When the Bulls dropped from their pre-draft lottery spot of fourth all the way to No. 7 last month, John Paxson acknowledged a brief moment of disappointment.
Then, the Bulls executive vice president put on his best face even as he, along with his staff, vowed to get dirty with elbow grease.
"We feel we have two very good pieces that we got in the last two drafts at No. 7," Paxson said after the May 14 draft lottery. "We're just going to try to keep building this thing. We've gone on our board already. And there are more than seven (players) there that we like. Now we have to get in the process of getting to see them and know them and really dissect them. We'll get to work now."
And the Bulls have, interviewing players at the NBA draft combine, conducting workouts at the Advocate Center and meeting repeatedly as a staff to review scouting notes in advance of Thursday's NBA draft.
Whether this results in Texas big man Jaxson Hayes, North Carolina point guard Coby White or a trade affecting next season's roster remains to be seen. What is known is this: Even as Paxson has publicly stated the seemingly conflicting goals of being patient with the rebuild while becoming relevant again next season, the head of basketball operations perhaps left the biggest bread crumb clue for this offseason's strategy that same night.
"We're going to add another good player in this draft," Paxson said after the draft lottery. "We're going to spend some money in free agency where we add some vets who help our team."
This remains the most likely scenario. Even as the Bulls engaged in the Pelicans' trade talks surrounding Anthony Davis that led to Saturday's blockbuster deal with the Lakers, adding a player in the first round Thursday and then addressing the remaining needs via free agency is the safe bet.
Paxson actually has made eight draft-day trades in his 15 drafts as lead decision-maker; the Bulls had no picks in 2005. And while Lonzo Ball intrigued the Bulls, he went to the Pelicans along with the Lakers' No. 4 pick in the Davis deal that can't be completed until July 6. A trade down from No. 7 is still possible.
But with Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison both returning from injury next season, addressing big-man depth has seemingly joined Paxson's publicly stated desire to upgrade at point guard as most pressing need. That means wings potentially on the board at No. 7, such as Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver or Duke's Cam Reddish, seem to be losing momentum on the Bulls' draft board.
Given how public he has been regarding his desire to challenge Kris Dunn, Paxson has admitted that positional need could trump the franchise's typical "best player available" approach come Thursday. That is, if the available players are ranked closely enough.
At last month's draft combine, two executives interviewed by the Tribune were under the impression that the Suns, drafting sixth, had promised to select White. But that chatter has died down over the last few weeks, particularly with some scouts split as to whether the 6-foot-5 White is more a scoring guard than a facilitating one.
With Paxson trading for Lauri Markkanen's draft rights and selecting Wendell Carter Jr. at the aforementioned two previous No. 7 picks, Hayes may seem duplicative to some. But there's genuine intrigue for him, sources said.
Though raw, having just turned 19 last month, scouts say the 6-11 big man runs the floor well and projects to be a potentially elite rim protector. Though his mere 10 points per game in his lone season at Texas came mostly from putbacks and dunks -- he shot a ridiculous 72.8% -- his shooting form while connecting on 74% of his free throws shows promise.
The deep free-agent class at point guard could nudge the Bulls back to their -- and, really, many franchises' -- philosophy of drafting the best player available. Darius Garland, this draft class' top-ranked point guard, is widely expected to be off the board by No. 7, though he also had been Linked to the Lakers at No. 4 and the Pelicans, the new owners of that pick, likely don't need him.
The Bulls also own a second-round pick at No. 38.
Drafting the best player available and addressing the remaining needs -- including one more shooter -- via free agency would fall in line with Paxson's oft-stated patient approach to the rebuild. It also would place the onus back on significant internal improvement, which management remains optimistic for in regards to Markkanen, Carter and Zach LaVine.
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