Bears

Bulls trio embracing new identities?

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Bulls trio embracing new identities?

On the one hand, the Bulls season-opening win Wednesday night over the Sacramento Kings at the United Center was very similar to a lot of the teams victories since Tom Thibodeau has been at the helm. It wasnt very high-scoring, it wasnt very pretty, it was perhaps closer than necessary and defense played a big part of it.

But aside from the absence of Derrick Rose and the Bench Mobthe newly-extended Taj Gibson is the lone remaining memberthe teams holdovers were featured in different roles than usual. All-Star Luol Deng struggled offensively, but made up for it with his rebounding, while Kirk Hinrich showed off his playmaking ability, something fans might not remember, since when he was last in Chicago, he often played off the ball to make room for the development of a younger Rose.

Instead, three playersRip Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozerfunctioned in roles that fans might not used to be seeing them in: Hamilton healthy and reminiscent of his heyday in Detroit; Noah a newfound offensive force; and Boozer the teams de facto closer.

Hamilton, who has formed great chemistry with former rival and current starting backcourt partner Kirk Hinrich, ran the floor in transition and had his patented mid-range game working against the Kings. In short, he looked nothing like the player Chicago fans never got a chance to know a season ago.

I was hurt. Thats in the past, Hamilton said, weary about questions about his injury-plagued debut campaign in a Bulls uniform. Man, its whatever with me. With me, its whatever Coach needs me to do, thats what Im going to be here to do. Ive been playing a long time, so its not a thing where I say, Ive got to go out there and average 20. I dont do that, never did. Its all about wins and losses.

Concurred Thibodeau: The big thing for Rip is his health and he put a lot of work into getting his body healthy this summer, and I think it paid off for him. Whenever he plays, hes always effective. The problem was missing 38 games, so he never really got into a rhythm. The first time he played an extended stretch for us last year was the month of April, so it was a tough year and I think that got his attention, and I thought that he did a great job this summer.

Noahs work over the summer with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been much ballyhooed, but while he didnt unveil the leagues all-time leading scorer trademark sky hook, he did appear much more comfortable in both the low post and high post, with his back to the basket and off the dribble.

Ill take it. Hes played very well in the preseason. Hes put a lot of work in. Hes playing with a lot of confidence right now, Thibodeau said of Noah, who also came up big at the free-throw line in the games closing moments. His defense was good, energy was good. He just does so many different things. He can pass the ball, he can score the ball, he can rebound the ball. His conditioning is significantly better, so I think thats a big plus.

Added longtime teammate Deng: Jo has been working hard. If he keeps that up, well be a great team.

In Boozers case, the much-maligned power forwards play down the stretch was also huge. Disparaged for coming up short in the last two playoffseither disappearing, but on the court or simply on the benchBoozer isnt regarded as a clutch player in the Windy City, but took a step in the right direction with his assertive play in the opener.

We have to continue to search him out, Thibodeau said. There are so many good things that happen for us when we throw the ball into him.

Boozer himself almost outright refuses to praise his own play these days, perhaps tired from the constant media backlash when he has a rough outing. But just like his two aforementioned teammates, hes started the season on a high note and if the trio continues to embrace their new responsibilities, the Bulls could end up surprising the naysayers, injured superstar or not.

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

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USA Today

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

Chicago Bears left tackle Charle Leno, Jr. has outplayed expectations after joining the team as a seventh-round pick in 2014. General manager Ryan Pace rewarded Leno for his play with a four-year, $38 million extension last offseason, committing to the former Boise State product as the Bears' blindside protector for the immediate future.

Leno joined his teammates at the team's annual Bears Care Gala on Saturday and said new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is going to make him and his linemates better.

"We love Harry, let's just get that out of the way," Leno told 670 the Score's Mark Grote. "Harry is a great coach. I saw what he did for guys that he coached in college and the guys that were before us here in Chicago. He's getting us better."

Hiestand's efforts at Notre Dame produced four first-round picks: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. He brings a no-nonsense coaching style back to Chicago, where he last served under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. 

STANKEVITZ: In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears' coaching staff

Leno enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. His 80.4 grade from Pro Football Focus was the best of all Bears linemen and his highest overall mark over the last four years. He finished 15th among all tackles graded by PFF last season.

Regardless, Leno still has to impress his new coach just like every other offensive lineman on the roster. The Bears haven't added any competition for Leno, but his fate as the team's long-term answer at left tackle could be decided by Hiestand.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”