Bulls might follow NBA trend by drafting smaller, mobile center

  • Ohio State's E.J. Liddell plays against Loyola in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament March 18, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Liddell's just 6 feet, 7 inches tall, but he stood out in agility tests.

    Ohio State's E.J. Liddell plays against Loyola in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament March 18, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Liddell's just 6 feet, 7 inches tall, but he stood out in agility tests. Associated Press

  • Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III warms up before Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals playoff series against the Heat on May 25, 2022, in Miami.

    Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III warms up before Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals playoff series against the Heat on May 25, 2022, in Miami. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 6/19/2022 5:40 PM

The Bulls might be in an ideal position to land their center of the future at Thursday's NBA Draft.

The two starting centers in the NBA Finals were Boston's Robert Williams, chosen with the 27th pick in 2018, and Golden State's Kevon Looney, who went 30th in 2015. Back up to the conference finals and you'll find Miami's Bam Adebayo, the 14th pick in 2017.

 

The Bulls are in that neighborhood, with the 18th pick in the first round. They do not have a selection in the second round. They also have uncertainty at the center position because Nikola Vucevic is heading into the final year of his contract.

Low first-round picks starting in the Finals was discussed in a recent story about why Utah's Rudy Gobert would be a poor fit on the Bulls roster. There appears to be two lessons here:

Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III, right, is defended by Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 13, 2022, in San Francisco. Mobile enough to play defense on the perimeter and switched onto guards when necessary, the undersized Williams may be the new prototype for the center position.
Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III, right, is defended by Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 13, 2022, in San Francisco. Mobile enough to play defense on the perimeter and switched onto guards when necessary, the undersized Williams may be the new prototype for the center position. - Associated Press

Even though centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid were the top two finishers in MVP voting this year, the NBA is still run by perimeter players. Not only has the 3-point shot exploded in popularity, big men rarely take crunchtime shots because it's easier for defenses to double-team.

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This trend also shows the value of having a center who is mobile enough to play defense on the perimeter and switch onto guards when necessary.

Williams may become the new prototype for the position, someone who is undersized at 6-foot-8, but can block shots and protect the time, as well as switch onto smaller players near the 3-point line.

So are there any centers in this draft who can have a similar impact with the Bulls? Well, there are a few full-sized centers that could be available.

One is Duke's Mark Williams, who measured 7-foot-2 in shoes with a 7-6 wingspan. He has a higher standing reach than either Gobert or Orlando's Mo Bamba. Williams averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks during his sophomore season. Most mock drafts don't have him getting past center-challenged Charlotte, which picks at No. 13 and 15.

Duke center Mark Williams celebrates his dunk against North Carolina during the Final Four round of the NCAA basketball tournament April 2, 2022, in New Orleans. Williams would have a big impact for the Bulls, but he's unlikely to last far enough in the draft.
Duke center Mark Williams celebrates his dunk against North Carolina during the Final Four round of the NCAA basketball tournament April 2, 2022, in New Orleans. Williams would have a big impact for the Bulls, but he's unlikely to last far enough in the draft. - Associated Press

Auburn's Walker Kessler averaged a whopping 4.6 blocks as a sophomore after spending his freshman year with North Carolina. The 7-1 Kessler produced 11.4 points and 8.1 rebounds last season.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Another 7-footer likely to be gone when the Bulls pick is Memphis' Jalen Duren, who averaged 12 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

When it comes to a player who might follow in Robert Williams' footsteps, an intriguing candidate emerged at the NBA's draft combine in Chicago last month.

Ohio State's E.J. Liddell measured just 6-7 in shoes, but stood out in the agility tests. He posted the best standing vertical leap of anyone at the draft camp at 35.5 inches, added an impressive max vertical at 38 inches, and did well in the lane agility and shuttle run. The native of downstate Belleville, Illinois, averaged 2.6 blocks for the Buckeyes last season, along with 19.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. He was also a decent 3-point shooter at 37.4%.

At the draft camp, Liddell told reporters he uses Golden State's Draymond Green as one of his role models.

"My explosion is really good," he said. "Just bringing tons and tons of effort. I'm older (21) than most guys in this draft. I just feel bringing effort and heart that I've always done is going to help me out."

Unfortunately, there's no record of Williams or Looney doing the agility tests at the draft camp. Many players who see themselves as high picks skip those. Mark Williams and Kessler did not participate this year and Duren didn't even get measured.

Adebayo did do the tests at the 2017 camp. Liddell had better times in the lane agility and shuttle run than Adebayo. The other categories were similar, with Adebayo posting a 38.5-inch max vertical.

Liddell is undersized, no doubt, and he won't be able to score in the post as often as he did in college, but he is suited to play perimeter defense, which is a huge part of NBA success. The Bulls can certainly dream of him and Patrick Williams becoming a new version of Green and Looney, or Robert Williams and Al Horford.

A couple of other Big Ten products -- Illinois' Kofi Cockburn and Purdue's Trevion Williams -- had the slowest lane agility times at the predraft camp, along with Milwaukee's Patrick Baldwin Jr. That's probably not what NBA teams are looking for defensively.

Cockburn did measure 7-feet in shoes with a 7-4 wingspan. Michigan freshman Moussa Diabate turned in the fourth-best shuttle run time at the draft camp, so maybe a team will see defensive potential there.

Some other centers who could go late in the first round are Fresno State's Orlando Robinson, Arizona's Christian Koloko and Arkansas' Jaylin Williams.

@McGrawDHSports

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