Bobby Portis has this ritual before games. He pretty much knows he’s not going to play, because, well, he rarely does, just in 35 of the team’s 53 games, 18 DNPs by coach decision, once more than 10 minutes in the last three weeks. But you never give up hope because he knows and believes his time will come. And he intends to be ready.
“Before every game I psych myself up like I am going to play,” Portis was saying Thursday after Bulls practice. “I’m over there waiting for Fred to call my name. I’m always imagining he is going to say my name, say, ‘BP come on.’ So I psych myself for every game and get high for every game, and even though I know I am not going to play, I still try to stay ready because in the NBA anything can happen and you never know when you are going to get in.”
It’s not a horrible life, for sure, for Bobby Portis, making a lot of money, living the NBA lifestyle, which is really good these days, really, really good. But it’s much, much better when you are doing what got you there, what you so much love to do that you always thought you’d do it anytime for free. And, OK, there’s the glamorous hotels and cities and new experiences and people, but it still all starts with the game.
And it’s no fun when you have everything but the game.
So you retain hope and belief, and you leaven that with the work that someday you are confident will enable you to rise to the levels and secure the dreams you’ve had for a lifetime.
“I feel I had a great summer league and felt I did everything possible for me to play, and then I came back to camp and was competing with guys for the starting position,” Portis noted. “They said I was competing with Taj and Niko for playing time. I don’t feel like I got beat. I feel like I was the younger guy at the time and I have to trust that and I feel like with basketball it always gets greater later.”
The Bulls aren’t discussing great of late.
They’re trying again to get back to .500 Friday in Phoenix, which happens to be Portis’ 22nd birthday. We forget how much of a kid he still is.
Jimmy Butler seems like he’ll return from three games missed with a heel injury.
“I hope I’m ready to go,” Butler said after an intense team practice in Oakland Thursday. “I’m tired of missing games; I want to go out there and compete.”
Dwyane Wade missed the practice with an upper respiratory infection. The team hopes he can play Friday, though he is listed questionable by the team along with Butler, Paul Zipser with an ankle injury and Isaiah Canaan with a toe injury.
Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson seem to remain iron men, and Cristiano Felicio returned quicker than expected from a leg injury. So Portis likely will have to remain patient.
“He’s so young; it’s so early in his career,” Hoiberg pointed out. “I think everybody in the organization thinks he has a bright future ahead. We think of Bobby (that) he has great confidence in his abilities. I have no hesitation to put him in there and I think he’ll have a positive impact on what we are trying to do. Just keep working, stay positive and play well when your name is called. It’s part of the league, a lot of what the young players go through in the early stages of their careers. It’s taking advantage when your name is called and Bobby will do that.”
So Portis waits, and it’s no fun for anyone who does.
No one pays much attention to the guys who don’t play, the notion that everyone should be grateful just to be on an NBA roster, and Portis certainly is. But who wanted to sit when they made the varsity in high school? It’s nice to have the letter on your jacket; it’s better to take the shot.
Portis hasn’t yet this season, though with injuries he did play 62 games with four starts last season, averaging seven points. He went to summer league and ran the court, made threes, rebounded with anyone, looked really ready. But where to fit in with Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Lopez and Felicio? Initially, the Bulls tried him at center to get him some minutes, but that’s not his position. So he went back to power forward where Gibson has been dynamic and the Bulls almost have force fed Nikola Mirotic into the lineup to get and hope for more shooting. So Portis sort of got caught in the middle. Or really at the end of the bench He’s trying to please to get on the court, and sometimes it’s to be a stretch four for Mirotic and then a power four for Gibson, and it’s clear nothing has been too clear.
Also, a lot of what Portis does best doesn't show up in box scores, but it does in success. He's an excellent screener. Many players cruise by their target; Bobby hits him face up. When he plays guys get better shots. He's an adept defensive rebounder and strong rim runner, an underappreciated trait. But it engages the defense to get back, opening the court for your transition shooters.
You see the Bulls work so hard for shots because enough players don't do that. But Portis is raw offensively, and Hoiberg values offense most. Plus, the Bulls have had trouble scoring. And Portis still labors with understanding who exactly he should be, the power guy or the stretch guy. He can do some of each, but not enough for now, and now with enough decisiveness. A coach in Hoiberg's position doesn't have the patience for too much experimentation; he needs results with Butler and Wade. Portis doesn't produce enough numbers for now, but then how can he playing so little?
Perhaps this will sort out after the season with Gibson an unrestricted free agent and Mirotic restricted.
So the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 draft does what he can for now, which is work.
Which is also why he was something of the inspiration for Rajon Rondo’s retort last month after Wade and Butler condemned the young players for a lack of effort or commitment or work ethic.
For one thing, you better work harder when you say that, and hardly anyone does more than Portis. Sure, he has more time to given he doesn’t need much rest by not playing, but he is there working out when hardly anyone ever is. Rondo notices.
“On game days when I get a DNP I go to the weight room after the game and lift and do conditioning,” Portis explains. Which is in addition to the same work everyone else does at shootaround and pregame.
“On non game days, I go to practice, practice hard, then I come back home and chill out a little,” Portis added. “Then I come back to the gym around eight or nine at night and might be in the gym for hours, three, four, to get it off my chest. I shoot, do some post work, shoot free throws, look to add things to my game even though I am not playing. Just trying to stay ready.
It is one reason why despite all the seeming controversy around the team this season it hasn’t come apart, still remains in the top eight in the Eastern Conference and still has an opportunity to be a surprise team. It is a group of high character people, players willing to work and sacrifice for one another. It’s why Portis even became something of a hero to his fellow youngsters as he supposedly was one of those vocal in that meeting about guys who don’t play, but don’t complain and always commit to improving. Rondo became their public voice.
So when the 6-11, 245 pound forward from Arkansas goes back to his house to chill, as it were, he contacts his old AAU coach, perhaps the principal father figure in his life, and they break down game film over Skype, when Bobby has played and usually additional since it would be a short session, otherwise.
“I’m talking to my mom a lot, the people behind me who care and who know I can play basketball at this level,” says Portis, who has a buddy from Arkansas staying with him. “Last year I played a lot even though it was due to injuries; this year I haven’t played. My mom always encourages me because in high school I went through the same thing. She reminds me about my ninth and 10th years of high school; I didn’t play that much. So I’m looking at it like that ninth and 10th year all over again. Then make sure it will be my year when I get a chance.
“Also my AAU coach, Marcus McCarroll, who I played eight years with,” said Portis. “I’ve known him since I was eight years old. He’s been a big influence in my life. He was the father figure I had growing up. I didn’t have a dad. I talk to him on the phone; we watch film on the phone with face time, he shows me things. That helps, too. I’m in the gym every night. That kind of helps me release some of the stress. Him and Corliss Williamson; Corliss was one of my coaches growing up; he is a big influence. My best friend Big Roderick. They all help.
“Coming into the season I thought I was going to play a lot,” Portis said. “I haven’t this year, but I have been working hard every day, trying to do all the little things to help the team. When I am not playing I still can encourage guys when they come to the bench, cheer for them and things like that. Right now it’s not my time. I’m a trusting guy; everything is a process with me. A lot of guys come in in my position, not playing and being behind guys. I try to use it as fuel for the future.”