Toronto Raptors

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis’ eight-game suspension is over and the assimilation process back into the land of the living will begin Tuesday night in Toronto.

While Nikola Mirotic continues to recover from the damage Portis’ punch caused, Portis will make his season debut and seemingly everybody is curious as to what type of player will step on the floor at the Air Canada Centre.

He’s been practicing with the team through his suspension and considering his incident with Mirotic was an act of aggression, it’s understandable to wonder if he’ll try to curtail that attribute when he comes off the bench.

“He’s been the same player as far his energy is concerned,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Every time he steps on the floor and need a jolt of energy, he can provide that for us. He needs to continue to do those little things that have made him successful when he’s been on the floor his first couple years in the league.”

Hoiberg intimated Portis has a clean slate and the situation won’t be held against him in terms of playing time. Hoiberg was asked if he had mixed emotions personally to have Portis back while Mirotic is still weeks away from stepping on the floor—if he even wants to do so in a Bulls uniform.

“Again guys, this is something that unfortunately, it happened. There was an altercation, and Bobby served the eight-game suspension,” Hoiberg said. “It was something that was thought a lot about as far as what the punishment would be in collaboration with the league. They felt that this was the right punishment. He sat out his games and he was able to stay active and practice with us. Now we’ll put him back on the floor. And again, we welcome him back.”

Portis hasn’t developed much of an identity in terms of production in his first two years but energy is the first thing that would’ve come to mind when Portis’ name was brought up—before his incident with Mirotic days before the season tipped off.

He’ll back up Lauri Markkanen at power forward and perhaps play alongside Markkanen at center for stretches, depending on the lineups the Raptors deploy.

[MORE: With Jahlil Okafor on trading block, is a Chicago homecoming imminent?

The circumstances, the wait and Portis’ general fervor for the game means he’ll probably be a bag of nerves before checking in. Since the incident and subsequent suspension, he’s had to leave the arena two hours before gametime so it’s been quite awhile since Portis has been around a meaningful basketball game.

“That’s human nature coming back from an eight-game layoff, suspension,” Hoiberg said. “I’m sure there will be some nerves. There are always nerves associated with the first game of the season. The biggest way to combat that is to go play with energy and do the things that have made him a successful player.

“Keep it simple. Focus on defending and rebounding. Don’t try to do too much early in his return. I’m sure he’ll be going 100 MPH his first time out there. But just give us great energy.”

They’ll need it from somewhere, in part due to David Nwaba’s right ankle injury keeping him out two-to-four weeks, according to Hoiberg. Portis was long mentioned as a top worker during the summer, spending a lot of time in Chicago in preparation for the season.

Tuesday will be step one in the process of having his name associated with something else besides punching a teammate.

“I’m definitely anxious to see what he has to bring,” Robin Lopez said. “I know he’s been putting in a lot of work, he put in a lot of work this offseason. I know there’s been some interesting situations going on, but I think we’re all excited to have him back on the court.”

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.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Will Perdue break down the Bulls season opener vs the Raptors. They’ll explain why Bulls fans should be very happy with the debut of rookie Lauri Markkanen and Kendall points out why he expects the Markkanen/Lavine combo to be great on the offensive end. They’ll also go over their concerns at point guard, and Will shares his story of how Greg Popovich dealt with a losing Spurs team in 1996-97.