Bobby Portis didn't think it was going to happen for him in Chicago.
No, not "the Punch," but the little jab of disappointment he felt after his pre draft workout with the Bulls in 2015. The second team all-American from Arkansas just fell in love with Chicago in his short time in the city, in the workout with the Bulls, hanging out with his buddies. But everything and everyone told him otherwise.
All the mock drafts had the rugged 6-11 forward going well before the Bulls selected at No. 22. The highly regarded NBAdraft.net projected Portis going 13th to Phoenix. Just about the lowest any of the regular draft experts had Portis slipping was 18th to Milwaukee. That's where YahooSports had him going as well as DraftExpress and the teams where Portis visited. Not that Portis wanted to relinquish the extra money from being picked higher, but he said Chicago just felt right.
"I was expecting to be at least a top 20 pick in the draft," Portis recalled. "I'm there for pre draft workouts with friends and we are in a Uber and I'm like, ‘Man, I love Chicago.' But I know no way I go 22 in the draft. I know I'm not going 22. Then on draft night I go 22 to Chicago and it's the city, blue collar; they embrace how hard I play and work and we just seem to have a connection somewhere there."
That connection looked, at times, like it might be severed. But as this lost 2017-18 season grinds down to a frustrating close, one of the more significant discoveries has been of the man who can be a leader for the second unit and reliable big man backup to support rookie sensation Lauri Markkanen.
It is happening for Bobby Portis in Chicago.
"I feel I am good kids, a good guy and they (fans) weren't letting that one incident affect their approach with me," said Portis. "Things happen for a reason. That could have happened for a reason to put me in this position. But at the same time, it's been a fun season."
It didn't seem like that several months ago, but the Bulls are smiling, too, about the growth and development of Portis.
If the Bulls were not flailing away toward the draft lottery, the third year power forward probably would be a prime contender for Sixth Man of the Year.
In this season of discovery, of what may become of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Markkanen, Portis probably has distinguished himself as much as any player and secured a place in the team's future. And certainly having endured a gauntlet—yes, in large part of his own making—that might have tripped up many others.
Portis has almost doubled his career scoring average this season, 6.9 for the first two seasons and 13.2 this season. He's more than doubled his assists average and more than doubled his total three-point shot attempts from the first two seasons, shooting a respectable 36 percent on threes, second to Denzel Valentine. And Portis has done it in not substantially more playing time, averaging about six more minutes per game.
He's recorded career high games in points and field goal attempts and makes and tied career high games in rebounds and assists. He had 27 points and 12 assists in a win over Milwaukee and 21 points and 10 assists in a win over Atlanta. He had a career high 38 points in a loss to the 76ers and 12 double/double games, second to Markkanen.
"I just come in each and every game and try to have an impact on the game somehow," says Portis. "If it's not my night offensively, so rebound the basketball and play defense, always just try to find different ways to impact the game."
It's been a fight for Portis since that 2015 draft, and much before the infamous preseason incident with Nikola Mirotic. Portis joined a Bulls team in transition that didn't run with the ball. It was coach Fred Hoiberg's first season, depicted as perhaps championship possibilities with rebuilding realities.
It would turn out to be the final lap for Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy, a run, effectively, coming to an end. With the likes of Gasol, Noah, Mirotic and Taj Gibson, Portis was a fifth wheel. More, actually, like a spare in the trunk without air.
Then came the big trades and changes, but little changed for Portis. The Bulls still were trying to elevate Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio. Gibson remained and the offense was the triangle of Butler, Rondo and Wade. Portis was pushing his face against the window of opportunity again.
He was a power forward drafted to be a center, also. He had a good shot he was told not to use.
"Obviously, my first two years were tough being behind Joakim, Taj, Pau, Niko even, and I just continued to work and grind," said Portis. "I never questioned. I always felt I'd get my opportunity somewhere. I had to keep working and when it came, be ready for it. I always knew I was an NBA player. I never had the amount of minutes to show that I was. I'd have games and get 16, 17 points and then five, six games straight get two or four points. So it was a difficult time my first years. But (fellow Razorback) Joe Johnson always talks to me, tells me you really have to cherish the rough times and the trials and tribulations of going through it because you work for it and grind for it and it makes it that much sweeter when you finally get it. That's what I'm doing right now, treasuring my moment. I'm enjoying the ride."
It's certainly been one that seemed about to go off a cliff.
That was with the ugly preseason fight, Portis's punch costing him an eight-game suspension, Mirotic out six weeks with facial injuries and an uneasy calm between them after Mirotic's return. Mirotic probably was going to be traded, anyway, after a contentious summer negotiation in which Mirotic initially sought to become an unrestricted free agent and then accepted a one-year guarantee at a slightly higher salary.
But then with the fight, Portis' Bulls future seemed questionable, as well. Would the team and the community accept him again? Like Mirotic, Portis has declined to discuss details of the incident. It's pretty clear that it had been an ongoing competition with both on edge, Mirotic resentful about his negotiations and Portis about the team's seeming favoritism toward Mirotic, the likely starter. Some bumping and blabbing created an instant and regrettable flashpoint.
Portis sat out eight games by team suspension and returned Nov. 7 in Toronto. He admits he was nervous, though more so about the following game back in the United Center.
"I never worry in life," says Portis. "If you worry so much, you go out and don't perform well and think too much. Things will go the wrong way. Obviously, all year long with the Niko thing and you punch people and stuff….But as I let my game do the talking, I haven't heard about it.
"When the incident first happened, I was nervous my first couple of games," Portis admitted. "My first game I wasn't nervous because I was on the road and I knew that it wasn't my home crowd. I didn't know how the home crowd would react. But then as I started playing and started doing well, I don't hear people say anything about it."
Chicago seemed to accept a good kid making a bad decision. It's a Chicago thing, as well, which perhaps Portis understood subliminally back in 2015. It happens. Hard working, blue collar guys can get emotional. Seen that. But then just give them a chance to come back to work and not do it again.
Portis had two of the best games of his career in his return, 21 and 13 in Toronto and 20 and 11 back in Chicago against the Pacers. The Bulls pretty much were losing every game back then, which they would do until Mirotic's return. Ironically, Mirotic's play with Portis was a big part of the seven-game winning streak in December.
Mirotic lasted about a month more before being traded to the Pelicans, where he has been successful and seems on course to be in the playoffs. Portis solidified as the Bulls sixth man, the leader of a team bench that has routinely outscored the opposition the second half of the season.
"I've had to work for everything this year," Portis says. "It took me a minute to finally find my role for the team, but I'm blessed with that. Now I know what I have to do each and every game. I don't have to sit there each and every game and worry if I am going to get in. I know I'm going to get in at the four, five minute mark; that builds confidence, too.
"Now I know I am the energy guy for the team," said Portis. "I can go out and try to score the basketball, too. It's getting that role off the bench. I take ownership of it and I like that role and it's been fun for me. I get to go out there and play with confidence; the coaching staff has confidence in me to go out and take those shots, so it's up to me to make them."
Portis has done well with that, developing his inside play while also becoming a threat as a long distance shooter. He's knows Markkanen is the power forward of the future. He can play some center in the "small" lineups that are common in the NBA these days. He knows he's not really part of the so called "Big Three" the Bulls might develop. But he also knows a quality playoff team needs eight or 10, and there's always room for a guy who can make plays, shoot the ball and stand up for himself and his teammates.
You know, Chicago stuff.
"You look at the makeup of our team as of now. I know it will be different in years to come," Portis said. "Obviously, we have Markkanen and the guys most talked about who are going to be stars and starters and in the starting lineup. Then you have a guy like me. I feel like I can be that starter off the bench, the guy who comes off the bench and has a major impact on the game in a major way. So I just try to own up to that. There always are guys in the league who come off the bench and have a big impact on the game and I want to be in that handful of guys that do.
"I'm a guy who tries to lives in the moment," Portis continues. "I don't think too far ahead. I just want to finish strong and then decompress in the summer and continue to work hard. I really haven't thought about (a new contract or extension). I am just enjoying the ride, trying to finish strong and have more good performances and get some wins these last games and have fun. I feel everything will take care of itself if I play hard."