Now, with 2021 training camp in full swing, Cheeks has taken another young, dynamic guard under his wing.
“Me and Mo, we've been going back since when I played in Vegas (Summer League),” Bulls rookie Ayo Dosunmu said after Saturday’s practice. “I always like Mo because he always gives you the constructive criticism.
“Every day I pick Mo's brain. I joke around with him a lot. I talk to him 20 minutes every day before practice. We talk about what I need to do in practice to be successful and help me get better.”
A strong relationship between Dosunmu and Cheeks had every reason to hit the ground running. Both hail from Chicago. Both have point guard pedigree (though Dosunmu’s size and skill set could well make him a two-guard in the NBA). Both, funny enough, were second-round picks; Dosunmu was the 38th overall pick in the 2021 draft, while Cheeks went 36th overall to Philadelphia in 1978, when the league contained just 22 teams. Both are defensive-minded.
And while Dosunmu’s professional path is just beginning, Cheeks represents an aspirational outcome. Across 15 NBA seasons, the 6-foot-1 point guard made four All-Star teams, earned five All-Defensive team selections, and started 79 games for a title-winning Sixers team in 1983, contributing 12.5 points, 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals per contest. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.
“It means a lot, because he knows a lot (about) where I came from,” Dosunmu said when asked about the Chicago connection between him and Cheeks. “And he's a Hall-of-Famer — you know, one of the most under-appreciated Hall-of-Famers out there. Me being able to pick and Hall-of-Famers brain and dissect how he was successful, and how can I use that to be successful, goes a long way.”
Asked what wisdom Cheeks has imparted so far, Dosunmu focused on the little things. Showing up to practice two or three hours early. Playing hard on a consistent basis. Trusting that, on a team with so many offensive weapons, his offense will come, but the defensive end is where Dosunmu can separate himself early in his career. Having fun.
That’s all according to plan, in Billy Donovan’s eyes. Cheeks was Donovan’s lead assistant for five seasons in Oklahoma City, then jumped from the Thunder’s staff to his hometown Bulls when Donovan became the team’s head coach in 2020.
“People obviously remember him as a player and remember (him) winning an NBA championship and the Hall of Fame and all that stuff — but he is a 10 times better person than he ever was a basketball player,” Donovan said of Cheeks. “And he has a great way with people. Not just players, but just with people in general. And I think that the way he communicates, I think the way he can relate to players, talk to players, I think he put things on guys’ brains about how they need to start thinking about things.”
Cheeks, Donovan continued, was instrumental to Patrick Williams building out a regimented daily routine during his rookie season. He sees similar potential for Dosunmu in Year 1.
“I always try to direct them towards Mo,” Donovan said of his players, in general. “Because him (Cheeks), as a player, I think he's got a wealth of experience, and I think more than anything else he's got a really, really good way about him, and I think he's in it to help people.”
Donovan has more than once raved about the first impression Dosunmu has made in the first week of training camp — for his fearlessness if nothing else.
“He's got a lot to learn. But he's not afraid,” Donovan said. “He throws himself in there. He works on the defensive end of the floor. He gets into the teeth of the defense. He gets by people. He gets to his spots. He's got a lot to learn, but I think the makeup and the mindset and his competitive spirit, you can see that every day.
“I think he really believes in his ability, but he also has got this humility that he wants to learn, and I think what he's mentioned about spending time with Cheeks is a perfect display of ‘Hey, I'm gonna gather as much information learning wise as I can.’”
Dosunmu, for his part, continues to concentrate on improving each day. Who better than Cheeks to steward him along the way?