Bulls Rookies Look Good Despite Summer League Loss


Jul 15

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LAS VEGAS — So who is he? Someone suggested James Johnson is like Lamar Odom. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro mentioned fellow former Wake Forest star Rodney Rogers. I heard Paul Pierce. In any case, as the Bulls opened their Summer League schedule Tuesday with a 95-83 loss to the Golden State Warriors, it seemed clear Bulls No. 1 draft pick Johnson has some very special talents.

“I like what Taj (Gibson) and James did in their first game,” said Del Negro, who watched from the stands on the UNLV campus as assistant Bob Ociepka coached the team. “Taj, I liked his activity. He kept a lot of basketballs alive. Had (a team high) seven offensive rebounds. (For Johnson), a guy with that much bulk and weight, the way he can move and handle the ball, his agility is impressive for a guy his size. We’ve got to get a little weight off him. He knows that. But he can do some things you can’t teach. He’s unselfish, he’ll pass. Guys will enjoy playing with him. (Johnson) has a feel. He has those easy, soft passes you can catch. He can block a shot, rebound, take it off the glass, start your break for you. He can fill the lane. He can finish. You saw him off the dribble on the break cross a guy over, finish at the rim. With the versatility you get from that it opens things up for other guys.”

Johnson finished with 21 points on nine of 13 shooting with eight rebounds to tie James Augustine for scoring honors. Gibson finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds in the kind of workmanlike effort you are often going to see. His energy and effort level is virtually constant as he appears always in motion. He had a perfectly timed face up block on center Jamal Sampson he wasn’t credited for (it’s Summer League) and some nice hustle plays and effort follows around the basket. He also ran down forwards who had leaked out and at least kept them from easy scores as they had to restart the offense because of his hustle. Plus, he was impressive for a rookie trapping and disrupting some pick and rolls to give the guard time to recover.

The Warriors Anthony Randolph dominated the Bulls inside and had a Summer League equaling record 42 points. Yes, they keep records of this stuff, too. Let’s say the defensive system may not be fully implemented yet. Randolph tied the record held by Von Wafer and Marcus Banks, so it’s not exactly a ticket to Springfield.

“I’m just going to go out and supply energy off the bench,” said Gibson. “It was tough out there. They were calling fouls every time you touched him. (Randolph shot 21 free throws while Gibson was called for nine fouls as there aren’t foul outs after six). Randolph’s a phenomenal player. I learned a lot playing against him. Coach Del Negro told us to go out and have fun and play, learn one thing at a time and try to master it. I just tried put in a lot of effort and help the team. Unfortunately we had a tough loss. But I look for a turnaround tomorrow.”

Johnson expressed disappointment as well about losing, though the game got away with some poor guard play and forced shots after the Bulls had gotten within a point midway through the third after a shaky start from the rookies. Starting guards DeMarcus Nelson and Anthony Roberson were a combined seven for 25, though Warriors rookie Stephen Curry offset that with three of 15. The Bulls bench combined to shoot 0-11, scoring two points and committing 12 fouls.

Though the players always give lip service to the result, Summer League isn’t about that. It’s about seeing if guys will compete, how their skills manifest in an NBA setting, even if there aren’t many high level players yet.

Johnson was impressive. You could see the Bulls brass watching having to muffle smiles of satisfaction given it was just the first game. But Johnson showed he can fill up the box score. He had a block and a few steals, though credited with one. His defense was shaky at times and he got caught a few times a bit straight up with the ball and had it stripped. But he showed he can make plays, and it’s what the game is about.

He came out a bit tentative and it was Augustine, the veteran from the U. of lllinois, who was impressive early in hitting the boards and scooping up loose balls and scoring. Augustine hit 10 of 11 shots, including a pair of nice top of the key jumpers not usually in his repertoire, along with seven rebounds.

The Warriors took a quick 22-13 lead and Johnson got himself going with a pull up from about 18 feet. Johnson has an unusually high arc on his shot, somewhat like Carlos Boozer, still rumored with the Bulls as Boozer was on WMVP radio Tuesday talking about how he’d like to play for the Bulls. My sense is it remains a long shot, though the Jazz continue to talk with numerous teams, including the Bulls. And on some level after watching Johnson, I’m not sure I’d want a playing-for-a-contract Boozer monopolizing the offense to get his 20 points.

“I don’t want to shoot it like a string,” Johnson said. “I like to shoot high arc so I have a better chance to bounce in if I miss.”

Johnson also hit a three pointer and once he got into the game showed the ability to score from a variety of places. I can see him playing a lot of small forward with Luol Deng at power forward in a more athletic, versatile lineup.

Johnson teamed with Gibson on a nice hi-lo with Johnson scoring. Johnson liked to take the ball in the backcourt and attack, once finding guard Nelson running the wing for a layup. Johnson broke up a pick and roll nicely for one of his steals and was quick to begin the break, scoring on a drive and slam dunk, a nice spin out of the post and a scoop on the drive around a few jumpers.

Though the Bulls couldn’t do much to stop Randolph and only got within six late.

“I’m definitely not satisfied with my performance and I’m going to work hard and bring it harder tomorrow,” said Johnson. “I didn’t want to start my day losing. We’ll talk it out and hopefully we can leave the summer league with a winning record.”

Johnson doesn’t seem yet to talk about himself much, though Augustine was impressed.

“Johnson has a great game,” he said. “He can post up, play outside, go to the basket, handle the ball on the fast break, guard bigger guys with that bigger body.”

Augustine also was impressive and I can see him being that extra big the team has been considering adding. I’d rather have a motivated, hard working guy than some older veteran, like a Mikki Moore, in a role in which he won’t play that often.

Augustine was on that 2005 Final Four Illini team before being drafted in the second round by the Magic and playing little. Losing confidence he went to play in Spain last season and says he’s returned with a new game and a new attitude.

“I scored, but that’s’ not what I’m known for,” said Augustine. “I’m going to try to rebound, try to play good defense. Do what it takes to help the team win. I made the decision last year to go to Spain and work on all aspects of my game and I wanted to come back here to hopefully show all the teams no matter who it is that I’m here to play and I have a new game and I’m here to show them that.

“My mental aspect was the thing held me back the most,” Augustine conceded. “It was something coach (Stan) Van Gundy told me, that I had the talent to play in the league but I had to have faith in myself. That’s the main reason I went to Spain. To have the faith to take the open jumper, have the faith to use my skills. Maybe a year or two ago I would have thought about (not shooting the jumper) and passed to someone else. That’s what I’ve been working on, my mental game. Go out there and play and show my skills and that I can play at this level.”

I believe he can and I’m certain Gibson and Johnson can. It was an impressive debut for the two No. 1 draft picks. The Bulls continue Summer League play Wednesday afternoon against the Bucks, whose rookie point guard Brandon Jennings has been impressive here.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, the Boozer saga continued Tuesday as Boozer was on WMVP radio and said the Jazz told him he’d be traded and Boozer suggested he could be a drawing card for what he claims is his good buddy Dwyane Wade. Boozer also said despite being a free agent he’d be interested in signing a long term deal with the Bulls. My guess is it’s Golden State radio next. And then maybe Miami and Detroit.

“I definitely heard a little rumbling about it,” Boozer said about being traded to the Bulls. “Whether it will go down or not, that’s kind of between the Jazz and Chicago. But obviously if I did get traded to Chicago, I’d love to be a part of the Bulls. (The Bulls are a) great organization, top notch from top to bottom. They do things very professionally there. At the same time, they have a good group of talent there. Obviously with Derrick Rose at the helm and being rookie of the year last year and having some very good talent around him. Very good team. If I was able to come there, I’d bring a lot, especially in the low post and being a leader as well. We’ll see what happens. Me and D-Wade are very close. We talk quite a bit, but that’s a decision he has to make with himself and obviously if I did come to the Bulls, I’d love to have D-Wade play for us. At the same time, D-Wade is like me and wants to win a championship bad. If I was able to go to the Bulls and get D-Wade to come, we’d be right there at the top.”

The feeling around the NBA is the Jazz will match Portland’s offer sheet for Paul Millsap, and then have to trade Boozer. Though the luxury tax consequences don’t kick in until after the February trading deadline. There is no hurry. The notion is the Jazz would want Boozer out. I still cannot see the Bulls, even if the Jazz wanted just expiring contracts and made a deal with the Bulls, keeping Boozer beyond this season. I doubt the Bulls are about to give up two players to get a look at Boozer coming off a surgery, and unless they do, they would not be able to pay Boozer and go after another free agent. I personally don’t see how you win with an undersized, oft-injured forward like Boozer. Plus, Boozer is a notoriously poor defender and would it be worth it for the next season to allow Boozer to push up his numbers at the expense of playing Johnson and Gibson, who look like they can be nice pieces? As I’ve written before, I think it’s doubtful. But I have been waiting and the Bulls are not seeking my advice on this.

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