Robin Lopez hasn’t exactly had a season to remember in Year 3 with the Bulls. The longest tenured player on the rebuilding Bulls, Lopez has seen his starting spot relinquished during the preseason, he’s been a healthy scratch in half of the team’s 14 games and has struggled in the extended minutes he’s seen this past week.
But Lopez, ever the professional and positive presence in the locker room – with his framed Britney Spears picture still in view – is still having an impact. Specifically, the mentoring he’s given rookie Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the reasons the Bulls’ seventh overall pick has been able to succeed so early in his NBA career.
“Robin’s great for this young group of guys. He’s played already a couple different roles,” Fred Hoiberg said. “And any time you can show the guys the right way to approach that, be professional about it and still be a mentor throughout the tough times, it’s a great example. He’s a great role model for our young players.
“He’s really taken Wendell under his wing. You look at what Cris and Bobby did in their first couple years in the league. He had those same impact on those guys.”
When Lopez arrived in Chicago via the Derrick Rose trade, the Bulls were still competing. He started 81 games in 2016-17, averaging 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 28.0 minutes, the most he had played since his first season in Portland.
But Lopez became a victim of the Bulls tank last season, starting 64 games but sitting 18 of the final 26 contests. Lopez only played in eight of those games as a result of the NBA stepping in and asking the Bulls to play their veterans – Lopez and Justin Holiday – more. Lopez averaged just 16.9 minutes in those games.
Lopez began the year as the starter but Carter quickly established himself as the foundation of the defense while also showing off an offensive skill set that complemented the backcourt.
Through the demotion and healthy scratches Lopez has taken on a mentor role, not dissimilar to the one fellow veterans took on for him in his early seasons as a pro in New Orleans.
“I’ve been really fortunate in the league,” Lopez said. “I’ve had a lot of great veterans myself, but even if I hadn’t I have a great joy playing with these guys, being around these guys. We have a great group of guys, a great group of teammates. I’d be a huge jackass if I weren’t to do that, you know?’’
Since rejoining the rotation in New York, Lopez has averaged a paltry 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 17.2 minutes. He has blocked five shots, including a pivotal one in the final seconds of regulation against the Knicks. He’s been an abled body off the bench to spell Carter – or eat minutes if the rookie is in foul trouble – or a more viable option for Felicio, who has struggled in his own right.
The on-court production is what it is, but Lopez’s teaching role has mattered more to a Bulls team sitting at 4-9 while they await the return of four rotation players.
“Coming out of a timeout or when guys come over, whether we’re going through a good stretch or a bad one, he’s always the first one to go up to Wendell and talk to him about things that he sees on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “He just has such a great feel for doing the right thing out there.”
It’s a role he’ll play for as long as he’s with the Bulls. When Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis return the Bulls’ frontcourt minutes will be swallowed up, and odds are the Bulls will want to continue trying out Felicio based solely on the money the Bulls owe him the next two-plus seasons. Lopez, a free agent at season’s end, likely hasn’t done enough to fetch anything considerable in a trade and doesn’t offer much as an expiring contract.
But that won’t stop him from continuing to compete, push the younger players in practice and attempt to create a winning culture in Chicago.
"Everybody here, we’re competitive guys,” he said. “We want that to be us. Wherever I am I want us to be winning, I’m a competitive player. You see me on the floor getting technicals and generally shouting at the refs, but occasionally other people too. I’m a competitive guy. I want to be winning wherever I am.’’