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Robin Lopez displays key role for Bulls in preseason

Chicago Bulls' Robin Lopez, center, shoots against Cleveland Cavaliers' DeAndre Liggins, left, and Jonathan Holmes, right, during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

The Chicago Bulls added eight new players this offseason, with all widely ranging in relevance and logic. Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo both made little sense from a basketball perspective, but the duo will help drive ticket sales and attract more eyeballs to a borderline playoff team. Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant bring youth to a team that desperately needs it, even if no one from the group is likely going to become more than a future role player.

After this action-packed, storyline-filled offseason in Chicago, the one acquisition who not only helps the team now but is also young enough to contribute in the future is none other than the unheralded Robin Lopez. As crazy as it sounds, he might be the best player from a team-impact perspective that the Bulls added this offseason.

Lopez was impressive in an up-and-down preseason for the Bulls. He averaged 8.6 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 54.2 percent from the field in just 20.9 minutes per game over seven games. Most impressively, he looked like a monster on the defensive end:

Lopez turned it over to start the play, sprinted the other way immediately and blocked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist emphatically twice in a row. He was called for a foul on the second block, but the play looked clean on replay.

The lesser-known Lopez twin did a lot of this in the preseason. He averaged 2.3 blocks per game in the preseason, which comes out to about four blocks per 36 minutes. He amassed a highlight reel of blocks during the short span:

Not included in any of these clips, Lopez blocked six shots in the Bulls’ preseason finale against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday. Most of these blocks come with little mobility, and that’s a staple for Lopez. He’s not a strong defender when he’s forced away from the basket, but if the defense funnels players towards him at the rim he’s a nightmare to finish over.

Lopez (and his brother coincidentally) annually ranks as one of the top rim protectors in the league. He ranked fifth last season in opponent field goal percentage within five feet of the basket at 45.8 percent, per SportVU player tracking (min. 70 GP and five FGA defended at the rim per game). He also held players to sub-40 percent shooting in the post, per Synergy.

Of course, as is the case with Lopez whenever he’s forced to move, he ranked in just the 31st percentile when guarding the roll man in pick-and-rolls last season. But even with his lateral quickness issues, Lopez projects to play a major role for the Bulls this season.

Fred Hoiberg will have a tall task ahead of him when he needs to mix and match lineups. Rondo, Wade, Carter-Williams and Butler flat out don’t fit together with their shooting struggles. Valentine, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic probably can’t play together for long periods because of their consistent lapses on defense. Lopez is the one projected Bulls starter who is an ideal fit with every player on the roster.

Mirotic has long needed a defensive-minded center to help him on the boards and around the rim. Lopez can do just that. Rondo, Wade and McDermott need a big man to help make up for their lack of effort on the defensive end. Lopez will swipe away would-be layups time and time again for them. Taj Gibson and Lopez might not seem like an ideal fit on offense, but the duo is easily the Bulls’ best defensive frontcourt pairing.

Lopez projects to be the workhorse for Hoiberg that Joakim Noah was for Tom Thibodeau. He isn’t capable of playing the minutes Noah did, nor is he as versatile on defense, but Lopez also has a healthier track record and isn’t an offensively liability like Noah became at the end of his tenure in Chicago.

Lopez is the type of player that makes his teammates look better in a way Rondo isn’t even capable of. Blocking shots, boxing out, setting brick-wall screens and finishing on offense, Lopez does the little things that often go unnoticed. The headlines in Chicago will continue to overlook Lopez, but Hoiberg and his teammates won’t.

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