The kids can’t play–not yet, anyway.

Yet to tailor another familiar Chicago sports slogan to the Bulls, if all the pieces aren’t yet in place–if, in fact, it sometimes looks as if not a single piece is in its proper place–at least they have a lot of pieces to choose from. Coach Tim Floyd used a different starting lineup in each of the team’s first three games, and they lost all three by double-digit margins. Floyd suggested he might start a different lineup in each of the Bulls’ 82 games, saying, “We’ve just got to keep doing that until we get the right group out there.”

However raw, there is abundant talent on this team. The Bulls enter the season with the youngest squad in the National Basketball Association. There are five rookies on the active roster and two more on the injured list, and most of the new Bulls drafted out of college the last couple of years have been “early entry” players (formerly known as “hardship cases”). Three players aren’t even of drinking age. Second-year player Ron Artest turns 21 next week, and rookies Jamal Crawford and Dalibor Bagaric were both born in 1980. I still wear winter boots older than those guys. No wonder Crawford looks like a high school player; he left Michigan after his freshman year.

However unripe they were when picked, almost to a man these Bulls have the look of players who could develop into stars. They may turn out to be busts–the development of players as they adjust to the rigors (and riches) of NBA basketball is one of the most difficult things to predict in sports–but general manager Jerry Krause clearly drafted them with a future championship and not mere proficiency in mind. For example, in this year’s college draft he traded Texas center Chris Mihm, almost certain to be a solid if unspectacular pro, for Crawford, who could turn out to be something spectacular. (Crawford has the long arms Krause has always looked for–it’s a trait shared by last year’s rookies, Artest and Elton Brand.) Look up and down the Bulls roster. If they get half of these youngsters to develop to their full potential–beginning with Brand, Artest, Crawford, and this year’s top pick, Marcus Fizer–they can start thinking about how to fill key holes and become a serious playoff contender. None of that thinking, however, bodes well for this season.

Optimistic fans expected this to be the year the Bulls moved to that next level of filling holes and contending. But Krause, for one reason or another, was rejected during the summer by the big-name free agents, who for the most part used the Bulls simply to leverage better deals elsewhere. The only player Krause came up with was Ron Mercer, who in three NBA seasons has become a poster child for the difficulty of developing in the pros. Mercer came out of a championship program at Kentucky with a big name, but developed a reputation for selfish play with the Boston Celtics. He moved on to Denver and Orlando last season and threatened to decline in status from potential star to NBA journeyman before signing a multiyear deal with the Bulls, who needed somebody to put the ball in the hoop and keep fans in their seats while the young talent was getting seasoned. As I watched Crawford and even Artest look befuddled last week, I found myself wishing Mercer had their self-awareness. Instead, he appeared exasperated at everyone else, even while being outscored 18-10 last Friday by his opposite number, Kendall Gill of the New Jersey Nets. After the season-opening loss to the Sacramento Kings, he was quoted as saying, “It’s going to be a long season.” Not just for you, buddy.

Mercer entered the season as one of only two Bulls players with more than two years of NBA experience. The other was the team’s elder statesman, Fred Hoiberg, considered a borderline minor-leaguer only a year ago. In something of a surprise, he started the Nets game on the front line along with Brand and Fizer, but he only scored six points and pulled down three rebounds in 30 minutes and simply looked too slow to compete with top talent (though he gets style points for his haircut, a short buzz that is just long enough to give him a little flip in the front). The same could be said of Bryce Drew, a new acquisition who started at point guard against Indiana last Saturday, scoring 11 points but handing out just two assists. Drew displayed the earnest, energetic demeanor of a church-league player, and appeared to be an improvement on the departed Matt Maloney while also doing a better job of dribbling between his legs than Kyle Macy ever did–but when a writer has to go back to the Bulls’ dark ages for a flattering comparison, that player has problems. After Hoiberg, Brand, Artest, and the injured (or is that embattled?) Corey Benjamin, the only other player to return to the Bulls from last season was Michael Ruffin, the forward with the Sylvester Stallone build and the Nosferatu face. Like Hoiberg and Drew, Ruffin was and is someone just filling a roster spot, though it should be said he has already lasted longer than most imagined. Throw newly arrived center Brad Miller in with this group too, his lone distinguishing characteristic being a Scrappy Doo tattoo on his arm; it’s a wonder Krause didn’t spot that flaw while scouting him.

All that said, the Bulls struck me time and again over the first few games with their potential–and with how short they fell of it. Brand returned and almost immediately began averaging the 20 points and ten rebounds of last season’s rookie of the year campaign, but even though the team had boasted about putting him on a weight-lifting program, he looked no more chiseled, and he contributed to an obvious team weakness on the front line. Early attempts to play him at center, which is where he started the second game against New Jersey and former Northwestern star Evan Eschmeyer, were not a success. Artest looked every bit as addled as he did last season. After opening the second game on the bench, he came in and was immediately toasted by Stephen Jackson, whose jump shot over him put the Nets up for good at 17-16. Artest entered the game with the score 15-14 Bulls and left in the second quarter with the score 34-19 Nets, for a hockey plus-minus rating of minus 16.

If Artest’s lack of progress was mildly distressing–the team can ill afford a sophomore slump on his part–the bewildered look on Crawford’s face was to be expected. But he looked comfortable on the dribble, even if he did prove vulnerable to double-teaming on the sidelines. And again there are those arms–incredible. In this era of players who think ancient history is back when Michael Jordan was winning championships, it also was encouraging to find he’s a fan of Seattle’s 70s point guard Slick Watts–thus the headband over a shaved skull. Remember, Watts was playing before Crawford was born. That same look was affected by Fizer, a big guy who ran the floor like a locomotive at Iowa State last season. He added the 70s style of high white socks to look like Slick Watts on steroids. Fizer was one of those “best player available” picks of Krause, drafted fourth overall even though, as a power forward, he was penciled into Brand’s position. Even after he’d scored 16 points off the bench in his NBA debut, one had little difficulty remembering that he’s a rookie with much to learn. He seemed much more tentative starting against the Nets, and never really got in the flow against the Pacers. It was also unclear if he could find a role on the floor when Brand was there. Against the Nets both posted up low with their backs to the hoop in the team’s triangle offense, and for a while it seemed to work, with small forward Hoiberg running the baseline from side to side to set up the triangle one way or the other. Yet Fizer, like Brand, proved reluctant to pass outside once he got the ball low, and the Nets started making both forwards look bad–especially Fizer. Floyd tried him at small forward in the second half and he looked uneasy on the perimeter, even though he supposedly had a nice outside shooting touch at Iowa State. The team’s problems were compounded when Dragan Tarlac, the new European import, played center at the same time. Tarlac, who evidently fancies himself an outside shooter, kept taking jumpers from beyond the free throw line, leaving the outmanned Brand alone under the hoop to rebound.

Yet if rebounding was a persistent problem early on, guard play was even more of an issue. Rookie Khalid El-Amin out of Connecticut and A.J. Guyton out of Indiana both established themselves as more mature and composed than Crawford, but they fell victim to the practice NBA referees have of hitting rookies with fouls at every opportunity. Against the Nets, starter El-Amin was hit with four fouls in 8 minutes, Guyton with three in 21 minutes, and Crawford with another foul in 8 minutes; with those three afraid to even breath on Stephon Marbury, he went wild, scoring 33 points in as many minutes.

One of the pleasures offered even by bad teams is watching young players develop, as with Brian Urlacher on the Bears, Magglio Ordoñez on those “Kids Can Play” White Sox, and, well, going back to Jeremy Roenick, the last young player worth following on the Blackhawks. But basketball, being more of a team game, is distinctly less pleasurable along those lines. Brand, Fizer, Artest, El-Amin, Guyton, Crawford, Tarlac, for all their potential, are mismatched parts, a Frankenstein’s monster of NBA talent.

The first two games at the United Center extended the team’s sold-out streak at home to 610 (which has since turned out to be as long as that streak was going to get). The crowd at the Nets game was eager to cheer, coming to life in an attempt to rally the team in the fourth quarter, but there were signs of impatience. Shortly before the third quarter ended, Fizer and Tarlac had double-teamed Aaron Williams under the basket, resulting in a bad pass picked off by Guyton in the lane. Yet Guyton, thinking fast break, immediately dribbled the ball off his foot, and Williams snatched it off the floor and scored. “You gotta be kidding me!” screamed one guy behind the Bulls bench.

Unfortunately, no. They’re kids and they’re not kidding; that’s as good as they can play right now.