With an unprecedented Bulls offseason pushing through voluntary group workouts, and a new head coach in tow, Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley’s on-record comments are growing by the week.
As such, some through-lines are beginning to emerge. Chief among them: In the new regime’s view, this Bulls roster consists of too many talented pieces to be mired in as bleak a three-season stretch as they currently find themselves.
“I like a lot of the players on this roster. I think if we put together an efficient, effective player development program, I think you will see a quick turnaround in terms of the output that this players give,” general manager Marc Eversley said in a Wednesday Zoom call with reporters from the downtown hotel that, along with the Advocate Center, comprises the campus in which the Bulls are conducting their workout schedule.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be immediate, but they’re going to grow. We do have assets going forward in terms of the flexibility a year from now. Again, if we can grow these players internally I think we are going to see success on the court. This team is better than a 22-win team, the talent is.”
That echoes this Karnišovas bite from Billy Donovan’s introductory press conference: “When we sat down and we talked about the roster, I thought that this roster is too talented to be what they showed the last two years.”
And that’s all great. The natural follow-up is getting to the bottom of what that “efficient, effective player development program” will look like in practice.
Some through-lines are emerging there too. For one, Eversley and Karnišovas both evidently see Donovan as a pillar. So, too, is the ancillary shuffling taking hold across the front office — from bringing in Pat Connelly as vice president of player personnel and J.J. Polk as assistant general manager, to the recently-announced hire of Tom Campbell as the team’s new head athletic trainer.
“One of the things that obviously stands out is [the Bulls] have been ravaged by injuries over the past couple of years,” Eversley said. “It’s one of our focal points going forward is actually identifying what are some of the things that they were doing prior? What are they doing now? And what can we do going forward to help predict some of those injuries going forward?”
The offseason workouts currently transpiring, which represent many players’ first group basketball activities in over six months, are important too — both on and off the floor.
On the court, the workouts represent a chance for players to rebuild their stamina and stretch out physical and mental muscles not flexed in some time. Eversley noted a marked increase in the level of play in the last three or four days of camp as players “get their wind.”
Risk prevention factors in there as well.
“Going into the (second) bubble, one of the things that was a focal point for us was making sure that we don’t put our players in harm’s way in terms of kind of just throwing them out there. And the performance staff has done a really great job about monitoring loads and levels and output,” Eversley said. “We’ve seen the results of that already. The first couple of days in the (second) bubble, quite honestly, the basketball was sloppy.
“I mean, it was great to see them out there. But the last three or four days, the basketball has really risen to a nice level. And I think the health and wellness of our players will continue to be a focus for us and making sure that we are continuing to put them in a proper environment to succeed.”
Off the court, the Bulls’ bubble has provided an opportunity for Karnišovas and Eversley to make good on their promise to cultivate strong relationships up and down the roster. From boat tours to ping pong tournaments to pseudo-award ceremonies, they’re pulling out all the stops in that department.
In fact, as Eversley spoke to the media Wednesday, the team was fresh off a golf outing.
“Obviously the bubble provides us with an opportunity to get to know these guys off the court, not only on the court. We literally just got back to the hotel from a golf outing. I was able to play golf with AK, Thad (Young) and Zach (LaVine) were in my group. And they were all cheating, by the way,” Eversley chided. “But it was great. This environment has been great for us.
“Whether we're at the hotel playing ping pong or air hockey or we have a golf simulator downstairs, we have a dart board, guys get to sit around and just get to hang out in a different environment and let loose a little bit. It's been a tremendous experience for our players, our staff and our coaches.”
All of the above, in the new regime’s view, is integral to the team-building — and, crucially for the Bulls, team-maximizing — process.
“I think if you invest in people away from the court, I think you get a better opportunity to get to know them better. I think you show a different level of care and trust,” Eversley said. “I want our players to understand that it’s not just about basketball. It’s about life. Especially in these times, I think it’s really important to invest in your people away from the court.
“That’s always worked for me every step of the way. I just think it’s a really, really important thing to do. And I think it shows a different level of care. Ultimately, gaining people’s trust is what you want.”
So it’s good, then, that attendance for the workouts has been strong. Eversley confirmed Wednesday that all Bulls currently under contract (plus Shaq Harrison and Denzel Valentine) are in attendance, and, on the injury front, Max Strus is the only player not characterized as a full participant in practices.
Eversley also said Otto Porter Jr. is getting back to his “sleeker” self from the forward’s Washington Wizards days, a version of Porter which Eversley is familiar with, having served as the Wizards’ vice president of scouring during Porter’s first three years there.
“Physically, he looks great. He's been a full participant in the camp thus far,” Eversley said of Porter. “I think last year when he came in, he was really bulky and heavy and that may have contributed to some of the injuries he suffered… (In Washington,) I thought even though he's not a high-level athlete, he moved a lot better. I think he's getting back to that in terms of how he looked and how he's been moving.”
Kris Dunn, though, is not in attendance. Eversley said Dunn is currently “on the road” continuing to rehab the MCL sprain that ended his 2019-20 season after 51 games on his own, a decision Eversley said the Bulls fully support. Conversations related to Dunn’s future with the team, according to Eversley, haven’t yet been conducted. Dunn can enter restricted or unrestricted free agency this offseason depending on if the Bulls extend a qualifying offer valued at $7.1 million as of most recent projections.
But such decisions are for a later date. For now, the Bulls’ focus remains on the completion of workouts.
“We're halfway through and I think the first seven days have been great,” Eversley said. “The feedback we've gotten from our players has been incredibly positive. I feel like they've gotten better over the course of the first seven days and I anticipate that that's gonna happen going forward.”