They really weren’t supposed to be in the NBA, one from a remote city in Brazil, the other playing professionally in Germany’s second division, trying to overcome two years of injuries. They certainly weren’t supposed to be making an impact with a team in playoff contention.
But Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio have been two of the most encouraging surprise stories this season for the Bulls.
Zipser, the second round draft pick last June, was the first substitute for the Bulls Saturday in the exciting, last second victory over the Sacramento Kings. Zipser had been an emergency starter because of injuries recently. Coach Fred Hoiberg Saturday had him as sixth man, and the 22-year-old forward responded with 13 points, his second consecutive double figure scoring game (and new career high) as well as the offensive rebound that led to the balancing bucket with 36.8 second left before Dwyane Wade’s steal and fast break free throws for the victory.
The NBA, incidentally, in its late game report Sunday revealed Wade should not have gotten free throws on that play. Though Jimmy Butler should have earlier when Wade followed his miss. And DeMarcus Cousins’ late basket to take a 99-97 lead should have been disallowed as a travel. So, there, even Steven. Or Stephen. So no whining.
Both Zipser and Felicio quietly have been closing games recently with Felicio leading the Bulls in rebounding against the Kings with 10 despite playing just 15 minutes and Zipser with three of the team’s six three pointers in the game.
“The thing with Paul is he’s a two-way player,” said Hoiberg. “He plays both ends. I’ve been really impressed with how he’s battling defensively, especially as a rookie coming into this league, against some pretty darnn good players. To go up and use his body well, he gets his hands out of the way, defends without fouling, rises up with confidence on the other end, and can put the ball on the floor. He showed that (in Atlanta) with the baseline drive and dunk out of the left corner. And he’s just a really confident, solid basketball player. He deserves these minutes. He got his chance by starting a couple of those games when we had guys out with illness, and he took full advantage of it and showed that he belongs in the rotation.”
It’s a remarkable rise for the 6-8 forward, who seems non plussed by it all.
Surprised, Zipser was asked after the Kings game, about moving up to, at least for now, sixth man?
“No,” he said. “I know myself.”
“No,” he elaborated. “If the coach tells you, ‘OK, you will be the first sub,’ you will be excited.”
He said he liked excited as the better word than nervous. He seems to like precision.
It’s a mistake for any of us—and wrong because it’s not true, damaging and doesn’t work that way—to stereotype anyone by religion, race or nationality. But Zipser presents himself as Americans often describe Germans, efficient, intelligent, cool and confident. It’s, of course, an inaccurate portrayal of Germany as anyone who has gone to Oktoberfest will tell you.
But it is an appealing style for a basketball player, and it seems to have elevated Zipser with the Bulls.
It’s not to say Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic still aren’t involved since they and Zipser each played about the same amount of minutes against the Kings. But for a rookie, Zipser shows maturity, calm and confidence.
Hoiberg was impressed by his driving baseline dunk against the Hawks, and his role with the reserves in Atlanta that cut a 30-point deficit to five in the fourth quarter. That probably earned Zipser the early call Saturday. But with the Bulls heading to Orlando Tuesday to start yet another back to back, Zipser seems to have earned a role.
He’s a pretty impressive second round pick to go along with the undrafted and basically unsought Felicio.
Zipser isn’t the super athlete kind, though he looked quick playing power forward in Germany. He went on to play on the national team with Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a smooth enough ball handler and good shooter that he can easily fit in as a wing player in the NBA with good movement. He’s more a straight line driver, but is aggressive and quick with his shot, though also aware about not forcing a bad shot. He’s the type of player more to push the ball, run the court and play in the flow of a game than isolate and score, the sort of team player the Bulls could use. Plus, with his long arms and solid fundamentals, he’s played competitive defense.
“Everybody’s first job is defense,” he says. “You can’t get playing time, any trust from your teammates, if you don’t stop your opponent to help your teammates. That’s the first thing, and then to get the rebounds and shoot the open shots, be aggressive.”
Asked if he expected to have an impact so soon, he answered:
“Why not? I try to do my thing, getting better, and show myself that I can help the team. It’s now 40 games, a little more. I got some chances, I took advantage of them and I showed everybody what I can do.”
While confident, Zipser also has been patient in rarely playing the first two months. He played about 56 total minutes into January before he got a start at New York and played 34 minutes. He said he had some back problems earlier in the season that required treatment. He had a pair of stints with the Windy City Bulls in which he averaged 15.5 points and 12 rebounds, hardly trying to take over the games but working with the team.
Zipser was born in Heidelberg into a comfortable family. He said his father owns a supermarket and his mother is a doctor. His father played amateur basketball and he was going along with him and hanging around gyms as a small child. He had a foot problem from an extra bone in his foot and after that a knee injury that kept him in rehab in 2013 and 2014. He said that’s why he didn’t try to go to a U.S. college and began playing professionally in Germany. He got a custom shoe and hasn’t had physical problems for several years. He said he was excited about being drafted by the Bulls because they didn’t want to stash him in Europe, as many NBA teams do with second round picks. He said the Bulls told him he’d get a chance, and it’s started to work out well for both sides.
“Zip, he’s good,” said Jimmy Butler, initially confused when asked about Paul. “We want that guy to take all the shots given to him and play basketball; he’s going to be really good in this league for a long time.”