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Bulls making gains in athleticism
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/19/2009 12:00 AM

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Thanks to a combination of injuries and soft competition, the Bulls' preseason hasn't been especially insightful.

But here's something that stands out to me, which could be a positive sign for the coming season: The Bulls produced some decent success in recent years by trotting out a small, quick team filled with outside shooters. They'll still rely heavily on jump shots, but the Bulls now have the ability to throw a tall and very athletic lineup onto the floor.

An argument can be made that the Bulls have two players who are the best athletes in the league at their positions - Derrick Rose and Tyrus Thomas.

Rose's speed and explosiveness are obvious. Thomas' no-step vertical leap of 34 inches at the 2006 predraft camp was one of the best this decade by anyone standing 6-feet-8 or taller, according to Dwight Howard was measured at 30½ inches on the same test.

Elsewhere in the starting lineup, Joakim Noah proved during his playoff dash against Paul Pierce that he's one of the league's fastest centers. John Salmons is no skywalker, but his quick first step was unstoppable before he suffered a groin injury last season.

Now, rookie James Johnson isn't going to start ahead of Luol Deng, but he's an interesting addition to this mix. His predraft measurements were good, not spectacular. Johnson owns a sturdy 6-8 frame, though, and turned in some impressive offensive rebounds and blocked shots during the preseason.

Using Thomas and Johnson together at times would be an intriguing combination. Both are tweeners, not perfect fits at small or power forward. That's often bad news, but in this case, few teams would be able to match their athleticism.

Obviously, great athletes will take a team only so far. But I think teams need a few to be true contenders in the NBA.

• A couple of items from Sunday's open scrimmage at the United Center: Derrick Rose (sore right ankle) did not participate, while John Salmons welcomed a baby daughter on Friday and should return to the team soon.

• The No. 2 rookie scorer in the preseason, behind top pick Blake Griffin, is Atlanta guard Jeff Teague at 15.2 points. Teague played with Bulls forward James Johnson at Wake Forest.

Plenty of college basketball fans wondered why Wake went from a No. 1 ranking in January to a brutal first-round NCAA loss to Cleveland State last season. Johnson said it wasn't because of any friction between him and Teague.

"I talk to him every day," Johnson said. "That's my man and I wish him the best always. We fell apart because we fell apart."

• Here's an interesting note about NBA rookies. Among the top 12 scorers during the preseason, five were top 10 picks and five were chosen No. 26 or below.

The low picks playing well this month are San Antonio's Dejuan Blair (14.2 ppg), Bulls forward Taj Gibson (12.7), New Orleans' Marcus Thornton (12.6), Memphis' Sam Young (10.8) and Houston's Chase Budinger (10.7).

• Stop reading if you've heard this story before. Ex-Bull Larry Hughes missed his first 18 shots of the preseason for the New York Knicks. He finally drilled a 17-foot jumper in the fourth quarter against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday and is now 1-for-20 overall.

"I'm a proven scorer in this league, so it's no a problem for me," he said in Newsday. "It's the preseason; I'm not too concerned."