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Derrick Jones Jr. is the Bulls forgotten big man

he could help again, though probably not in the playoffs

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Remember Derrick Jones Jr.? Lost in the shuffle of free agency moves not made, the Bulls brought back Jones on more-or-less a minimum deal where he has a player option for the 2023-24 season.

Clearly not fans’ or the team’s first option, Jones should still be useful this season. Billy Donovan found some success when he slotted the 6’5” Jones into Bulls lineups as a small-ball center and/or plugged the 6’4” Green in as a small-ball power forward. When it came to Jones, Donovan took advantage of the fact that the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest champ has the verticality and seven-foot wingspan necessary to combat much, much taller players at the five spot. Jones’s highest-recorded vertical leap is reportedly 48 inches. Thanks to his extreme athletic gifts, DJJ can certainly get above the rim just as well as almost any actual seven-footer.

Speaking of, watch him leap right over all seven feet and 280 pounds of ground-bound 2022 MVP runner-up Joel Embiid to snag a clutch board:

In his new gig, Jones proved particularly adept at finishing in pick-and-roll actions:

Never much of a scorer, Jones posted a relatively modest stat line of 5.6 points (on .538/.328/.800 shooting splits), 3.3 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks during 17.6 minutes a night last year. He’s not going to be able to gobble up boards like a traditional five, but he also lacks the jump-shooting touch that most wings need to be effective.

The UNLV product will still probably see the bulk of his minutes at power forward behind 2020 lottery pick Patrick Williams, at least for as long as the team’s 6’7” starting four is healthy this season.

Jones may be fairly limited on offense (he took 54.9% of his shots within three feet of the basket in 2021-22), but his disruptive defense and blistering downhill speed can occasionally lead to some pretty crazy two-way hustle plays:

Of course, there’s still one huge risk when it comes to fielding Jones at center for an extended time: the little guy gets hurt! Last season, Jones broke his right index finger in a workout midway through the year, after earning the starting nod at power forward following an injury to Green, who had himself stepped into the starting role due to Patrick Williams’s wrist fracture. DJJ ultimately missed 31 contests as a result of that injury and a bout with COVID-19.

Ultimately, Jones can help Chicago beat up the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings of the league during the regular season. He’s never been a great perimeter scorer. His 32.8% three-point shooting on just 1.2 attempts last year represent a career high in efficiency, and even that is a far cry from what could’ve been had in free agency or trades if the Bulls actually tried to address their lack of 3 point shooting.

But DJJ can do this:

Chi Slamma Jamma will continue this season, thanks to the dunktastic likes of Jones, Green, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. But, if last year is any indication of what’s to come this season when it matters most, Jones’s role will be greatly reduced in the playoffs.

Through the grind of an 82-game NBA regular season, Donovan has proven time and again to be an innovator when it comes to cooking up unique applications of his players. Last year, when the injury bug hit the Bulls, Donovan conjured up surprisingly effective applications for Jones and Javonte Green, both of whom are nominally small forwards.

Last year, the 25-year-old saw his minutes slashed from 17.6 a night in the regular season to just 11.8 during the team’s five ill-fated playoff games against the Milwaukee Bucks. Though he took nearly as many field goal attempts in the postseason (3.4) as he did during the regular season (3.8) in his limited on-court time, he only connected on 41.2% of them, a far cry from the 53.8% he posted in the regular season. Jones’s limitations on defenses proved similarly unhelpful for Chicago, as he and Green got slaughtered by the Bucks’ massive front line. Jones averaged just 3.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in Chicago’s first-round series loss to Milwaukee.

The issue with both Green and Jones is that neither can really be relied upon to actually consistently combat legitimate frontcourt size for extended periods, when the games start to really mean something. Flashy dunks in November don't count for much in April, although at least Green (a 35.6% three-point marksman last year, albeit on limited volume) can reliably connect from outside.