SAN FRANCISCO - Literally across an entire country from Northern California, where the Bulls are currently licking their wounds from Monday night's shocking loss to Golden State, perhaps the most disturbing threat to the chances of Chicago returning to the NBA Finals (let alone a parade down Michigan Ave.) may have emerged Tuesday evening in South Florida: Norris Cole.
Yes, the season is still very young and it might be a stretch to anoint the rookie out of Cleveland State -- though Heat fans serenaded the diminutive point guard, technically the Bulls' original 2011 first-round draft pick, with chants of "M-V-P" -- the next big thing based on a single performance, but what Cole brings to the table can't be ignored. Already appearing to be a potential upgrade from incumbent starter Mario Chalmers, Cole's speed, athleticism, moxie, surprising maturity and maybe most importantly, ability to knock down jumpers, were the difference for the Heat in fending off the Celtics (after surrendering a huge lead) Tuesday.
With head coach Erik Spoelstra reportedly adopting elements of the University of Oregon football team's warp-speed offense, Cole -- along with rugged backup power forward Udonis Haslem -- is a perfect complement to agile, finesse big man Chris Bosh and those two monster athletes Miami has on the wing. In fact, both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James deferred to Cole late against Boston, and with no hesitation, the rookie took over ballhandling duties (matched up with the likes of defensive-minded All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo) and rained in outside jumpers, scoring 14 of his 20 points in a taut fourth quarter, fending off a furious Celtics comeback.
I first became aware of Norris the summer before his senior year at Cleveland State, when he came to Chicago for one of the Nike Skills Academies camps. While pitted against more-ballyhooed peers like Duke All-American Nolan Smith, the little-known prospect wowed the NBA scouts in attendance with his explosiveness and fearlessness, giving him some buzz heading into his final college campaign.
Cole took full advantage of the increased attention, winning Horizon League (the same conference of back-to-back national runner-up Butler, as well as Chicago's own Loyola and UIC) MVP honors and even getting a piece of the national spotlight after a ridiculous 41-point, 20-rebound, nine-assist performance in one game. Still, when draft day came around, some skeptics wondered if, after dominating mid-major competition, whether his lack of size would negate his effectiveness on the next level, if he could make the transition into a traditional point guard and could he consistently hit shots from NBA three-point range.
So far, Cole has answered all of the above and then some, and judging from his even-keeled demeanor down the stretch of his second professional game, justified the trust his star teammates showed they had in him. Now, the pecking order won't be reconfigured to put the rookie ahead of James and Wade or even Bosh, but all of a sudden, coupled with the addition of veteran Shane Battier, still one of the league's better "three-and-D" players, and the low-risk, high-reward Eddy Curry experiment, the Heat are quietly a lot more multi-faceted than a year ago.
And by the way, Bulls fans who read this and saw Cole's Tuesday-night outburst, don't be mad at the front office for not holding onto him. It's not like there's a lot of playing time behind Derrick Rose or a need at the position (maybe not in two seasons, but right now, for his role on the Bulls, C.J. Watson is better than any rookie point guard, including Cole and No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving) and privately, team management is absolutely ecstatic about skilled face-up power forward Nikola Mirotic, who is currently tearing up Spain's high-level ACB league and whom they believe can be an immediate-impact player and possible starter upon arrival in Chicago.
But Cole does affect the Bulls, assuming they have to tangle with the Heat in the playoffs again, in this way: Wade and James no longer have to be Miami's only primary ballhandler (Chalmers is more of a spot-up shooter and occasional slasher, though he's bigger than Cole) and their defense just got even faster, if a bit smaller. Not that Cole is prepared to take on the league's reigning MVP head on, but top Heat executive Pat Riley adding more ammunition -- people around the league weren't unaware of Cole, but with the lockout, no summer league and an abbreviated preseason, the former mid-major star remained an unproven commodity -- to already-loaded Miami is something that, even this early in the season, should have the Bulls' attention.