Rookie Ayo Dosunmu has earned his starting opportunity

The Chicago native and 38th overall selection in the 2021 NBA Draft stuffed the stat sheet in his first career start this week against Denver.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Bulls coach Billy Donovan sounded almost like he was living Ayo Dosunmu's dream. And loving it for both of them.

"It's got to be an incredible experience for him growing up in Chicago and watching the Chicago Bulls and him being a fan of the game, following the game and the Chicago Bulls, and the history of the Bulls and all of a sudden here he is," Donovan was musing late Monday night after the Bulls all-hands-on-deck 109-97 win over the Denver Nuggets.

The often stoic, attention-on-the-basketball-court Donovan offered a hint of a smile, his eyes bright as he related the uneventful Dosunmu reaction to the rookie's eventful night, his first start as an NBA player and in the United Center, the palace of his youthful dreams and desires.

"Whoever would have told him when he was seven years old sitting on his couch, ‘Hey, someday you are going to play for the Chicago Bulls,'" Donovan imagined. "About an hour before the game, I said, ‘Listen, I am going to start you. You are going to play a lot. I need you to be who you are.' He's unfazed. That's (also) what I love about him. ‘However you need to use me, use me,' he said. If I would have told him I was starting some else, he'd be fine with that."

A few months ago, it seemed reaching for Dosunmu might be to Hoffman Estates and the Windy City Bulls for the Morgan Park High School kid who was passed up by every NBA team with a first-round draft pick and then more of an "oy vey" Summer League than "Ayo away." But like with his trajectory at the University of Illinois and seemingly from game to game in the NBA, Dosunmu just seems to have that it factor.

Something of that old line about not being able to describe it, but knowing it when you see it.

"It's his makeup," explained Donovan. "It's who he is as a competitor. There may be guys who shoot it better than him, maybe guys faster than him, maybe guys more athletic than him. But he's got a big heart and he makes a lot of timely plays that impact winning."

Ayo Dosunmu dunking over Houston's Alperen Sengun earler this season.

Ayo Dosunmu dunking over Houston's Alperen Sengun earlier this season.

The Bulls likely will be looking for Dosunmu to do that again Wednesday when they travel to Cleveland and later in the week onto to Miami.

Dosunmu played a crucial part in the Bulls Monday victory not only with his 11 points, but with six rebounds and tied with Zach LaVine for a team-high eight assists including a pair of fourth quarter lobs to LaVine and Lonzo Ball dunks that finally seemed to break the spirit of the traveling Nuggets. Dosunmu was in the middle of many of the vital plays in a 19-10 start to the fourth quarter that built the Bulls lead to 96-81 and began the celebration around a rippling United Center. Dosunmu even played a team high 42 minutes as something of Donovan's safety net. The coach just would not let go. Yes, those intangibles.

Alex Caruso will remain out with a hamstrung injury, and with DeMar DeRozan out in NBA health and safety protocols, Dosunmu likely will find himself starting for, say it loud and proud Ayo, "the Chicago Bulls" again.

You know he was dreaming that growing up on the South Side, cheering for the Bulls and his favorite, Derrick Rose, whom Dosunmu called a legend for his storied career and his story.

Dosunmu, channeling Rose, even asked the Bulls to have him introduced Monday with the starters as "From Chicago." Most players are announced from their universities, as little time as most spend there. Rose always wanted to be greeted from Chicago, as did Dosunmu.

"I like to be proud to say I'm from Chicago because I know the ups and downs of the city," said Dosunmu. "I've been here my whole life. I've seen so many things, so much tragedy. For me to be in this position, doing what I love at the highest level, anytime I get an opportunity to show love to where I came from, I always love to do that. I'm from Chicago. Chicago, Illinois. I love Champaign, but I'm from Chicago."

Ayo Dosunmu defends Derrick Rose.

Two Chicago natives: Derrick Rose and Ayo Dosunmu.

The 6-5 Dosunmu is no Rose, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and an immediate star after one year at the University of Memphis. Dosunmu built slowly for the Illini, finally after three years being honored as the nation's top collegiate point guard. Though with a broken nose, he and Illini busted out of the NCAA tournament quickly after winning the Big 10. And with those questions about his shot, his speed and his ceiling as an older player, Dosunmu, now 21, slid down the draft boards into the second round at No. 38.

It looked at first like merely a hometown pick with the Bulls' offseason concentration on trades and free agency and revamping the entire roster. But Dosunmu refused to go away. Maybe even a little like the annoying kid who keeps asking why. Eventually you begin to take notice, and for Dosunmu there was plenty there.

If not overly endowed with the NBA basics of flying, dunking and 40 footers, Dosunmu practiced the basketball basics of leadership, confidence and fundamentals. He made the right play, was in the right place, asked the right questions. Coaches often talk about players lacking fear, but I don't see fear in NBA players. They've all been stars facing the big moments previously somewhere. It's not that with Dosunmu. Sure, he's got some flaws with a slow shot release from low, sometimes passing on shots or going stretches without being involved enough. But he plays with LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic. And Ball. It's proving to be a deep team.

But he plays with a head up confidence that suggests he knows where he wants to go and how to get there, and gym rat that Donovan is it's the trait that the coach perhaps most embraces. Because the one time Billy the Kid underdog who helped elevate his college program on the way to an equally unlikely NBA playing stint perhaps can see a lot of himself in Dosunmu, overlooked if also overachieving. And with no fault too small to go unnoticed for correction.

Which perhaps is why Donovan delights in not only the demanding teaching he has for Dosunmu, but Dosunmu's embrace of it like Donovan once had with his college coach, Rick Pitino.

Ayo Dosunmu dribbles up the floor against Boston.

Ayo Dosunmu is expected to start again on Wednesday against Cleveland.

"One thing I love about coach Donovan, he shows so much tough love to me after every game," Dosunmu said after the Bulls won in Brooklyn. "Whether I play a lot or don't play a lot, he always calls me over and gives me words of encouragement. Sometimes it may be good, sometimes it might be bad. I just take it, take the constructive criticism and try to help myself become a better player because I know he obviously sees something in me if he's coaching me hard."

After that Nets game when Dosunmu again scored in double figures against the East favorite, reporters were fishing for some praise for him from Donovan. Instead, Donovan went into a tangent about how Dosunmu wasn't reading the defense correctly and got his shots blocked.

Always teaching, and teachers love students who care.

"I think he's playing offensively more under control," Donovan said in demurring from the effusiveness. "I think his decision making as we've gone forward has gotten better. There's times where he's a very aggressive driver to the basket, but he also has to recognize who's at the basket. The other night we're playing against the Knicks and Mitchell Robinson's waiting there. That's really a hard guy to finish over. He needed to stop and get it under control and pull up."

It's why Donovan seems to have a special affection for the enthusiastic Chicago kid. He seems to welcome more, more teaching, more direction, more wisdom. Which got way more playing time than even as the seven-year-old Dosunmu could have imagined.

"I really love coaching him because you can really, really talk to him in a way he wants the truth," said Donovan. "He wants to get better, he wants to grow, he wants to hear what he has to do to improve. For me as a coach, when you see a young man with that much hunger and desire to want to be good... he wants to hear it all and I really respect that about him. There's a lot on his plate and he did a great job not only starting (Monday) but playing the number of minutes he did."

Like with a Thanksgiving meal, Dosunmu's basketball plate is being loaded up and he can't seem to get enough.

"Pretty cool seeing my name there, (starting) was exciting," said Dosunmu. "Brought back memories from my first game starting in college. It was a feeling of joy, excitement. I wanted to seize my opportunity. What I pride myself on being is a two-way player. Offense can fluctuate up and down, five threes one day (then none). Defense, energy, effort, that's something you can bring every day and that's something I was able to show against a good team with a great player. So that was fun."

Donovan and the Bulls are the ones really smiling. Ayo, he's got another question.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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