It’s the most popular buzz-term in Chicago in a year flush with fresh hires and popular platitudes: Player development.
Six months ago, the Bulls finished their second straight 22-win season. What went wrong? Injuries, moribund offense, poor late-game execution — and, of course, regression or stagnation from key pieces across the board.
So it’s been no surprise to hear new executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas parrot that term — “player development” — as the greatest area of need facing the Bulls entering what is hopefully a new era.
“The biggest attention that we will have to pay attention to is player development,” Karnišovas said in head coach Billy Donovan’s introductory press conference Thursday. “We have to develop our own players. They have to get better in order for us to succeed.”
And it’s true. Before cap space, or high draft picks, or the Bulls’ big-market resources matter anywhere outside of a video game, the organization has to display the ability to elevate the guys in its building. That’s how cultures shift. How leaguewide reputations flip on their heads.
Karnišovas believes he’s got just the person to spearhead such an operation. And though the cold, hard results of the Donovan era remain to be seen, his respect for the intricacies of the player development process bodes well.
Donovan has proven throughout his career that, for him, player development is more than a buzz-term. It's a procedure, not a hope and prayer. It can be mapped and planned. Prepared for and executed.
Allow him to break it down.
“The first thing I’ll do is watch a lot of film,” he said when asked his philosophy on player development at his introductory press conference. “I think being in the league for five years, even though we’re playing in the West, you’re playing Chicago twice so you have a feel for some of those guys.”
That homework, though, is only a fraction of the battle.
“One of the things I’ve always felt like is important when you’re building out different things offensively is I think you’ve got to spend time with players to let me hear from them: How do they want to be used?” Donovan continued. “How do they feel like they’re most effective? What are things they feel most comfortable doing? How can you take advantage of their skill set and their offense? And I think you go through that with the players and talking to them and getting their opinions and their thoughts. And then you build out from there of how you want to play.”
Donovan has seen the benefits of that collaborative approach from both sides. His basketball career changed forever when Rick Pitino — who he called “the greatest player development coach in the world” — took over Providence in 1985, between Donovan’s second and third seasons there.
After averaging 2.3 and 3.2 points per game in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, respectively, Donovan exploded to make All-Big East teams in each of his final two collegiate seasons. In his senior year, he averaged 20.6 points, 7.1 assists and 2.4 steals per night, led Providence to a Final Four, and shortly thereafter was drafted into the NBA in the third round by the Utah Jazz.
“What he ended up doing for my career and the time and investment he made really was extremely profound,” Donovan said of his time playing and coaching (at the University of Kentucky) under Pitino.
“It’s two-fold,” he said of player development. “Yes, it’s talking to the players. Yes, it’s trying to put them in situations. But you’ve got to get them on the court. They’ve got to work to get better. They’ve got to work and embrace their role. They’ve got to obviously study film. It’s a pretty extensive thing.”
Even casting aside the NBA prospect pipeline Donovan built and helmed for nearly two decades at the University of Florida, a glance at Donovan-coached Thunder teams confirms substance embedded within his overarching philosophy.
Most recently: After introducing nine new players into the fold between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Donovan adapted Oklahoma City’s entire system of play — tempering the team’s pace and 3-point attempts, and ratcheting up isolation, pick-and-roll and midrange jumpers.
Why? Such a style benefited his three best players, Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder. In return, all three — established, ball-dominant, “get-in-the-paint” (as Donovan put it) lead guards — sacrificed.
And prospered. Paul revitalized his career in 2019-20, making second-team All-NBA one season after the Houston Rockets attached twin first-round picks to get out from under the remaining three years of his hefty contract. Schröder was a Sixth Man of the Year finalist. Gilgeous-Alexander appears one of the brightest young guards in the league. A team that ESPN pegged with a 0.2 percent chance of making the playoffs entering the season played to a 50-win pace, nabbed the No. 5 seed in a contentious Western Conference and rode the Rockets to the final possession of a Game 7 in the first round. In an illustrious coaching career, it might have been Donovan’s finest work.
None of the above is lost on Karnišovas.
“I think it's one of the most impressive jobs he did was last year (with the Thunder),” Karnišovas said. “His ability to adapt, to adjust, to change things, based on his roster and what he has was really impressive, regardless the turnover.”
Nor the best player on Donovan's new team.
“That’s big. That makes me extremely happy,” Zach LaVine said on a conference call with reporters when asked about Donovan’s reputation for seeking and implementing player feedback into his gameplans. “As a player, if you don’t know your strengths and weaknesses, it’s going to be hard for a coach to tell you and put you in a position to be successful. Being straight up and honest and allowing the players to voice their opinion on what they think their strengths and weaknesses are, I think can be really good.”
With all that said, projecting any set style of play onto the new-look, 2021 Bulls will probably have to wait. Until Donovan has the chance to truly and intimately become acquainted with his new team, and the players that populate it, doing so would be guesswork. Even for Donovan.
“Certainly offensively, I’d want to talk to those guys about where they think they’re at their best, where they think they can be most productive and effective. And then you partner with them and you work with them and you build out something where there’s going to be a level of sacrifice by every player,” Donovan said. “Every player is not going to have the chance to do everything that they want to do. But how do you mesh all of those guys together to get the whole to be better than the sum of the parts as a team? That would be my philosophy going forward.
“But that would take a lot of time on my part to watch film and to spend time with the players.”
Whatever he lands on, his commitment, along with Karnisovas, Eversley and seemingly all of the Bulls’ new hires, is to create a “player-first program,” in Donovan’s words. Relationships go into that. Communication goes into that. Respect goes into that.
As does buy-in, and confidence, from players. Empowering players in the team-building process can go a long way towards deepening their investment.
“I’ve always felt like the sign of a great player is a player who makes everyone around them better,” Donovan said. “When they’re playing their role and they’re making the group better, I think they have a chance to continue to blossom and grow and improve through that.”
Hold that against Karnišovas’ reasons for “relentlessly” pursuing Donovan in the first place, and it’s evident why both of them fawned over a potential hand-in-hand partnership to build the Bulls back to prominence.
“In all of my conversations and my personal meetings with Billy two things stood out,” Karnišovas said, “first, he’s a great communicator and values his relationships with others. And second, he has the ability to inspire enthusiasm in others to strive for a common goal.”
If the Bulls’ turnaround sparks next season, bank on those qualities being at the core of why.