Summer basketball is a scare.
For most casual fans -- and franchise owners -- fatigue and the possibility of a freak injury often outweigh any intrinsic benefits of watching basketball during the NBA's quiet season.
On top of all that, USA basketball has been dominating international competition since the inclusion of professionals in 1992, even further increasing the demand for high-profile stars to sit out of international competition. Indiana Pacers star Paul George suffered a horrific leg lower leg injury in a 2014 USA Basketball scrimmage, and though it was a random-chance injury, it hardened the stance of those against NBA stars in Olympic play.
There are two sides to every coin, though, and one huge benefit to NBA athletes playing in the Olympics besides the obvious gratification that one gets by competing for their country -- rapid improvement that comes from working with the best in the business.
The Chicago Bulls went through many changes this offseason, but their future is contingent on the development of the young players on the roster. Thankfully for the Bulls organization, three key players who will have an impact on their future will be playing in Rio.
Cristiano Felicio, Brazil
Felicio is still relatively unknown to the casual fan, but that is sure to change. Felicio is a 6-foot 10-inch center who is a beautiful combination of finesse, skill, and strength. Considered undersized for his position, Felicio leverages his strength well on the boards and is extremely useful in pick-and-roll offense. Though his frame is stocky, he moves with fluidity. He also showed off some impressive passing skills for a player who is still a very raw as a prospect. But at just 24 years old, he still has time to develop into a much better player.
Fresh off averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during Summer League, the Brazilian big man will be using the Olympics as a platform to continue his emergence into a rotational NBA player.
Improvement opportunities in Rio:
Felicio can become a much better defender. Defensive IQ comes with time. A quick learner with nimble feet, Felicio will most likely develop into an above-average defender. He's shown flashes of brilliance, like he did in the final possessions in the Las Vegas Summer League Championship, guarding and hedging on Minnesota’s Tyus Jones (even if Jones did drain the game-tying shot). Felicio’s understanding of when to pressure the ball handler went a long way towards helping the Bulls to the Summer League Title, and it's something he must contain to work on during Brazil's Olympic campaign.
Felicio also needs to work on his defensive timing. Even with being so new to the league, he averaged 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season, but we don’t yet know if that will translate over time. He will get plenty of playing time in Rio, with Brazil's first matchup to be against Lithuania. Jonas Valanciunas and his crafty low-post scoring will be a worthy test for Felicio. If that weren't enough, former Bull Pau Gasol and NBA-rookie forward Willy Hernangomez will also prove to be a significant test.
If Felicio can show even greater defensive activity in Rio, Brazil will have a shot at making it out of the more difficult Group B, and the Chicago Bulls will realize that their long-term replacement for Joakim Noah may have been on the roster all along.
Nikola Mirotic, Spain
Nikola “Threekola” Mirotic is perhaps the major key to the future of the Chicago Bulls. During the regular season, Mirotic's 11.8 points per game did not accurately represent his great capability as scorer. Shooting is at a premium in the modern NBA. As a prototypical stretch-four, Mirotic gives you a legitimate 6-foot-10-inch forward who can take an opposing big away from the paint, but also has the foot speed to take defenders off the dribble. He could get better on the defense (much like Felicio), but his scoring, shooting efficiency and consistency is what needs imminent attention.
Over this offseason, the Chicago Bulls acquired talent, but talent in the form of aging veterans who specialties do not include spacing the floor. With so many new faces on the roster, Mirotic’s familiarity with Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg’s system will help him earn the starting power forward spot. And in a probable starting lineup that will include Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, and Dwyane Wade, every bit of his shooting skill will be needed. He shot 39% from deep last year. That raises his NBA career three-point percentage 35.5%. If he can maintain those type of shooting numbers from the outside while at the same time filling the scoring void left by the departures of Gasol and Derrick Rose, the Bulls will be more dangerous.
Improvement opportunities in Rio:
The thought of Mirotic being “the man” in Chicago is unrealistic with all the alpha-type personalities on the Bulls roster. But for the 16-17 Bulls to reach their full potential Mirotic will have to be the most reliable three-point shooter on the team, while maintaining enough versatility to not become predictable.
In Rio he will need to work on something that is much more mental than physical: confidence in his shot. He has a jump shot that still takes awhile to get off, but when he follows through in one motion rather than pump-faking or hesitating, it gives him a much better chance of making catch-and-shoot attempts. As a shooter, it will be key for Mirotic to develop a better moves in the paint. With his size and shooting ability, an array of fadeaways, floater, and step-back jumpers in the painted area would make him a complete scoring machine. He will face both slow-footed big men and undersized forwards in Rio. This gives him a perfect opportunity to expand his offensive game while developing an inner belief and will.
Jimmy Butler, United States
I saved the best for last. Going forward, it's undeniable -- Jimmy Butler is the franchise player. With Rose and so many stalwarts gone, it's now up to Butler to prove if the Bulls brass made the right decision in sticking with him. Of course, Butler has already shown he is worth a long-term commitment simply through his on-court improvement year-to-year. But now he will have the chance to learn about leadership from the vast array of great leaders associated with USA basketball.
Butler’s biggest improvement heading into this past NBA regular season was his scoring. It wasn’t that he scored at a much higher rate, the improvement came in the fact that he scored 20 points per game for a consecutive year. Many critics felt his defense took a slight step back due to his increased offensive workload, and the advanced statistics reflect that. But if his defense declined, it was only slightly. Either way, next year will be a pivotal one in Jimmy Butler’s career. There are two specific areas that Butler must focus on during the Rio games.
Improvement opportunities in Rio:
Butler is an All-NBA defensive talent, and in Rio he will get a chance to defend a ton of pick-and-rolls under the familiar tutelage of former coach Tom Thibodeau. Learning to pick up a defensive schemes quickly with a group of new teammates is going to be great practice for a player who will be walking into that exact same situation during next NBA training camp.
On the other side of the ball, Butler excels in driving, spotting up, and isolation plays. However, on a team with Rondo and Wade, it's unlikely any Bull will get to run isolation sets at the same frequency seen in previous seasons. It will be good for Butler to continue meshing his abilities with other talented players, specifically improving on his combo-guard, which will immensely help Hoiberg in his sophomore coaching season.
So long as Team USA continue to blowout their opposition, Butler will play long minutes as the team's go-to perimeter defender. Defense and playing a role is what head coach Mike Krzyzewski will ask of Butler, but his ability to find open shooters and penetrating with ball in hand is what I will be keeping an eye on. If he can keep the ball moving on offense while staying tenacious on defense in Rio, the five-year, $95 million deal he signed in 2015 will continue to look even sweeter.