brand. There’s value in simply adding another good player — one with an All-Star ceiling, in my opinion — even if he’s not a true stud. It would make the Bulls more appealing to free agents (hold your laughter) and also give them another major trade asset. It’s also worth considering the talent at the top of the 2019 draft. If this draft is mostly bigs, next year is mostly wings. You can already read my features on Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson, and R.J. Barrett (don’t forget about Nassir Little, either).

There’s no easy pick for the Bulls at No. 7, but forced into making one, I think I’m going with Wendell Carter.