Bulls Get First Summer League Win


Jul 18

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LAS VEGAS–The Bulls have two more games left here, Saturday and Sunday, in the NBA Summer League, though I’m leaving with the Bulls having gotten their first win Friday, 80-74 over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Best to leave when everyone is feeling good.

The Bulls free agent guards finally hit some shots as Anthony Roberson scored 24 points while No. 1 draft pick James Johnson was just two of 11 shooting with eight points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Fellow No. 1 pick Taj Gibson sat out with a heel injury, but said he believed he’d play in Saturday’s game.

After Sunday’s game, the players will scatter for the rest of the summer until the opening of training camp in October. So here’s my observations for the first week of games:

James Johnson: He’s got a remarkable feel for the game. He’s got a Magic Johnsonesque passing sense with no fear about getting his pass there. In Friday’s win, he hit DeMarcus Nelson on a great lookaway for a score, took an offensive rebound and in one motion passed through defenders for a layup, threaded a bounce pass on the run dribbling up for a basket, dove on the floor and passed ahead for a fast break score and found James Augustine through a welter of bodies and hands with a bounce pass for a layup. His passes were the best plays of the game.

“I wasn’t too worried about the shooting,” said Johnson. “I’m more focused about rebounding, defense and moving the ball. It’s hard to get in a rhythm when you work on other things. But we got a win and that’s that. I’m being trapped in the corner, so that means there’s a player open and I’m going to use my height and quickness to see the plays that are open. I’m trying to move the ball around to get everyone open. I don’t care if I score two points or 20 points, a win’s a win and I love it.”

Johnson is certainly accessible and cooperative with media. But he’s got this Jalen Rose-like patter that suggests you never quite are getting the real answer. I loved this answer when I asked him about several turnovers at the end when it appeared the game might slip away.

“It was great win for coach Bobby O (Ociepka, assistant running the games). He’s a great coach,” Johnson said. “He’s been running us through things. We just had to come out and perform what he’s been teaching us and it worked and we got the win.”

Johnson’s a fairly poor shooter, though his stroke isn’t bad. He has a ridiculously high arc on his long shots that leaves little room for error. You’ll see a fair number of air balls from him. He tends to hold the ball a bit too much at times. His defense is shaky, though he did better in playing against No. 3 pick James Harden, a shooting guard. Harden had 20 points and is a very good prospect. That a player Johnson’s size could defend a shooting guard and not be embarrassed was impressive. But Johnson doesn’t close out on shooters and tends to cheat into the lane looking for steals and easily loses his man.

“I’m not going to get better if I play four men or three men,” said Johnson, of forwards a player his size would usually defend. “I got to play everybody. It was tough the whole game.”

I’m surprised not to see Johnson attack the basket more. He seems to prefer the finesse game like the high school point guard he once was instead of using his size and strength. He does lose the ball some when he goes inside, but he also is adept at drawing fouls. He averaged more than six free throw attempts per game while also leading the team in scoring and assists and third in rebounding. I wish he were a bit more selfish given some amazing skills. He tends to primarily move the ball and not make himself a threat enough. He probably could use dropping 10 to 15 pounds as the Bulls will have to keep a close eye on his body, which could expand without regular care.

His skills will make you gasp and wish for more, though he will only deliver in spurts for awhile.

“James has a lot of versatility,” said Del Negro. “He can really handle the ball and put it on the floor. But there are a lot of areas to improve with his shooting, defensively. I thought he moved his feet better today. But he’s a young kid. This is the time to start taking a step forward and improving. I’m very encouraged, very pleased, but there’s a long way to go with our young guys, James, Taj, but that’s what it’s all about. They are not supposed to know these things yet. They are young kids.”

Taj Gibson. He’s not DeJuan Blair, who averaged 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in his two games as the Spurs also sat him out one to protect his knees. Some fans will always compare Gibson with Blair. Blair was impressive rebounding the ball and always around the basket. If Tyrus Thomas played like Blair, Thomas might be an All Star. But if Gibson can put on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he’ll be worth the wait. Though he sat out Friday’s game, he seems fine and showed aggressive play previously with barely a break. He ran the court and challenged everything. His energy level is high and doesn’t drop. He even made a few turnaround jumpers from about 15 feet. He should push Tyrus in practice, which will be good for Tyrus.

“After the first game I got bruise on my heel,” said Gibson. “Coach Del Negro said he once had it. I wanted to play. They said it would be better to treat it now so it doesn’t flare up in the regular season. I should be fine to go (Saturday).”

James Augustine. I probably was most impressed with him on the level of not expecting much. I’d love to see him on the roster. The former Illini averaged 13 points and eight rebounds and was 18 for 21 shooting. He plays in control, doesn’t try to do too much and has a nose for the ball. He gets loose balls and offensive rebounds despite playing against bigger players every game. He averaged more than four offensive rebounds per game. He never stops playing and you can see him as the kind of guy who’ll sit for as long as necessary and come flying in with effort every time.

“I’m just doing what I can,” said Augustine. “Rebounding. If I get the ball and I have an easy shot, I’ll take the shot, play defense, do things in my comfort zone.”

I’m not sure who else makes the training camp roster from the Bulls Summer League team. I liked Tyrell Biggs, the other burly forward from Pitt, who has a nice stroke and make some shots. Notre Dame’s Luke Zeller also has a nice shot and I can see him making it in Europe with his style game. Taureen Green, the son of former Bull Sidney and college teammate of Joakim Noah, isn’t bad and DeMarcus Nelson is a tough combo guard who’ll light up the D-league and maybe get another shot.

Speaking of the D-league, their All Star team lost Friday to the Suns without top player Othyus Jeffers, who was hurt. It was one of the reasons they cancelled their scheduled game with the Bulls Thursday. They fell to 2-1 and have been the most motivated group here with something to show those NBA guys. Jeffers was the D-league rookie of the year last season and should get a shot in the NBA this season. He’s averaging 20.5 per game here and shooting 52 percent. He’s the Chicago West Side kid from Westinghouse and Hubbard who played at the U. of Illinois/Chicago and Robert Morris. He’s got a remarkable story of having two brothers shot to death. He also was wounded in a shooting while trying to defend his sister and spent a year at L.A. Southwest Community College before going to UIC.

Though the Summer League is mostly about the top rookies. Blake Griffin was the best player I saw. If I were the Clippers I’d go the Bulls route with Derrick Rose, declare Griffin the franchise and feature him in everything, make sure everyone on the team understands and begin to get rid of those who don’t.

I thought No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet was a big disappointment. He played casually, practically trotting and having little impact. I think if the draft were done over he might not be a top 10 pick. Memphis should have taken James Harden, who can handle the ball as well and while he’s no Brandon Roy looks like a good choice.

Among the top picks, I also liked Tyreke Evans and DeMar DeRozan, who both will have to shoot much better. I think Jonny Flynn and Brandon Jennings are going to have bigger initial impacts. They both just come in and take over games.

I heard a great story about Flynn in predraft interviews. Players get all sorts of psychological tests and one was about what he’s do if he had a teammate with a substance problem. Most everyone who came through tried to answer delicately about not giving up a teammate. Flynn said he’d get in his face and say he better get treatment now or Flynn would make sure he did. The kid has been showing everyone impressive leadership qualities. Same with Jennings, who pressures, traps and defends fullcourt all game, a little dynamo with an entertaining game.

The Bucks had a good draft with second rounder Jody Meeks a good shooter. The Knicks’ Jordan Hill is going to come slowly and their roster looks awful for trying to attract any major free agent in 2010. They are on the path to the year’s Ron Mercer in having to pay someone.

I was more impressed with the Pistons second first rounder, Jonas Jerebko, an athletic guy who runs the court well. Though their top pick Darren Daye scored well and didn’t seem to back off contact, he seems way too weak.

I liked what I saw from George Karl’s son, Coby, and can see him making the Nuggets roster. Also, Chase Budinger, unimpressive when he worked out for the Bulls, showed he’ll make shots if he can get them off in the regular season with Houston’s roster decimated. He averaged about 20 and shot 75 percent, 78 percent on threes and 94 percent on free throws.

B.J. Mullins from Ohio State was better than I thought and a nice pickup for the Thunder. It was hard to get any read on Gerald Henderson, playing with Minnesota because Charlotte couldn’t afford a Summer League team, with Henderson getting little playing time. He could take awhile to develop. The Warriors were as undisciplined as you would expect with Anthony Morrow going for the league scoring record and getting it with 47 points Thursday and firing up all sorts of shots after teammate Anthony Randolph got 42 against the Bulls. Everyone basically plays one on one and you wonder what will be with Stephen Curry. Let it ride.

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