The Chicago Bulls open their preseason schedule Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center, the first look for many at new stars Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan.
With the UC opened to full capacity for the first time since the shutdown of the 2019-20 season, many fans also will have their first live chance to see center Nikola Vučević, who played in three of the four home games last May after the stadium reopened to limited capacity.
The revamped Bulls roster has four preseason games to get comfortable playing with each other before the Oct. 20 opener in Detroit, and coach Billy Donovan has little time to experiment while looking for ways to replace injured forward Patrick Williams, who is out with a left ankle sprain.
“I do think that we’re going to have to be somewhat creative in moving players around,” Donovan said when Bulls training camp opened last week. “You could theoretically move DeMar to the power forward spot. You could move (Alex) Caruso into the starting lineup.
“You can take some guys that are in camp, see what a guy like Stanley Johnson can do. He’s been in the league awhile, was a high draft pick (No. 8 in 2015). In some of these preseason games, based on where Patrick is at, maybe see what (Johnson) looks like out there.
“Derrick Jones Jr. is another guy you can throw out there. I do think we have some versatility and flexibility to use if we want to play with four guards. Or if it’s not four guards, maybe it’s three guards and a forward. But the key is how these guys look playing together.”
The game’s result, of course, does not matter. But for an organization coming out of hibernation with more optimism than has been seen on the West Side in several years, it would be nice to put on a show in this coming-out party.
Perhaps the one player fans are most looking forward to watching is Ball, who takes over at the point in a lineup Donovan has said will play faster in 2021-22. The 23-year-old Ball is already an established player with four seasons under his belt and is coming off a career year in scoring (14.6 points per game) and 3-point shooting percentage (41.4%).
With the New Orleans Pelicans last season he ceded primary ballhandling duties to phenom Zion Williamson, but Ball should return to his familiar role in Donovan’s offense.
“Yeah, definitely talking to Billy, just getting back to being more of a traditional point guard, where I’m comfortable,” Ball said last week. “Last year was different for me, but whatever Coach asks me, I’m going to do to the best of my abilities.
“This year, it’s looking like I’m going to be playing point guard a lot, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Magic Johnson, whose Los Angeles Lakers made Ball the second pick of the 2017 draft, didn’t do Ball any favors last March when he told ESPN’s “First Take” there is “no point guard in this league whose basketball IQ is higher than Lonzo Ball.”
That’s high praise for someone who has yet to make an All-Star team or play in a postseason game. And in truth, it was a bit premature. But it says a lot for Ball’s potential, which is why the Bulls made him an offseason priority, acquiring him in a sign-and-trade with the Pelicans for reserves Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple, cash and their second-round pick in 2024.
Ball agreed to a four-year, $85 million deal. The NBA is investigating a possible tampering violation, which Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas declined to address when camp opened.
While he didn’t repeat Magic’s line, Vučević said the way Ball plays proves he is “one of the highest-IQ guys” around, and the All-Star center suggested the Bulls also made an underrated signing in Caruso, who won an NBA title in 2020 with LeBron James and the Lakers.
“Obviously we know how good of a passer (Ball) is, but also how much he’s put into his offensive game as well,” Vučević said. “On our scouting report that was one of our main threats, so having someone like that is incredible.
“Caruso has had nothing but winning in his life being with the Lakers, playing with LeBron and things like that, so he knows what it takes and he’s a star in his role. I think he understands that.”
Karnišovas said Ball is a perfect fit for the style Donovan wants to run in his second season as Bulls coach. If it works as planned, the Bulls at least will be more exciting to watch.
“By adding Lonzo, he likes to play fast, he likes to advance the ball, to guard,” Karnišovas said. “He can be a primary ballhandler or he can play as a secondary ballhandler. He improved his 3-point shooting. He became close to a 40% 3-point shooter on eight attempts (per game), which is really good number.
“The versatility, and then he can rebound the ball. We were asked about the rebounding. We have a couple good guards (in Ball and Zach LaVine) who can rebound the ball, so there were a lot of things that were attractive. … Teams can struggle defending us and (can’t) have one game plan to stop one player. The versatility gives us a chance every night.”