It wasn’t his first game at the United Center, but tonight, rookie guard Kendrick Nunn made his NBA debut in his home city of Chicago. And he made it count.
In front of 300 family members and friends — really, 300 — Nunn showed out, dropping 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting (3-of-8 from three) on the home court of the team he grew up revering.
“It means a lot,” Nunn said, on getting the opportunity to play in Chicago. “I grew up watching the Bulls… When D-Rose was here, that was one of my favorite times, when he was playing with the Bulls in his early years. The first four years, getting an MVP, watching that. Bringing that to Chicago was big, so I'm just happy to be here.”
Nunn and Rose share a connection beyond the television screen, as well. Both attended — and were highly touted at — Simeon High School, a program that has produced a litany of NBA players, including Jabari Parker, Nick Anderson and Bobby Simmons. Nunn, a four-star recruit coming out of high school, led Simeon to a 2012 Illinois Class 4A championship alongside Parker.
He then committed to the University of Illinois but was dismissed months after his junior season after being arrested on domestic battery charges in March 2016. His dismissal from the program was made official after pleading guilty to one misdemeanor domestic battery charge related to the incident.
“I’ve been through this countless times with the number of Chicago guys I’ve played,” Eric Spoelstra said, citing Dwayne Wade, specifically, as someone who had a special appreciation for the chance to return home.
“This is a business trip — it's only one quick day — and Kendrick understands that,” Spoelstra continued. “He's able to see some family and I know he's got everybody coming to the game tonight, and that's the great thing.”
“It's been great. Being able to come home, I don't get to see my family often,” Nunn said. “Made me feel good.”
But could that element of potential added pressure have pushed Nunn to try to do too much, especially early on?
“Not at all,” Nunn said after shootaround. “I'm pretty good at coming in the game and finding flow within the rhythm of the game and not trying to force anything.”
Things were certainly rhythmic and fluid for the Heat out of the gates Friday night. Nunn scored 10 of the team’s first 15 points, as Miami jumped out to a 15-0 lead on the Bulls just over four minutes into the first quarter.
That type of torrid stretch has become common for Nunn this season. He’s averaging 17.6 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game for the Heat and has supplanted long-tenured starting point guard Goran Dragic in their starting lineup.
“Tough guy, hard-nosed, Chicago-type basketball player,” teammate Jimmy Butler said. “We're so glad that we have him on our team because I wouldn't want to go up against him.”
Before the game, Nunn downplayed the impact playing in front of family and friends would have on his performance. But surely, after dropping 20+ and sparking a blowout victory in his hometown, no one would blame him for basking in the night.
Not so much.
“It was normal to me,” Nunn said. “When I play the game, I don't think about anyone in the stands or anything like that, I'm trying to win the game.”
For tonight, mission accomplished.
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The news that executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas had fired the beleaguered coach rang across the internet like a sonic boom. But now that the dust is beginning to settle, it’s time to shift the focus to what’s next.
Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley have offered only sparing public remarks since their hiring, but in them, they’ve emphasized the importance of building a player-first organization in Chicago. In announcing Boylen’s termination, Karnisovas hinted at the need for a “fresh approach.”
“In terms of what we’re going to be looking for, we’re going to continue focusing on player development and an emphasis on player development, someone who puts relationships with players first and is a good communicator,” Karnisovas said on a conference call Friday. “There are a lot of factors going on in terms of criteria that we’re looking for in a coach, but again, those are the main ones. We will start the search immediately.”
The unceremonious end to Atkinson’s tenure with the Brooklyn Nets reportedly came at least partly at the behest of star players at the team. He sported only a 118-190 record across nearly four seasons in Brooklyn.
But don’t let that fool you: His player-development reputation is sterling. Remember, Atkinson inherited a Nets team in 2016 completely bereft of draft capital and roster talent. It was an organization sucked dry by the infamous Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade of 2013 that cost them three first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018) and a pick-swap (2017), and ensuing front-office overhaul. Seriously, gander at their roster from his first season at the helm.
And still, over the course of his three full campaigns, the Nets’ record improved from 20-62 to 28-54 to 42-40. In 2019, the last of those seasons, Brooklyn snagged the No. 7 seed in the East and stole a game from the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. D’Angelo Russell, once cast aside by the team that drafted him, made an All-Star team. Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen were drafted in the latter part of the first round and developed under Atkinson’s watch. Spencer Dinwiddie, signed in 2016 after spending the first two years of his career meandering between the G League and the pros, represents another success.
The list goes on, but the bottom line: The Nets went from an unmitigated dumpster fire to a destination attractive enough to lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency from 2016 to 2019. Things went downhill from there, but the point stands: He’s a more-than-capable rebuild captain.
Moreover, Atkinson installed a similar 3-point and rim-attempt-heavy, midrange-eschewing offensive style to that of the Bulls when he arrived in Brooklyn. The Nets finished each of his three full seasons at the helm 29th, 22nd and 19th in offensive rating. They were 23rd when he and the team parted ways on March 7. And, it should be noted, he has a familiarity with current assistant Chris Fleming, who served under him in Brooklyn.
Son of the Hall-of-Fame Washington Bullets center, Wes Unseld Jr. is currently Michael Malone’s lead assistant with the Nuggets. He’s known for his defensive scheming — a feature written by DNVR’s Harrison Wind described him as the Nuggets’ “de facto defensive coordinator” — and last year drew an interview for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coaching spot before the team opted to roll with John Beilein.
Unseld Jr.’s roots are in scouting, and his career as an assistant coach has also featured stints with the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics, Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic. Since his hiring in 2015, the Nuggets’ defensive rating has ranked, in order: 25th, 29th, 23rd, 10th, and, in 2019-20, 16th. He’s contributed to Denver evolving into being serviceable, if not solid, on that end of the floor, with flashes of brilliance. (Also, for what it’s worth: According to Krishna Narsu/Second Spectrum, the Nuggets blitzed the pick-and-roll with the second-highest frequency in the NBA this season — the Bulls, of course, were first by a mile and built their identity around trapping the PnR and generating turnovers.)
In a Nuggets-sponsored video in 2016, Unseld Jr. described himself as having a “more even-keeled, laid back” personality, elaborated on the influence of growing up in an NBA family and touched on the importance of player relationships:
Ham enjoyed an eight-season NBA career that spanned stops in Denver, Indiana, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Detroit from 1996-2005, winning a title with the 2004 Pistons. He’s now Mike Budenholzer’s lead assistant with the Bucks. Ham also served on Budenholzer’s staff with the Hawks — he followed Bud when he left Atlanta — along with Taylor Jenkins, who broke out as a first-year coach with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019-20.
Not a bad coaching tree from which to sprout.
Before teaming up with Budenholzer, Ham coached the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the then-D-League and was an assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2011-2013.
And, on a lighter note: Ham is actually the namesake for the famed “Hammer” set, which was first designed by George Karl while helming the Bucks. Having played under Karl and Larry Brown, and coached under Budenholzer, Ham could bring an ex-player’s instinct and relatability with a keen and strategic coaching eye, to boot.
Silas is wrapping his second season as an assistant under Rick Carlisle with the Dallas Mavericks — and 19th season as an assist coach in total — after extended stints with the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors prior. He got his start as an assistant under his father, Paul Silas, with the Hornets (2000-03) and Cavaliers (2003-05), and also served as a scout with the Wizards.
That Stephen owns high-level NBA pedigree — Paul spent 48 years in the NBA between his playing and coaching career — and decades of assistant coaching experience is undeniably intriguing. Also notable on his resume is his wealth of international experience. Per the Mavericks’ biography for him:
In addition to his work with NBA teams, Silas coached at the 2003 and 2007 NBA Pre-Draft camps and the 2011 adidas EuroCamp in Treviso, Italy. Internationally, Silas has worked at camps and clinics across the globe to help promote the game of basketball and the NBA in locations including Germany, South Africa and South Korea.
That should certainly appeal to Karnisovas, whose international roots as a person, player, scout and NBA employee are well-documented.
Another defensive mind, Udoka is finishing his first year as an assistant on Brett Brown’s staff with the Philadelphia 76ers after a seven-year spell with the San Antonio Spurs. A Gregg Popovich disciple.
In terms of Udoka’s presumed philosophy: While Philly employs mostly drop coverage in pick-and-roll, Udoka isn’t afraid to mix in blitzing schemes, as well.
“That’s something we talk about, creating turnovers,” Udoka told NBC Sports Philadelphia, last offseason about his vision for the 76ers defense. “We want to up our physicality on the ball. That (blitzing) should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable.”
And in terms of results: Staffed with exceptional defensive personnel, the 76ers currently rank eighth in the NBA in defensive rating (108.9), ninth in steals per game (8.0) and 23rd in opponent turnovers per game (13.8).
Udoka also had a transient playing career from 2000-2012 that featured international stops in Argentina, France and Spain, and NBA stints with the Lakers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Spurs and Sacramento Kings. Similar to many on this list, his relationship-building skills have been praised.
For the time being, it appears Bulls assistant coaches Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers will remain in place with the team in the wake of Jim Boylen’s firing.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report the news, where he added they’ll “continue working with players at (the) team facility.” Fleming and Rogers were hired last offseason as part of a Boylen-constructed staff, and are exiting the first of respective three-year contracts.
Though excluded from the NBA restart, select members of the Bulls have been in and out of Chicago for voluntary, individual workouts.
Fleming came aboard after a three-year stint (2016-2019) as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets. There, he worked under Kenny Atkinson, whom NBC Sports Chicago has reported is an initial candidate in the Bulls' impending coaching search. Before that, Fleming was an assistant with the Denver Nuggets for the 2015-16 season, Arturas Karnisovas’ third year as assistant general manager with the organization.
The status of assistants on staff, though, could always change as the Bulls’ coaching search develops, especially if the team hires an outside candidate that wants to bring in his or her own unit.