Brad Underwood remembers the night well.
On Dec. 5, 2018, Illinois had just dropped to 2-7 with a neutral-site loss to 19th-ranked Ohio State at the United Center. Making matters worse, promising freshman Ayo Dosunmu looked lost and out of sorts, scoring 5 points on 1-for-9 shooting.
“He might've set a missed record for the most missed layups,” Underwood recalled in a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And you looked out there and Ayo had elbow pads on, knee pads, thigh pads, shin pads, tailbone pads. He was just a frail young guy. He struggled. He went through some tough moments.”
But Underwood, who coached Dosunmu for three seasons at Illinois, also remembers what happened next. A few weeks later, the calendar flipped, and the Morgan Park High School product followed suit, averaging 15 points on 45.1 percent field-goal shooting in the season’s final 20 games.
“After that, you find out — some kids quit, some mope around — Ayo just got back in the gym and said ‘I'm getting better,’” Underwood said. “All of a sudden here we go, second semester, and we've got a completely different guy.
"We knew he was a really good player. But really good players have to go through some adversity to make it. And Ayo just tackled that head on.”
Now — months after his hometown Chicago Bulls “got the steal of the (2021) draft,” in Underwood’s words, by selecting Dosunmu 38th — the 21-year-old is tackling his transition to the professional level with similar gusto. Less than 10 games into his rookie season, Dosunmu has cracked Billy Donovan’s nine-man rotation, providing hard-nosed defense and timely shotmaking for the now 6-2 squad.
“It's special,” Underwood said. “It's nice to have one of your former players doing great and starting to achieve and starting to grow and get better... In Ayo's case, you couldn't ask for a better situation."
In turn, every Bulls broadcast has become not just appointment viewing (Underwood says he’s watched at least segments of every game), but a celebration. And every break in the action a chance to recount the young guard’s exploits in text chains with Illinois players, fellow coaches, and even Dosunmu’s family.
“I spend as much time texting through his moments as I do everything else,” Underwood chided. “I do it as a proud coach, because he was fun to coach, and I'm glad he's growing every day. He’s a special young guy.”
Not that any of this comes as a surprise to those who know Dosunmu. The foundation for the effusive praise Donovan and teammates, from DeMar DeRozan to Zach LaVine to Alex Caruso, have heaped on the rookie has been laid for years.
Throughout his collegiate career, Underwood said, Dosunmu was a voracious listener and tireless worker with an endless vault of questions, just as he’s been in the pros. While at Illinois, it got to the point Underwood remembers receiving regular after-hours texts from Dosunmu while watching NBA games, picking his coach’s brain on how the Illini might defend certain offensive sets.
“It was always a very, very professional relationship and approach from Ayo. He always wanted more information,” Underwood said. “I think he gains confidence from his ability to work. He puts in the time, and he wants to be pushed and challenged. You tell Ayo he can't do something, watch out. Because it won't be long until he's doing something.”
Look no further than Dosunmu’s development since Summer League as evidence. Ask Dosunmu, and he calls himself a “completely different player” than he was in August. From afar, Underwood sees a player whose confidence and comfort is swelling, particularly at the defensive end, as he adjusts to a new environment.
“He's a young man that when he gains confidence, he goes to a whole other level,” Underwood said. "And there's still a lot more for him to go."
Underwood and Dosunmu agree that at least some of that confidence, which Donovan also has applauded, derives from his three years of college experience, a rarity in an era where one-and-dones reign.
“I do give credit [to] Illinois, Coach Underwood, the whole coaching staff that was there with me. When you there at the level that we were playing at, you learn a lot of things,” Dosunmu said. “I definitely can see how some one-and-dones can get lost, because when you coming into the [NBA], they’re (NBA coaches) really not reiterating stuff you should (already) know.
“Me doing three years at Illinois, coming into the league, a lot of the stuff that we did in (Bulls) training camp, and a lot of stuff that we do defensively, it was able for me to translate faster because I was used to that at Illinois. With that, my experience and then me asking a lot of the vets questions, mixing that together, it was definitely a recipe for success.”
“The fact that Ayo gained 30 pounds. The fact that his game got better. The fact that we played the same defense the Bulls do in those drop coverages and he had to get over screens for three years and learn how to be a bulldog and a pitbull,” Underwood added when asked about the benefits of Dosunmu’s three seasons at Illinois.
“There's nothing Ayo hasn't seen, so now there's an understanding that comes with that. His understanding of the game is so much better. High school kids have no idea what they're doing. Just to understand basic principles and concepts and be in a weight room for three years and learn how to take care of your body and learn how to recover. There's a maturity that goes with all that. Ayo's a pro when it comes to that stuff.”
While Dosunmu’s averages of 4.3 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists through seven appearances might not jump off the screen, they also don’t tell the full story. With defensive tenacity, especially navigating screens, and unflinching role acceptance, he’s earned Donovan’s trust, just as he did Underwood’s in the second semester of his freshman year.
There’s also a quality, more intrinsic than learned, to Dosunmu about which anyone you ask will harp: His fearlessness. That manifested with countless crunch-time heroics at Illinois. And it’s already manifested on multiple occasions with the Bulls — from him closing out the Cavaliers in the preseason with multiple game-icing buckets, to vaulting Chicago ahead of the Celtics with a 3-pointer amid a 19-point second half comeback on Monday.
“That's a term (fearless) that gets thrown out for too many people. And in reality it's something that very few have,” Underwood said. “Lot of people throw on their mantra of 'I'm a tough guy and I'm fearless and this and that.' And when it comes to the moment, they can't produce. They run from it. And Ayo is anything but that.
“Ayo is probably as unafraid of consequences, a moment, he's so well-centered that he understands, 'You know what, I might miss that shot. But I'm OK. I know how to handle that.' But I think he understands the complexity of the situation (so) that he doesn't fail in those moments. He's just unique that way.”
Of the aforementioned 3-pointer in Boston, which came as part of a career-best 14-point outing on 6-for-6 shooting, Underwood added: “That's who he is. That's Dos. That's Ayo Dos. That's who we knew. That's the young guy we know. Down two (points), get a wide open 3. There was no doubt it was going in! Seen it before. He's just got an ability to rise mentally and make those plays. You can keep coming at him and coming at him, and he's gonna stand there every time and meet that challenge.”
Before Illinois’ season enters full swing later this month, Underwood is planning a trip to see Dosunmu live, at the United Center once again, Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers. As someone “very special” both to him and the University of Illinois, Underwood says they’ll stay in touch.
So when the Chicago faithful rise and fervently cheer upon Dosunmu’s first entry into the game, which has become custom, expect his old coach to lead the charge.
“He loves the city. He loves the state,” Underwood said. “That was a big piece of his belief in us (during the recruiting process), when we were struggling and trying to get this corner turned. And now, to reach a dream and be playing for your hometown NBA team is pretty darn cool.”
Needless to say, Bulls fans agree.