It was a season of refection for Bobby Portis, the Bulls top draft pick a year ago who spent more time watching than playing, and more than a little time, he admits, worrying, wondering and shedding a tear or two.
Basketball was the life, but it wasn’t turning out to be the life Portis expected. So he committed to work, to the post and to defense, and the result for the Bulls Tuesday was a perfect completion of the first stage of summer league with a 79-76 victory over the San Antonio Spurs led by Portis’ 18 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
The Bulls thus finish the preliminary segment 3-0 and with the No. 2 seed in the tournament setting. The Bulls get a bye Wednesday and next play Thursday night. Portis concluded the preliminary three games leading the Bulls in scoring and rebounding at 14.3 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 50 percent in a team most 30 minutes per game (40-minute games).
“Bobby was a beast out there,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who watched from the stands as assistant Pete Myers coached. “Aggressiveness, the big thing he was aggressive in the post, took his time in the post and got on the glass.”
With a determination and enthusiasm that was evident down the stretch as the teams volleyed the lead back and forth the entire second half, Portis came up with a vital follow score on a Denzel Valentine miss complete with a bellowing scream and then a bitter battle for a key rebound. Portis’ effort forced the Spurs to lose the ball out of bounds.
Spencer Dinwiddie with three of four free throws wrapped up the game, though the Bulls survived a pair of late Spurs misses, the last at the buzzer on a three. Valentine had 15 points and six rebounds, Dinwiddie 13 points and Jerian Grant 10 points.
“It’s been a great summer league for me so far,” said Portis. “Just going out to get better. I use the summer league to work on my game. Not trying to do so much, but make my game confined to what I will do during the season. Through these three games, I’ve been trying to post up more, trying to get easy touches on the block. I had a great first game, second game I had a not so good game, didn’t shoot it well. I still tried to lock in on defense and this game tried to play both ends of the floor.
“Just me trying to be an all-around player,” said Portis. “I feel in this league the two-way players are the players who are the best on the team. I want to be the best player on my team one day. I’m going to try to keep working to be that guy. At the same time, I feel like me taking a jump shot is not going to be my game. I have to have an inside/outside game.”
It’s an adjustment to the NBA for Portis, who started last season aggressively. But a combination of being tied to the bench and then the confusion on the team with injuries and internal questions seemed to leave him listing. He floated more to the perimeter to take jump shots, losing a lot of his aggressiveness.
So Portis said he committed to work harder this summer, he and Cristiano Felicio becoming notorious this summer for time spent at the Advocate Center battling one another and attacking the weights. It’s still unclear what role Portis might play, but he’s determined to work his way into the rotation.
“I’ve always been an inside/outside player,” Portis said. “Last year not so much. I shied away, but it was hard for me to post up. There were stronger guys than me, older and bigger physically. But now I feel like I’ve been in the weight room a lot and I feel I can reposition myself on the block. I’ve studied guys like Paul Millsap as someone I can bring my game to because I feel like I can play like him.
“With me coming from college I came from a 40 minutes of hell type system, more up and down type scheme,” said Portis of his U. of Arkansas team. “We didn’t really play in the half court; we were more a full court type team. Me coming to the NBA last year was a wakeup call. But I am really glad I came out early. Not that it’s bad to stay, but if I would have stayed four years I would have been far behind as a 22-year-old coming into the NBA. I feel like me coming early helped me adjust early on the defensive end.”
It was the defensive play, more aggressive in pick and roll coverage, that carried the Bulls with another poor offensive start. Valentine continues to struggle shooting, going five of 18 and one of seven on threes. He’s three of 21 on threes in the three games. Grant is three of 15 on threes. Portis was one of six on threes in the first two games, so he didn’t attempt any Tuesday and attacked the inside.
Portis started the game with a sharp drop step move for a score, though the Bulls were sloppy with the ball early with multiple turnovers and were outhustled, trailing 20-14 after one quarter. But Dinwiddie seemed to energize the offense, pushing the ball and making shots. He was four of nine and has been easily the best perimeter shooter among the guards.
The Bulls trailed 41-39 at halftime. Valentine got on track with a pair of driving scores as the Bulls took a 60-59 lead after three and then Portis made the tough plays down the stretch to give the Bulls just enough. The 6-11 center/forward, still just 21, is looking for it to be a trend this season
“Big disappointment in myself last year,” Portis conceded. “Me coming from second team all-American, SEC player of the year to sitting on the bench not playing was a wakeup call for me. All players come in thinking they are going to play, but when the reality sinks in and you are sitting on the bench it’s like, ‘Oh man, end of the world type thing.’ Sometimes you go home mad after the game, cry, talk to your mom, but mom can’t fix it; only you can fix it. I dedicated myself to getting in the gym, getting a lot of reps in with my coaches and improve my defense. So far it’s paying off, but I have a long way to go.
“I talk to my mom,” said Portis. “I didn’t play a lot my first two years of high school. She told me to keep working and get the opportunity; I’m using summer league as a tool to get better.”
And hopefully construct a game that adds to the Bulls plans.