Bulls

Improving Cristiano Felicio glad to continue developing with Bulls

Improving Cristiano Felicio glad to continue developing with Bulls

Cristiano Felicio first earned minutes two seasons ago as an unheralded big man with a soft voice, quick feet and soft hands that spoke volumes more than a low-toned voice.

Now he carries the same low-toned voice and is still low-key but has become enough of a commodity for the Bulls to reward him with a four-year contract worth $32 million, a deal reached in the opening hours of free agency.

As painful as this new direction the Bulls are traveling in expects to be, a decision on bringing back Felicio was as much a no-brainer for the Bulls as Felicio’s answer to what he’ll do with a pay increase that rises to $8 million annually from roughly $875,000 last season.

“I'm planning on getting my mom a house, and after that I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the money,” Felicio said on a conference call with media Thursday afternoon.

“It feels great. Since I got here, I thought the Bulls had a great organization and they've worked with me since Day 1 and they wanted me to continue to be here and working and putting the Bulls jersey on. So for me it was great to sign with them again because I'm very happy here and I'm glad that I'm coming back.”

Assuming the Bulls don’t unload starting center Robin Lopez, Felicio will continue his progression as a dependable rebounder and finisher around the rim, as he averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. With the raw numbers, Felicio averaged nearly 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes as a roller to the rim on pick and rolls.

Now he says he hopes to improve on his midrange game as the Bulls hope to employ Fred Hoiberg’s wide-open system next season. Wins and losses won’t matter as much as player development and with Felicio turning 25 on Friday, he believes he’ll progress as quickly in the seasons to come as he has in the first two years in Chicago.

“For sure I was surprised. Because like I said when I got here, nobody knew me,” Felicio said. “And for the first six, seven months I was just working, staying on the court trying to improve my game. So to be able to end the first season the way I did, for sure, was eye-opening to me for what I could do in the future.”

He had his best games of the year when the 2015-16 season wound down and the road was cleared with Joakim Noah out with injury and Pau Gasol headed for free agency.

Considering he came from Pouso Alegre, Brazil, not exactly a basketball hotbed for NBA prospects, the positive reinforcement was necessary.

“Everyone who's been with me since the beginning knows how hard I worked, how many "nos" I got in the beginning of my career, how hard it was for me to get to this point,” Felicio said. “Even when people doubted me, I tried not to listen to it and just keep working, keep improving.

“Now I've been here for a year or two, and to get this contract now is a blessing because I have been working since I was like 13. I've had really bad moments and moments when I thought I wasn't going to be able to go anywhere in the back of my head. My mom helped me throughout everything. My family was with me. And to be here now, coming from a city where sports is not even a big thing, it's unreal.”

Now he’s one of Hoiberg’s dependables, as the Bulls will have only a few holdovers from last season and still are engaged in contract negotiations with Nikola Mirotic, a fellow restricted free agent with whom Felicio shares an agent.

“Yeah, for sure they're going in a new direction,” Felicio said. “We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that are hard workers and I know a few of them from my last two years here. I'm sure it's going in a great direction. Not a lot of people are putting faith in us, but if we keep working, when the season starts I'm sure we'll have pretty good season.”

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

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AP

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

The mending hasn’t yet begun for the Bulls, but perhaps a good sign in moving forward from the Bobby Portis punch that delivered a concussion and broken facial bones to Nikola Mirotic is that it isn’t being ignored.

Fred Hoiberg is being tight-lipped about where matters stand, but he did at least say Portis returned to practice and apologized to the team Friday afternoon. Hoiberg wouldn’t reveal the contents of Portis’ apology and Portis didn’t address the media, but it’s clear things aren’t business-as-usual at the Advocate Center.

“Bobby was back at practice. It was good to have him back in here,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously, everybody’s looking forward to having Niko back in here, as well, hopefully soon.”

When asked about Portis’ spirit, Hoiberg deflected and preferred to talk about what adjustments the team will have to make in the immediate future, especially with rookie Lauri Markkanen having to go against Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the home opener Saturday night.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to do as far as preparing until we get our guys back, is throwing different lineups out there and hopefully getting better with our execution,” Hoiberg said.

Justin Holiday admitted that things aren’t normal, saying the actual games to start the season won’t serve as a welcome distraction because this isn’t something that can just be treated trivially.

He wouldn’t venture into getting into his teammates’ head, saying “Bobby came into today like Bobby. We’re not quite sure what he’s thinking mentally. We can’t assume that.”

But one thing that can’t be assumed is a sweeping under or pretending.

“I mean I don’t necessarily think this is a situation for us to get past,” Holiday said. “I think it’s a situation that obviously (needs) to be brought to the forefront. It’s a situation that needs to be taken care of for those two to be able to come together and be brothers again. I don’t think we’re trying to get past it.”

Holiday has been a leader during this early time, so his words and definitive tone were noticeable.

“They say sometimes you need time to heal,” Holiday said. “Again, we have to think about both situations in this. One guy is trying to get back healthy. And again, I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish we could just fix this the right way, but that’s not the case.”

It’s complicated all around, with no real precedent.

For Hoiberg, his handling has two faces. Since Portis is able to practice but has to sit out seven more games on a team-mandated suspension, he has to walk the line of incorporating Portis in daily drills and activities but also has to prepare a team that wasn’t prepared for two power forwards being out for an extended period.

That was on display Thursday as Quincy Pondexter likely played that position for the first time in his career, and it’s highly unlikely Paul Zipser practiced there at all with the depth the Bulls had until now.

“We have to get our guys ready to play positions that they haven’t played,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting them in here early. We’re getting a group in to work on our execution. Quincy not only hasn’t played in two and a half years but I don’t know if he has ever played the 4.

“You just have to do the best with what you have.”

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”