Bulls finally show improvement, roll past Utah

This game could have been a referendum on the Bulls' disappointing recent history of player development.

Lauri Markkanen was in town with Utah. He left Chicago and became an all-star with the Jazz last year, while the Bulls' power forward of the future, Patrick Williams, is off to an excruciatingly slow start to his fourth NBA season.

Instead, it was a night when the Bulls showed some fight. The Jazz are also 2-5 and one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, but Monday's 130-113 victory counts as major progress for the Bulls.

"When you're 2-5, you should be pretty dialed in," Zach LaVine said. "We knew we were going against a team that was hungry just like we were. We had to be ready to play."

Perhaps the most eye-opening moment of the season happened at the 4:27 mark of the first quarter. LaVine drove into the lane, rose up and tried a two-hand dunk over Utah 7-footer Walker Kessler. LaVine didn't make the shot, but was fouled and hit both free throws.

That's not the point, though. LaVine is literally one of the most explosive athletes on the planet, but doesn't often attempt plays like this, challenging an opposing big man at the rim.

"He already blocked one of my shots so I just tried to force one up on him," LaVine said. "He's a great shot-blocker. Sometimes you get dunked on, sometimes you get blocked, but as long as I can go hard to the hole it's good."

The two-time dunk contest champ should be providing highflying "Zach Moments" on a regular basis, but LaVine has been hesitant to make the switch from finesse to physical. It's been frustrating for the Bulls to watch him drive to the basket late in games, get bumped and miss a shot, then glare at the referee asking for a foul. There was one of those at the end of the last home game against Brooklyn. On Monday, LaVine shot 7 free throws.

Another interesting change for the Bulls is reserve guard Jevon Carter getting aggressive with his 3-point shot. The Maywood native was used to standing in the corner waiting for an outlet pass when he played in Milwaukee.

But starting Saturday in Denver, Carter has been firing. He took 7 3-point attempts in his first 6:40 of playing time against Utah and finished the game 4 of 8 from 3-point range for 12 points.

Overall, this was easily the Bulls' best shooting night, going 18-for-34 from 3-point range. Coby White led the way, going 4-for-6.

"This early part of the season, we have not shot the ball very well and I think sometimes that can wear on you a little bit and impact your spirit," coach Billy Donovan said. "I just appreciated the spirit they came out with.

Andre Drummond collected his 10,000th career rebound in the second quarter. He's just the third player to grab the 10,000th rebound wearing a Bulls uniform, joining Dennis Rodman and Pau Gasol. Drummond is now 89 boards away from catching Johnny "Red" Kerr for 42nd place on the all-time list.

While Markkanen led all scorers with 29 points, the Bulls put eight players in double figures, including four subs. LaVine finished with 24 points, while DeMar DeRozan had 21 points and 4 steals. The Bulls set a season-high with 12 steals.

For the Bulls, player development seemed to go south with the departures of Tom Thibodeau and assistant coach Ron Adams. They helped turn Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler into stars.

Since then, the Bulls are without a success story. Markkanen flourished after leaving the Bulls. Kris Dunn who saw playing time Monday for Utah, never developed. LaVine counts as someone who hasn't reached his potential, same as Williams.

White has gotten better, but how many NBA teams would use him in their starting lineup? Meanwhile, the two most recent draft picks, Dalen Terry and Julian Phillips, rarely play.

The Bulls hired former DePaul star Peter Patton as director of player development over the summer and he oversees a staff of six. Eight games into the season might be too soon to make any judgments, but this is clearly a department that needs to improve.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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