Fred Hoiberg chuckled nervously as he processed how he wanted to answer the question. Not often does a team have five of its potential rotational players for the upcoming season playing together in summer league action, but that was the case Saturday afternoon as Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne, Kris Dunn, Paul Zipser and Lauri Markkanen couldn’t keep the Bulls from sinking late in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
So what is it like for a young coach to see so many of the players he will be counting on in a few months taking the court together in these exhibition games?
“Well, it’s, uh, it’s a good opportunity,” Hoiberg began.
The embattled coach then launched into some praise for Markkanen and gave an update on Zipser’s ankle injury.
Hoiberg, who has been under scrutiny since he took over for Tom Thibodeau a little more than two years ago, was trying to accentuate any positives he could find. The problem for the 44-year-old coach, and the organization itself, is that there aren’t many to see this week.
The 2017 Las Vegas Summer League was supposed to offer the first glimpse of promise surrounding the Bulls’ rebuild, a plan set in motion after a draft-day deal that sent All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The organization was optimistic that its young core would come to Vegas, show off its talent, and begin the process of developing together. Instead, the first week has shown just how far away the Bulls are from putting a compelling product on the floor.
Markkanen’s offensive skills have been the only thing for the Bulls to write home about. He has displayed a pure-looking jump shot, one the Bulls have been seeking on a consistent basis for years. He still needs to bulk up, a common refrain for a lot of young players and something Bulls GM Gar Forman discussed openly during the week.
The characteristic the Bulls are banking on in Markkanen’s game is not only his ability to space the floor, but the mental toughness it will take to bounce back after a tough night. That was on display in his 20-point, 10-rebound game in a win over the Washington Wizards. The fact that it came a day after Markkanen went 1-for-13 from the field, including 0-for-10 from beyond the arc, is a good sign for the 20-year-old Finnish product.
“He’s mobile,” Forman said. “He has physicality to him. He just has to get stronger physically. Like today, he missed shots but you thought every one was going down. He has a nice stroke. I thought he had some really nice passes today. This is all a process. It’s good to get him in our gym and our system and to start working.”
The rest of the production, or lack thereof, from the key players on this roster is a major concern for Forman and executive vice president John Paxson.
Dunn showed some defensive tenacity and a willingness to try to get to the rim in Saturday’s loss, but the lack of a consistent jump shot continues to hover over his game. Dunn said he feels much better about his mechanics heading into the season than he did a year ago, but the results have yet to back up that claim. Dunn will not play again in summer league after leaving Vegas for family reasons.
Zipser was a nonfactor in Saturday’s loss, going just 3-for-11 from the field, and hasn’t played since spraining his ankle in the same game.
Valentine has played in all three of the Bulls’ games but has really struggled to make an impact. He is a combined 12-for-44 from the field and has not shown the athleticism needed to separate himself at the professional level. Valentine expressed an interest in taking on more of a leadership role within the younger group of players during the upcoming rebuilding year, but it’s tough to develop that kind of voice when a player isn’t contributing at a high level during games.
Payne’s inability to contribute much at all is a microcosm of the Bulls’ entire summer league experience. Payne, acquired in a package from Oklahoma City at last February’s trade deadline for Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a second-round pick, didn’t just play poorly in his two-game stint in Vegas. He played like a prospect who has no long-term future in the NBA. Payne left the team on Tuesday to deal with a family issue and will not return. He looked lost on the floor, shooting a combined 9-for-26 from the field and turning the ball over seven times.
About the only thing the Bulls can bank on over the past week is that the young group has played hard. They’ll need to keep that tough mentality throughout the season when the adversity inevitably hits.
“I don’t know what tanking means,” Dunn said. “I go out there and try to win each and every game. Nobody in the locker room is gonna go out there and lose the game on purpose. Because then, why are you playing the game? We’re gonna go out there, try our hardest … we know we don’t have the superstars on our team but that don’t mean anything. If we go out and play hard and play together, we’ll be fine.”
A week in Vegas with this untested group of underperforming players suggests that’s still an open question.