Billy Donovan must feel like he’s coaching through quicksand. For every day of learning the Bulls’ roster, a day answering questions about players’ ambiguous availability. For every rotation experiment, a spontaneous absence. Or four.
Nevertheless, the show goes on. And it went on without a hitch on Thursday, thanks in no small part to the exploits of a new-look bench squadron prominently featuring Thad Young and Daniel Gafford. With Otto Porter Jr. vaulting to Markkanen’s place with the starting unit, those two, plus Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine, combined for 41 points on 62.1 percent shooting against Washington.
“I give those guys a lot of credit. Those guys are good enough to start, but they've been total team guys,” Donovan said of the Bulls reserves. “When you bring those guys in and they keep themselves ready and focused and know what they have to do, when you can generate that kind of offense from the bench with those guys it certainly helps.”
Gafford was his hyper-energetic self, affecting plays with his length and activity on the defensive end, and rattling rims on the other. He finished the night with 15 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block, shooting an uber-efficient 7-for-8 from the field and registering a game-high +23 plus-minus.
He was integral to stymying a mid-second-quarter 10-0 run Wizards run, which featured four Bulls turnovers and threatened their grasp on the game. He made a similar impact in the third, when the Bulls countered a 10-2 Wizards sprint out of the half by outscoring the hosts 34-22 in the final nine minutes of the period.
“We’ve come a long way from the first three games that we played. We learned lessons on how to handle adversity. There were times in those games we played and in the beginning when we lost that were times like, we just gave up basically. We mentally were checked out. We weren’t doing the things that we were doing in the games that we won,” Gafford said. “Adversity was a big thing with us.”
Donovan agreed Thursday was a step in the right direction in that department.
And how about a dash of personal adversity for good measure? Gafford’s outing came just as his grasp on a rotation spot was appearing to slip with Donovan’s successful staggering of Lauri Markkanen as the team’s functional backup center to Carter. Gafford didn’t see the floor in the last-second loss to Golden State Sunday, and logged just six minutes in the first Wizards win Tuesday.
“Just being patient, being professional. Sometimes you’re not going to be able to get what you want when it comes to playing time and certain things like that,” Gafford said. “But guys on the bench came through and we did what we had to do. We came out. We stayed ready. We came out and played the ball that we always play.”
“I really appreciate him keeping himself ready, being professional as a young player,” Donovan said of Gafford. “I thought he was a presence, defensively, at the rim and I thought he was a presence offensively on finishes.”
Young, meanwhile, made his 2020-21 debut -- both pre- and regular-season -- Thursday after battling a serious leg infection for nearly three weeks. He said afterwards that he played with only one 5-on-5 session under his belt in the last month, but he hardly looked it, logging 15 points, six assists and two steals in 27 minutes.
“I’m prepared for anything. For me, it’s just going out there and playing basketball. It’s a game that I love. And I play with a passion, so I’m one of those guys that’s going to always stay ready no matter what,” Young said.
Indeed, Young has been doing this a while. 14 years to be exact -- for teams good and bad, in roles stable and oscillatory.
But he even surprised himself with that final line, and his ability to effectively close the tightly-contested fourth quarter stretch run at the small-ball center spot.
“I was actually shocked myself that my rhythm and timing was still there,” he cracked, later heaping praise on the Bulls' strength coaches for helping round him quickly into game shape.
Donovan was a bit floored by Young's play as well. Sort of.
“I guess surprised and not surprised,” he said. “Probably more marvel at the fact that he (Young) hasn’t really been able to do anything in training camp. And you see him work out when he gets cleared to slowly get back to playing, it’s amazing to me at his age how quickly he can bounce back and get himself in shape. His toughness and endurance is really impressive. There are certain guys who when they get tired, they have a great ability to push through fatigue. He has that ability…
“He has a very, very unique game. Those little push shots and floaters and lefty flips, he’s kind of off-balance but has a great touch around the rim. And he’s a really good passer. I thought he made some great passes to Gaff and Wendell. It was great having him as a playmaker. We can find him in the pocket and he can play in the middle of the floor.”
Even missing Tomáš Satoranský, that veteran presence alongside Temple and Porter can still be a boon for these young Bulls.
“We take a lot of pride. Garrett and Thad, they’re both vets. They’re both seasoned vets. Denzel, he just comes in and he plays his game. Me and all the other guys that are on the bench, we just come in and do what we need to do,” Gafford said. “We stay locked in. We stay ready. When it comes to us stepping up to the plate and being able to play like we did tonight, it’s a real big thing for the team.”
That point becomes especially essential given that the length of Satoranský, Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison’s absences all remain up in the air. Donovan confirmed that none of them would travel to Milwaukee for Friday’s bout with the Bucks. There isn’t much clarity past then.
Bolstered by Donovan’s button-pushing, the Bulls will look to continue handling business in the meantime.
“We got a lot potential. We just got to stay locked in. We can give ourselves a pat on the back for this win, but we got to stay locked in because we got another one tomorrow,” Gafford said. “We came in and we had business trip, and we came out 2-0.”
Reality soon calls in the form of the Bucks.