Over the long holiday weekend, the Chicago Bulls went out and made some big moves that helped to round out the roster ahead of the start of Training Camp and the preseason. The Bulls still have some strides to make before the 15-man roster, and the two-way contract slots, are filled heading into next season.
But executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley really made some big moves to deepen the bench for head coach Billy Donovan heading into Training Camp. Karnisovas and Eversley also made some pretty smart signings among those that agreed to non-guaranteed deals that could make an impact for this bench.
On non-guaranteed deals, the Bulls signed the likes of former Iowa State shooting guard Matt Thomas, Oregon State combo guard Ethan Thompson, and the well-traveled power forward Tyler Cook.
The two significant players that were signed, not among the non-guaranteed deals, were former Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets power forward Alize Johnson and the former Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors small forward Stanley Johnson. “Johnson & Johnson” could both make the 15-man roster heading into next season for the Bulls.
Alize does fill a more obvious need for the Bulls, while Stanley could have more of an uphill battle to get himself in a significant role at the three. Stanley just never showed the type of two-way production that move the needle in the NBA.
It was that elusive two-way potential that Johnson showed during his one season playing for the Arizona Wildcats back in 2014-15 that drew so much attention his way in the 2015 NBA Draft. Johnson was an elite five-star recruit that had draft lottery hype well ahead of the time he arrived in Tucson for college.
Johnson was an efficient two-way wing in college, but that didn’t translate to the NBA. At least it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly one thing that went wrong for Johnson. But we do know that one of the major positives that he brings to the table is his defensive ability. If the Bulls could find a way to fix his confidence and shooting stroke, then the value this team could get out of Johnson could be huge.
Johnson shot around 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc in his one season at Arizona. Yet, throughout his six seasons in the NBA to date, Johnson has shot roughly 37 percent from the field and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
And we’ve never seen Johnson emerge as a major-plus in rebounding, distributing the ball, moving off-ball, or on shooting from really anywhere on the court. His defense is about the only broad consistent positive in his game in the NBA to date.
So how exactly can the Bulls try and capture the two-way potential that Johnson brings to the table?
As far as Donovan is concerned, a strategy to make Johnson a plus on defense is already in place. He’s a disruptive wing defender that moves well off-ball and has never averaged less than 1.2 steals per 36 minutes in any of his six seasons in the NBA.
On the offensive end of the floor, however, it is likely worth just minimizing what you need Johnson to do. The good news is that his outside shooting is trending up. The bad news is that his career-best three-point shooting percentage came last season, at just shy of 33.0.
Johnson has only registered an assist percentage that was higher than his turnover percentage in one of his six seasons in the NBA. So that essentially rules out any sort of primary or secondary ball-handler and/or initiator role that he could have in the second or third unit.
The Bulls don’t have much size in the frontcourt unit on the bench. Alize is only around 6-foot-7, and then they don’t have another true power forward behind him. Besides Marko Simonovic and Tony Bradley, the Bulls don’t have anyone taller than Alize either.
With that in mind, the Bulls might call on Johnson to play at least half of his minutes at the four next season. And it is interesting that when Johnson played 93 percent of his minutes at the four for the Raptors two seasons ago, he actually had his best on/off-court net rating per 100 possessions (+5.4) of his career.
If the Bulls let Johnson play most of his minutes at the four, a lot of his flaws on offense could be minimized. And you can limit the amount of outside shots he can take. Since Johnson does shoot just shy of 50 percent from the field on attempts from 3-10 feet from the rim, that could be a space that he can go to work when the Bulls exhaust other offensive options.
Put Johnson in areas where he isn’t relied on too much on offense to minimize that liability. He can work around the inside and actually rebounds on the offensive glass pretty well. One other thing he can do is find some open shooters on the outside that the Bulls have placed around him that also fill reserve roles.
This leads to a weird connection for Johnson with another player on this Bulls’ roster ahead of the start of Training Camp. Among those that Johnson delivered the ball to on offense last season, there wasn’t a single other Raptors player that shot a better percentage from beyond the arc than Thomas.
Johnson and Thomas were teammates for a little more than a dozen games with the Raptors last season. And Thomas shot around 50 percent from beyond the arc on assists from Johnson. That was one of three or four more traditional catch-and-shoot deep threats that Johnson was actually good at finding on offense last season.
I don’t mind the idea of the Bulls trying to minimize the liability of Johnson on offense if Donovan finds defensive value in having him on the bench to fill a need on the wing. But Johnson has proved time and time again that the two-way potential he showed in college just is very difficult to capture for any NBA team.
If Nick Nurse and the Raptors couldn’t do it, most other coaches likely won’t be able to either.
The Bulls are set to open up Training Camp on Sep. 28. And then, the preseason slate opens up on Oct. 5 at home at the United Center against Lauri Markkanen and the Cleveland Cavaliers.