Schanowski: Early observations from Bulls camp


Schanowski: Early observations from Bulls camp

The early reviews are in and it’s clear Bulls players are loving the new approach of Fred Hoiberg and his staff. Ask just about anyone on the roster, and they’ll rave about Hoiberg’s calm demeanor and communication skills. Hoiberg encourages his players to take good shots and play hard. Mistakes don’t mean an instant hook. Players are able to execute with a sense of freedom on the offensive end, which is a sharp contrast from the way things were under Tom Thibodeau, who wanted to call a play just about every trip down the court.

Here are a few other things I’ve noticed from the first week and a half of training camp:

1. Jimmy Butler wants to take another big step in his career. 

The fifth year pro talked openly on Media Day about how becoming a vocal leader was the logical next step in his development. Butler says the Bulls need someone who can pull teammates together when things aren’t going well, and since Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol are quiet by nature, he has to be the guy to take that role. Butler showed that leadership in Tuesday's preseason opener against the Bucks, attacking the basket in his 25 minutes on the court, by scoring 23 points and dishing out six assists. Butler joked about wanting to play some point guard this season, and with Rose and Kirk Hinrich sidelined, it was the 6-foot-7 Butler who was penetrating and dishing to open shooters. It’s apparent Butler isn’t going to wait around to see whether Rose will make it through a full season. The Bulls are Butler’s team now, and he plans to show the rest of the league he’s one of the Top 10 players in the NBA.

[RELATED: Bulls will experiment with lineups in preseason; Gasol, Mirotic keys]

2. Pau Gasol has found the fountain of youth

The Bulls plan to give their 35-year-old center plenty of rest in the preseason, and why not? Gasol showed this summer that he’s still one of the elite big men in the game. Gasol basically carried Spain to a 2015 EuroBasket title and a spot in next summer’s Olympics, by scoring 40 points in a semifinal win over France, then coming back with 25 points and 12 rebounds in the title game. Gasol has added the three-point shot to his arsenal, which will make him even more dangerous in Hoiberg’s offense. And, even though Pau’s numbers are likely to go down slightly in fewer minutes during the regular season, he should be healthier for the most important games in April, May, and hopefully, June.

3. Hope you enjoy the three-pointer. 

We knew coming into the season that Hoiberg was a big proponent of the three-point shot. After all, he did lead the league in three-point field goal percentage in his final year in the NBA. But to watch the Bulls launch 39 threes in the preseason opener still came as a bit of a shock, especially since Thibodeau considered a reliance on shots from beyond the arc “Fool’s Gold.” Everyone on the roster has the green light to launch the three, and the hope is, if the Bulls can shoot around 35 percent from beyond the arc, it will open up driving lanes for Butler, Rose and the rest of the team’s wing players. Golden State used a fast-paced, three-point heavy offense to win an NBA championship last season under former Bull Steve Kerr, and Hoiberg met with Kerr this summer to discuss the best ways to implement his system.

[MORE: Bulls staff visited Derrick Rose, Hoiberg said he's 'in great spirits']

4. Doug McDermott could play a big role.

Let’s be honest, McDermott’s rookie season is one he’d like to forget. Thibodeau doesn’t have much use for rookies in general, and when McDermott got off to a slow start, then suffered a minor knee injury, he was relegated to the bench the rest of the season. But now, playing for another Ames, Iowa high school star, McDermott will be called on for instant offense off the bench and could put up 12-15 shots per game. Tuesday’s preseason opener tells the story of how the change in coaches will affect McDermott. He missed all of his shots from the field in the first half, but Hoiberg still went back to him early in the third quarter, and the former NCAA scoring champion responded with 23 second half points, including five three-pointers.

5. Bobby Portis could be another late first-round steal.

Because the Bulls are so deep in the front court, the SEC Player of the Year might have a tough time cracking the rotation this season, but he’s already shown he’s a versatile 6-foot-11 athlete who plays with a mean streak. Portis isn’t afraid to challenge established players under the basket, and he showed his quickness with a couple of steals. The rookie could be called on to play the center position in some small ball lineups, and with Joakim Noah in the final year of his contract, Portis’ role figures to expand in years to come.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

6. Depth could be this team's greatest strength.

Remember back in Thibodeau’s first season, when the Bulls won 62 games led by Rose, Luol Deng and the “Bench Mob”, featuring Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer? Injuries and salary cap considerations robbed the Bulls of that quality depth in succeeding years, but now John Paxson and Gar Forman have put together a roster that has at least 12 rotation-caliber players. Hoiberg wants to play fast, which means playing aggressive defense and controlling the glass. Look for the Bulls to take advantage of their depth, with Nikola Mirotic, Gibson, McDermott and Portis contributing up front, and Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks, Hinrich and E’Twaun Moore providing relief in the backcourt. Yes, Cleveland has the three superstars and the best starting lineup in the East, but if Hoiberg can maximize the use of his deep roster, we could be in for one heck of a battle come playoff time.

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury


Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

The NBA may have lost another top superstar due to injury.

On Friday, Jimmy Butler appeared to have suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee. He left the game against the Houston Rockets unable to put any pressure on his right leg and needed assistance getting back to the locker room. 

Here's a video of the incident:

Coach Tom Thibodeau said that Butler will have an MRI when the team returns to Minnesota on Saturday.

Butler drew a lot of headlines last weekend after not playing in the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Entering Friday, Butler led the league with 37.3 minutes played per game.

The Bulls also take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.