The early reviews are in and it’s clear Bulls players are loving the new approach of Fred Hoiberg and his staff. Ask just about anyone on the roster, and they’ll rave about Hoiberg’s calm demeanor and communication skills. Hoiberg encourages his players to take good shots and play hard. Mistakes don’t mean an instant hook. Players are able to execute with a sense of freedom on the offensive end, which is a sharp contrast from the way things were under Tom Thibodeau, who wanted to call a play just about every trip down the court.
Here are a few other things I’ve noticed from the first week and a half of training camp:
1. Jimmy Butler wants to take another big step in his career.
The fifth year pro talked openly on Media Day about how becoming a vocal leader was the logical next step in his development. Butler says the Bulls need someone who can pull teammates together when things aren’t going well, and since Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol are quiet by nature, he has to be the guy to take that role. Butler showed that leadership in Tuesday's preseason opener against the Bucks, attacking the basket in his 25 minutes on the court, by scoring 23 points and dishing out six assists. Butler joked about wanting to play some point guard this season, and with Rose and Kirk Hinrich sidelined, it was the 6-foot-7 Butler who was penetrating and dishing to open shooters. It’s apparent Butler isn’t going to wait around to see whether Rose will make it through a full season. The Bulls are Butler’s team now, and he plans to show the rest of the league he’s one of the Top 10 players in the NBA.
2. Pau Gasol has found the fountain of youth
The Bulls plan to give their 35-year-old center plenty of rest in the preseason, and why not? Gasol showed this summer that he’s still one of the elite big men in the game. Gasol basically carried Spain to a 2015 EuroBasket title and a spot in next summer’s Olympics, by scoring 40 points in a semifinal win over France, then coming back with 25 points and 12 rebounds in the title game. Gasol has added the three-point shot to his arsenal, which will make him even more dangerous in Hoiberg’s offense. And, even though Pau’s numbers are likely to go down slightly in fewer minutes during the regular season, he should be healthier for the most important games in April, May, and hopefully, June.
3. Hope you enjoy the three-pointer.
We knew coming into the season that Hoiberg was a big proponent of the three-point shot. After all, he did lead the league in three-point field goal percentage in his final year in the NBA. But to watch the Bulls launch 39 threes in the preseason opener still came as a bit of a shock, especially since Thibodeau considered a reliance on shots from beyond the arc “Fool’s Gold.” Everyone on the roster has the green light to launch the three, and the hope is, if the Bulls can shoot around 35 percent from beyond the arc, it will open up driving lanes for Butler, Rose and the rest of the team’s wing players. Golden State used a fast-paced, three-point heavy offense to win an NBA championship last season under former Bull Steve Kerr, and Hoiberg met with Kerr this summer to discuss the best ways to implement his system.
4. Doug McDermott could play a big role.
Let’s be honest, McDermott’s rookie season is one he’d like to forget. Thibodeau doesn’t have much use for rookies in general, and when McDermott got off to a slow start, then suffered a minor knee injury, he was relegated to the bench the rest of the season. But now, playing for another Ames, Iowa high school star, McDermott will be called on for instant offense off the bench and could put up 12-15 shots per game. Tuesday’s preseason opener tells the story of how the change in coaches will affect McDermott. He missed all of his shots from the field in the first half, but Hoiberg still went back to him early in the third quarter, and the former NCAA scoring champion responded with 23 second half points, including five three-pointers.
5. Bobby Portis could be another late first-round steal.
Because the Bulls are so deep in the front court, the SEC Player of the Year might have a tough time cracking the rotation this season, but he’s already shown he’s a versatile 6-foot-11 athlete who plays with a mean streak. Portis isn’t afraid to challenge established players under the basket, and he showed his quickness with a couple of steals. The rookie could be called on to play the center position in some small ball lineups, and with Joakim Noah in the final year of his contract, Portis’ role figures to expand in years to come.
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6. Depth could be this team's greatest strength.
Remember back in Thibodeau’s first season, when the Bulls won 62 games led by Rose, Luol Deng and the “Bench Mob”, featuring Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer? Injuries and salary cap considerations robbed the Bulls of that quality depth in succeeding years, but now John Paxson and Gar Forman have put together a roster that has at least 12 rotation-caliber players. Hoiberg wants to play fast, which means playing aggressive defense and controlling the glass. Look for the Bulls to take advantage of their depth, with Nikola Mirotic, Gibson, McDermott and Portis contributing up front, and Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks, Hinrich and E’Twaun Moore providing relief in the backcourt. Yes, Cleveland has the three superstars and the best starting lineup in the East, but if Hoiberg can maximize the use of his deep roster, we could be in for one heck of a battle come playoff time.