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posted: 3/1/2010 12:01 AM

Bulls will need to determine their future small forward

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  • James Johnson of the Bulls blocks the shot of the Portland Trailblazers' Juwan Howard in Friday's game. Johnson and new Bull Joe Alexander are battling for playing time.

    James Johnson of the Bulls blocks the shot of the Portland Trailblazers' Juwan Howard in Friday's game. Johnson and new Bull Joe Alexander are battling for playing time.
    Associated Press


There's a question the Bulls need to answer that has little to do with making the playoffs or attracting a top-notch free agent.

It could have an impact on the team's future, however.

Who's better: James Johnson or Joe Alexander?

This could turn into an interesting practice battle in the next two months. Both players are big, athletic forwards who can attack the basket. They also appear to have similar, developing jump shots.

Which one will be the better NBA player?

Their credentials are similar. Alexander was the No. 8 pick of the 2008 draft by Milwaukee, Johnson the No. 16 pick in 2009. In age, Alexander is two months older.

Alexander made his name with a 22-point, 11-rebound performance in West Virginia's NCAA Tournament upset of Duke. Johnson helped carry Wake Forest to a short-lived No. 1 ranking last winter.

Neither has seen much playing time in the NBA. Johnson is averaging 9.1 minutes during his rookie season. Alexander logged 12.4 minutes per game with the Bucks last year, but hasn't played in the NBA at all this season because of a hamstring injury. He's healthy now and was on a D-League assignment when the trade went down sending him to the Bulls with Hakim Warrick, while John Salmons went to Milwaukee.

Talking to Alexander, he sounds anxious to prove he's not a draft bust. The Bucks made a stunning decision last fall to not pick up his third-year option, essentially cutting Alexander loose based on a rookie season and sophomore training camp.

Johnson has brought an immensely popular personality to the Bulls' locker room. On the court, he has some intriguing skills, but it's difficult to tell if he'll ever fit well into one of the forward spots. Johnson might turn out to be a classic 'tweener, someone not quite fast enough to excel at small forward, and not tall enough to survive as a power forward.

Johnson and Alexander went one-on-one a few times at the end of Thursday's practice and it was an interesting battle. Alexander appears to be a more polished and experienced player at the moment.

It will be a challenge to accurately judge the futures of Johnson and Alexander, but the Bulls need to try. Thanks to Milwaukee's decision last fall, Alexander will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Bulls will have to choose him or lose him.

If the Bulls end up trading Luol Deng this summer for a big man, the small forward spot will be open and available. Splitting it between two unproven young players doesn't make much sense.

On the other hand, maybe there's no chance to trading Deng. The Bulls would gladly do a sign-and-trade for Chris Bosh or Carlos Boozer, but teams may fear the cost. Deng carries a $14.3 million price tag in the 2013-14 season.

If that's the case, the Bulls don't need both Johnson and Alexander as backups. Johnson has a reasonable rookie contract and figures to be tradable.

Alexander had a chance to play Saturday in Indiana, but the Bulls mistakenly left him off the active roster that was turned in before the game. Coach Vinny Del Negro mentioned that he's never seen Alexander play.

On the surface, the Bulls fared reasonably well at the trade deadline. They landed competent replacements for Salmons (Flip Murray) and Tyrus Thomas (Warrick), while also clearing cap room for the summer and adding a future first-round pick from Charlotte.

But it's also possible they acquired a couple of hidden gems in Alexander and guard Acie Law, two former lottery picks who haven't played much in the NBA.

Should the Bulls find playing time for the underutilized new acquisitions? With a playoff spot at stake, will they even bother?

There could be a nice reward down the road.