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After two injury-riddled seasons, swingman Chandler Hutchison is feeling healthy and finding ways to make an impact off the bench. Could he be the surprise contributor for the Bulls this season?

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Can he be the ’52 Mantle in the old box of baseball cards that were in your grandfather’s attic? The masterpiece painting behind the Dogs Playing Poker painting you bought at the flea market? The cherry in the box of chocolates? Can Chandler Hutchison be that overlooked treasure for these Bulls?

“It’s just good to feel good out there and be able to be explosive and not have any second guesses of worrying about this, that and the other, or something holding me back,” the Bulls third-year forward was saying the other day. “Right now my body feels tremendous. Other than just grabbing some ice on my ankles because we haven’t ran a ton, that’s all that I’ve been doing recovery wise, which for me is back to how I’ve been. That’s good for me now just being able to be healthy and running out there and being myself, being energetic and just trying to make those plays.”

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It’s nothing that is especially distinguishing yet. But as the Bulls prepare to play the also 0-3 Washington Wizards Tuesday, Hutchison has been showing some of the lightning in the desert explosive flashes that excited many when he was a late first round draft pick in 2018. Though averaging just 3.7 points in the three games, in part because of a brief seven-minute segment against the Indiana Pacers Saturday, the long armed and athletic 6-7 forward has been once again showing some of the bursts that had some whispering about seeing some Scottie Pippen there.

Chandler Hutchison dunks the ball
“Every opportunity I get, be aggressive and attack the rim and hopefully get a couple of strong finishes,” said Hutchison.

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He even made a three pointer against the Warriors, one of two he’s attempted in the three games averaging about 15 minutes. But Hutchison has begun to subtly draw some notice after often not being seen during his two injury-dominated seasons.

Better things have happened for the Bulls this season when Hutchison has been on the court. Coincidence or contribution?

Plus/minus statistics can be misleading depending on who you are playing with. Hutchison was one of three Bulls players with a positive plus/minus against the Warriors. He’s also the only Bulls player to have been in each game with a positive plus/minus in every game, meaning the team led when he was on the court. In the first two games, that often was late in the game when most of the opponent starters were untying their sneakers.

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And Hutchison does perhaps have a head start. Getting past surgery and knowing the third year is pivotal on all rookie contracts, Hutchison said he’s concentrated on conditioning for months. He’s also worked extensively on shooting and playmaking from the wing. Forget Deni Avdija! You’ve got Chandler Hutchison! He didn’t say it, but perhaps Hutchison’s presence helped the Bulls make a draft decision.

“I feel like I haven’t fully been myself with having to deal with injuries and the quick two coaches early in my career; it’s not an excuse,” said Hutchison. “It’s just a realism of things you go through. All I ask is an even playing field for me and my body to just be ready. I don’t take this as anything other than I’ve had some bad luck. I’ve been in playing shape since I’d say early November, the end of October. As for players and the excitement of, ‘All right, now it’s time to turn the page and try to work toward a winning culture and a winning team,’ that excitement has been a complete 180 from where it was last year. When you have seasons that we’ve had recently, any time you get a new start…there’s a sense of excitement.”

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But Hutchison also has been the Bulls best per minute rebounder in the three games, averaging 11 per 36 minutes, just barely more than Wendell Carter Jr.

Carter’s struggles the first two games were a source of widespread angst, particularly to Carter, who acknowledged he began overthinking the poor start. He rebounded against the Warriors with 22 points and 13 rebounds, mostly eschewing the ill-advised three-point shooting game he was trying out in the preseason. The Bulls fell into many bad habits last season by avoiding mid range play to seek out three pointers. It doesn’t work for everyone. Carter became an offensive decoy. Carter’s game is best from the free throw line and in with short jumpers, with which he has a good stroke, and screen and dive plays which worked effectively against the Warriors.

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Hutchison drives
“I thought Wendell had a really good game,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “I think he’s getting a little more comfortable. He did some good things. He drove it, he made some floaters, he got to the line and knocked down some free throws. He did some really good things and so did Lauri (Markkanen).”

Though Markkanen might not against the Wizards. He is listed questionable for Tuesday’s game with a calf contusion sustained late in Sunday’s game. Thad Young is listed probable to play his first game after a preseason leg infection. Young had an MRSA—Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—infection, which could be serious as a super bug bacteria. But it was caught early and treated.

The serious concern for fans and media were Markkanen’s comeback from a down season, Carter’s early inefficiency, Coby White’s struggles as a point guard, the absences of Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky and the stunning early losses.

Though the Bulls recovered against the Warriors, if not in the standings, there were positives from Carter, Markkanen with a third good effort and hopefully not another serious injury, rookie Patrick Williams’ ease in becoming a starter and, of course, Zach LaVine’s reliable scoring. And now perhaps something more. Maybe it’s the reemergence of Hutchison after he seemed to be vanishing from the Bulls future.

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I haven’t really had a ton of opportunities to put it up from the perimeter. But I know when I’ve got a lane that’s an opportunity for me. I attack the rim with force.

A relatively rare four-year college player taken in the first round of the draft, Hutchison was advertised as the athletic wing player to defend and run the fast break. He’d resemble Pippen in the open court with his long strides and 7-1 wingspan. Though he also was mentioned as a so-called, popular 3-D prospect, he produced more on drives to the basket. But injuries decimated his first two seasons, his rookie year with a broken foot and then what led to shoulder surgery last season. He missed half the games he was eligible for his first two seasons amid questions about his durability. The NBA these days doesn’t wait long as prospects like White and this season Williams seemed to pass him by. The Bulls last season invested in forward Young and now there’s Otto Porter Jr. returning from injury for his final contract season. The 24-year-old Hutchison’s opportunities seemed to be diminishing.

Though Hutchison was late developing in both high school and college. He never did average 20 points playing in a smaller California school and went to Boise State, where he wasn’t a regular starter until his junior season. He built his body and improved his three-point shooting to become a top NBA prospect.

In his limited time these first three games, Hutchison has rebounded and defended aggressively and driven into the lane with purpose.

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Bulls basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas was direct following the NBA draft when asked about rumors the Bulls were involved in trade talks with the Golden State Warriors, who held the No. 2 pick. The speculation was the Bulls were angling for bouncy center James Wiseman from Memphis. Perhaps Karnisovas figured he already had him.

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“I led (rookies) in blocks last year,” Daniel Gafford was mentioning to reporters Saturday during a Zoom video conference from Bulls training camp. “I’m trying to do that same thing, be that defensive guy and be able to help the team out on offense as well.

“My role is to be me, play defense like I always do, protect the rim,” said Gafford. “That’s my main thing and then worry about offense later. I want to be the type of guy who can take shots free throw line extended. I’m still working on taking those threes. I’m working on building my confidence to where I can start taking jump shots in games. Because sooner or later I’m going to need to be one of those guys we need down the stretch.”

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Gafford has been something of a mystery this first week of training camp amidst more storylines than an Agatha Christie novel, like Lauri’s restoration, Coby’s development, Zach’s adaptability, Wendell’s emergence and Otto’s renaissance. But the 6-10 pogo stick as the No. 38 draft pick may just be another surprise inheritance for Arturas and his guys.

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“I finally got my routine down and what I need to do to take care of my body, what I need to do to get my mind right,” Gafford said. “My routine has gotten better. At first my routine was like I didn’t know what I was doing when I was coming in, I didn’t know if I needed to do this, I didn’t know if I needed to do that. Now I’ve got my routine packed in. My mental is better. I just come in and I’m ready to work every day. I make sure I take care of my body a lot more because last year I was slacking on that area. Just making sure my routine is top tier and perfect.”

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Otto Porter Jr. continued to shine in his reserve role. The veteran forward, playing against his old team, scored in double figures for the fourth straight time with 16 points. The Bulls had seven in double figures.

Porter has thrived in the wing-heavy lineup that coach Billy Donovan used despite Thad Young saying after the morning shootaround that he was available to make his season debut after battling a leg infection.

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Donovan has been starting Lauri Markkanen at power forward and then bringing him back at center in a small-ball lineup with Porter, Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky and either Chandler Hutchison or Coby White.

Porter has looked to exploit matchups in this lineup and also has shot the ball well in each game but the Pacers.

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Zach LaVine gives props to Bulls’ second unit: ‘high IQ’ guys

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Bulls’ balancing act starting to pay dividends
In the third and fourth quarters, Donovan went to Daniel Gafford after Markkanen exited for good with 8 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third after re-aggravating the calf contusion that made him a gametime decision. Gafford provided his typical energy. He blocked a shot and got to the line four times, making three.

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The Bulls finally flashed ball security. They committed just 14 turnovers. The Wizards didn’t place a lot of defensive pressure on the Bulls or trap ballhandlers much, and the Bulls did a better job of making the simple play.

They entered the night leading the league in a statistic you don’t want to — turnovers. They had committed 19.7 per game.

Donovan has talked about wanting to play with pace. The Bulls are doing that, but it hasn’t been a big factor in this disappointing development in the season’s early going.

It just may result in a special find from the second round, which as Karnisovas knows can change a team. Karnisovas’ Denver Nuggets are led by second rounder Nikola Jokic.

Not to suggest Gafford has that variety of skills or abilities. But the second year center from Arkansas has the potential of a special defensive presence that could be vital to a Bulls team a little short in the size department up front with the 6-9 Carter and the perimeter oriented Markkanen.

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Gafford led all rookies in blocks last season at 1.3 per game despite playing fewer minutes than all the top rookies. He only averaged about 14 minutes per game and apparently accepting initiation for the Bulls he had a dislocated thumb and missed about a month, limiting him to 43 games after he wasn’t in the rotation early in the season.

But it wasn’t long before the long armed—7-2 wingspan—Gafford made an impact.

In just his fifth game against the top ranked Bucks he had 21 points in 20 minutes, basically putbacks and lob dunks, with a pair of blocks that included stuffing Giannis at the rim. He had six blocks against Charlotte in December and 14 points and seven rebounds against the Pistons in January when he frustrated Andre Drummond enough that Drummond threw a ball at Gafford and was ejected. He also was rookie leader making 70 percent of his shots and if he qualified in number of games per 36 minutes he would have ranked third in the NBA behind Mo Bamba and Hassan Whiteside in blocks. It’s Rudy Gobert type of stuff.

The Bulls were about three points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gafford. While Gafford was unusually adept for a rookie defending pick and roll. And it seems like his game will be even more effective in Billy Donovan’s system with more ability to defend the basket. Gafford told reporters Donovan has been adhering to drop coverages in which the defenders drop back to form a wall against drivers rather than former coach Jim Boylen’s perimeter trapping.

Gafford pregame
“We focus on being in the drop now,” Gafford confirmed. “That’s helping me out a lot because I can work to where I can be in verticality more instead of getting easy fouls from guards attacking me and certain things like that.”

Foul trouble was often Gafford’s plight, not unusual for aggressive rookies. But complicated by the trapping activity.

Though Gaff contributed a gaffe of his own when he appeared to condemn Boylen during what appeared to be a discussion with fans during a video game.

“I don’t like him a lot, but he OK,” Gafford said postseason in drawing some unnecessary attention. “Got some things he can work on, got some things he can get better at as a person and as a coach. I’m not going to hate on him. I’m not going to hate the man.”

It was fairly innocuous and moot since Boylen was replaced by Donovan and had nothing to do with the change. Gafford Saturday said he reached out to Boylen afterward and didn’t mean anything damaging.

“I had contact with Jim, just made sure I cleared the air that it wasn’t anything intentional,” Gafford explained. “I wasn’t meaning anything too mean or anything like that. Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, I’m bashing him. I’m being mean.’ That was just basically constructive criticism, in my opinion. Jim was a great coach when he was here. He did what he could. And he worked his tail off for the team. Everybody can work on themselves on and off the floor. I wasn’t going at him at all.”

And the 22-year-old Gafford was clear that he needs work, also. His work habits weren’t great last season, he didn’t spend enough time working on his shot, his body, his conditioning. And his understanding of the game needed work.

He’s certainly not there yet. But Gafford says he’s advanced from his rookie season, which could answer some questions for the Bulls about that defensive intimidation in the middle. Carter’s physicality and Gafford’s activity could produce some unexpected interior functionality.

“The atmosphere is great,” said Gafford. “The guys come in ready to work. Going to be a crazy atmosphere. Energy is going to be crazy energy. My life hasn’t changed at all (from the virus). I’m a guy who comes in and practices and after practice, I go home. I lie in my bed or I go play my (video) games. I’m an in-house guy. I’m an introvert. I’m looking to expand my game a lot more instead of just pick and roll situations which is like one of the best parts of my game. I’ve been in the weight room real hard. Basically trying to build on top of what I did last year.”

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Building up the roster to make it the as well-positioned as possible for the 2021 free agent class is an ideal goal for the Chicago Bulls this season.
There’s plenty that Chicago Bulls fans likely wish that the new front office regime could do this coming season to improve the roster before the 2021 trade deadline. Newly hired executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager Marc Eversley didn’t really get a legit chance to make a big splash move in free agency during the offseason.

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The Bulls were very cap strapped this offseason, largely thanks to veteran small forward Otto Porter Jr. choosing to opt in to the final year of his current contract (with a salary around $29 million for the year). There are other contracts on the books this season that aren’t doing the Bulls much good like those of overpaid big man Cristiano Felicio and veteran forward Thaddeus Young.

Moreover, there’s still a lot of value that Young could bring to the table for the Bulls, or another team around the NBA, but he wasn’t utilized well last season under the direction of former head coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls are paying Young at least around $13 million per year through the next two seasons of his current contract.

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Having contracts like that of OPJ and Young on the books for this season could actually be a good opportunity for Karnisovas and Eversley to make some big moves on the trade block come the 2021 deadline. Matching salaries likely won’t be a problem for the new front office regime.

And all of these various large contracts could mean that the Bulls could have a lot of trade chips to build up this roster in the best fashion possible to appeal to the fruitful 2021 free agent class.

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Nonetheless, here’s a look into three big early trade targets for the Bulls during the 2020-21 season.

Denzel Valentine: For some reason not entirely clear except perhaps for a presumed dislike of actor Denzel Washington, former coach Jim Boylen didn’t like the act of this Denzel. Valentine rarely played as he recovered from years of ankle problems. The new management apparently doesn’t share that view as they offered Valentine a qualifying offer instead of more highly drafted Kris Dunn. Valentine showed some shooting and playmaking form in the abbreviated team bubble workouts of late September, enough apparently to tease the new management. He could fit as a secondary playmaker and shooter for a possibly very deep bench as he also faces the end of his Bulls contract and free agency.

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Chandler Hutchison
Chandler Hutchison: The wing/forward has been a disappointment in his two Bulls seasons, rarely playing due to various injuries, missing more than half the games and shooting poorly. He’s shown flashes of athletic play, primarily in transition, and last season desperately attempted to play through injury before he was sidelined again. Much will tell with having nine months off to recover and shoot and whether his body can withstand NBA rigors. He’s a potential gem who could surprise. Or be headed for Europe.

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Daniel Gafford
Daniel Gafford: The jumping jack of a big man showed promise with his aggressive play, especially on defense. He also was prone to fouls and quick exits, not unusual for rookie second round picks. The Bulls are a small team, so his presence matters as long as he can remain present.

Luke Kornet
Luke Kornet: The perimeter seven footer is another on the way to free agency. He rarely played early with injuries and then began to show some shooting depth before being injured yet again. He’s another who’s somewhat frail with questions about surviving in the NBA game.

Ryan Arcidiacono
Ryan Arcidiacono: The undrafted floor burn point guard earned his way into the rotation and even the starting lineup more than expected as a coach’s favorite for his relentless hustle board game picking up the charges and loose balls and being that model the coach can point to on film. He’s got a credible shot he doesn’t attempt often enough and figures to find it more difficult being in this rotation with the pre-injury depth the Bulls appear to have for now.

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Cristiano Felicio
Cristiano Felicio: The favorite of fans to dislike, though a very likable guy who hardly should be at fault for accepting a four-year contract. What would anyone have done? He lacks the quick reactions of an NBA interior defensive player and he doesn’t shoot well. He tries, at least, and also faces his final contract season with the team.

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Patrick Williams
Patrick Williams: The No. 4 overall pick in the draft is that big upside kind of guy who looks more like an NBA power forward now with an explosive inside game who management hopes will develop into more of a wing player. He’s so young at barely 19 with a good shot and a powerful body that it’s difficult to project. He does look like a big piece for the future, though finding much playing time will be difficult this season with so many Bulls playing for their careers and futures with the franchise.