A reserve role suits Bobby Portis so much that his already-wide eyes got bigger when the prospect of entering a season with a defined role was broached following the Bulls’ first practice.
Wide eyes like when he pops off the bench nearing the halfway point of the first quarter. Wide eyes like when he knows shots are coming his way, and this year, those eyes are aiming for a Sixth Man of the Year award.
“It feels good,” Portis said, almost cutting off the query because he was so excited at the notion.
“It kind of made my summer easier. I knew I wasn’t fighting for a starting spot. I knew I wasn’t fighting for minutes. I just worked on my game the most I could and worked on that role.”
The start to his season was marred by his incident with Nikola Mirotic but that’s only the first line in Portis’ story as he developed and matured on the floor into a dependable contributor after languishing behind the likes of Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Mirotic his first two seasons.
So pardon him if he cuts off a question to express his joy—he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder for the first time in a long time.
“Last year they said it was make or break for me,” Portis said. “Every year I guess is make or break. I’m having fun, enjoying my teammates, trying to be more of a leader this year, lead by example. Do all the little things.”
His 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds look fine, but even on a lottery team that wasn’t focused on winning Portis established himself as a core piece and a trophy of sorts for the front office as a mark for their player development program.
He went from a power forward who wasn’t athletic enough to a matchup nightmare as a backup center, coming off the bench to launch from any and everywhere, hitting 80 3-pointers at a 36 percent clip.
“I get to come off the bench and score a lot. Who doesn’t like to score the ball? That’s a fun gig,” Portis said. “Coach has trust in me to shoot the shots I want to shoot. It’s a fun gig to have.”
With Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker and Lauri Markkanen expected to have main roles as scorers, one has to wonder if Portis will be as needed offensively—and if he isn’t, the team-first approach will be put to the test.
But this is also someone who volunteered to go to the bench last year when he saw he wasn’t quite a great fit in the first five shortly after the All-Star break.
“We were experimenting with some different lineups,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “And after I think it was after the third game he started and he came and said ‘Coach, can you put me off the bench again?’ You don’t hear that very often at this level.”
That consistency, and Portis’ overall demeanor that can possibly play a big part in this faceless team developing a true identity has led to Portis and the front office entering into discussions about a contract extension before he reaches restricted free agency.
The Bulls have until Oct. 15 to get a deal done with Portis, a prospect very much out of his hands. But the goal of being a sixth man is something very much in his hands, and should he become a top candidate it would surely mean the Bulls are in a better position than most expect.
Just in this decade alone, every award winner has played for a playoff team save for Lou Williams last season for the 42-40 L.A. Clippers.
“I really like that role,” Portis said. “I look at other guys around the league---Eric Gordon, Lou Will, guys like that. They come in and change the game. I feel I can do that for this club. It’s fun doing that.”