As much pride as Chicago must be feeling with the undefeated and No. 2 seeded Bulls 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Central time) playing Dallas for a chance to advance to the summer league quarterfinals, these games are just the beginning of the sorting out and placement process for this season’s Bulls roster.
The starting lineup is pretty much set with the trades and subsequent free agent acquisitions.
The real competition more likely will be for the backup jobs and the playing rotation. The summer league is the first look, and then comes training camp and the early days of the season.
There really has been no dominant standout for the Bulls in the first three games, though Bobby Portis leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 14.3 points and 10 rebounds, the latter which is tied for second among summer league players. The Bulls have been a defense first team in summer league with Portis their leading scorer, though 29th overall. Though in Portis’ toughest assignment in the second game against No. 1 overall draft pick Ben Simmons, Portis seemed to get distracted and got into a bit of a shooting and physical game with the highly regarded rookie. Portis came out of that game more under control and effective in the next game with 18 points and eight rebounds. Portis has been the best offensive rebounder in the games with almost four per game.
Here’s a look at the top Bulls players in the summer league and their prospects this season.
Bobby Portis - The second year player has been lively and active, particularly on the offensive boards while trying to establish a stronger presence in the post. He seemed to become impatient against Simmons with the game plan to lay off Simmons to lure Simmons into outside jump shots. Portis seemed to become frustrated while trying to stay with the game plan. Simmons, by the way, was impressive with strength, ball handling and passing and has a pretty good shooting stroke despite a reputation as a poor shooter. Portis’ biggest issue, meanwhile, may be where he can play.
It seems more likely that Cristiano Felicio, taller and stronger, will back up presumed starting center Robin Lopez. But power forward is deep with Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and perhaps even Doug McDermott with teams playing smaller. Portis could play center against certain matchups as teams often play small these days, and he’s worked on being more aggressive on pick and roll defense. Training camp could determine whether he again is the odd man out.
“My whole life people always asked, ‘What position does he play?’” Portis acknowledged. “I’ve always heard, ‘He is a jack of all trades, he doesn’t do one thing great, he does everything good. Not one thing great.’ I’ve been hearing that my whole life. Whatever coach wants me to play, I’ll be good with it. But at the same time I’d like to play the four. But if coach wants me to play the five, I just want to win games.”
Denzel Valentine - The first round draft pick has impressed with his natural ability to run a team, handle the ball and pass. He looks like he even could play point guard, though the Bulls seem deep at that position behind Rajon Rondo. Still, it is valuable to have additional players who can play pick and roll and make plays with the ball opposite traditional point guards. Valentine has averaged 12 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals with a mature play that belies rookie status. But his shooting has been rushed and awkward. He’s had trouble getting set for shots against defenders who get to him more quickly. He’s shot 31 percent overall and 14 percent on threes.
“He is just really a solid out and out player,” coach Fred Hoiberg said of Valentine after the third game. “That’s who Denzel is. Didn’t get off to a great start offensively shooting, but still making plays and making good passes and got his offense going in the second. He’s a really high IQ defense guy.”
Said Valentine: “It’s gone all right, got three wins, so that’s the key, try to get better. I’d like to improve on my shot. I haven’t been hitting shots like I wanted to, but I feel like my passing is pretty good, my pace is pretty good; just got to focus on making shots and on the ball defense. They are shots I can make; just got to make them. It’s getting used to the speed of the game, how to use my pace and size, slow it down a little bit. Most of the shots I’ve taken I’ve rushed. I saw that on film, so I just have to slow that down a little bit and relax and take the shot. The good thing is I’ve gotten better over the three games; may not have shot like I wanted to, but I think I’ve improved each game, which is the key. Just got to find ways to affect the game no matter what position I’m at.”
Valentine looks in good position to be backup shooting guard depending on the progress with Tony Snell.
Cristiano Felicio - He’s averaging 9.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in about 20 minutes with an impressive 2.3 assists and 76.5 percent shooting. His 17 points against the 76ers was a highlight. He looks to have secured, for now, the backup center position. He came on strong the end of last season once he was given playing time and sacrificed a chance to play for his national team in the Olympics in his home country to prepare better for this season. He’s not an explosive big man, but he rolls well to the rim, runs the court, has good hands to catch the ball on the run and continues to work. He’ll get outplayed by athletic big men, but he’s good with position and is aggressive in pick and roll defense with help and recovery.
“We worked a lot on pick and roll defense in camp, more aggressive; we’ve forced turnovers with that and teams late in the shot clock, so that has been good,” Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing is the effort; these guys are really playing hard and leaving it all out there.”
Jerian Grant - The combo guard acquired in the Derrick Rose trade from New York has struggled to find a position. He’s had difficulty adjusting to the pace the Bulls have been trying to play with while seeming to revert to principles of the triangle offense game in wanting to take his man into the post. He’s often dribbled into trouble and is averaging almost three turnovers in just over 20 minutes. He’s averaging 10.3 points, but shooting 37 percent and 20 percent on threes.
“It’s such a different system than what he was playing last year,” Hoiberg agreed. “The big thing for him is getting that confidence up, going out and playing hard. Make plays for his teammates.</p
Said Grant: “I think I’m a point guard. When the ball is in my hand I can make plays and get the ball to guys where they want to be. At the same time, I’ve played off the ball. I can do either but I think I’m best making plays at point guard. One thing they told me even in New York is if you defend you will play; every game I go into it like that. I know if I defend I can change the pace or help win games by locking someone else or making plays.”
Spencer Dinwiddie - The guy who was acquired in trade in June, then released and then returned for summer league has been a spark off the bench at point guard. He’s averaging 12.3 points on 44 percent shooting and 92 percent on free throws and 33 percent on threes. He’s galvanized the offense, which has started slowly the last two games, with more pace. He’s a big guard at 6-6 who can defend.
“I thought Spencer was great,” Hoiberg said after the Game 3 win over San Antonio. “Got to the rim, broke down the defense, made plays. I thought he guarded well and I thought our pace was really good when he was in there as the lead guard.”
Said Dinwiddie: “I’ve been a pretty good passer with the Pistons; my assist to turnover ratio has been pretty good. I’ve been able to make plays and find guys. I’ve scored a little better in the D-league (last season) and summer league; just being a multi faceted player trying to come out and help the team win games.”
Among the other players on the roster, Dez Wells has started with minimal impact, though good defensively. The player who has stood out the most among the other group has been Jack Cooley of Notre Dame. The 6-9 forward is slow, but he’s physical and has moved players out of the lane with regularity. He’s averaged six points and 5.3 rebounds in just 12 minutes per game and is one of those players who seems to make things happen on the court. The Bulls likely won’t have room, but he may catch the attention of other teams with his tough play. Guard Patrick Miller has shown toughness and forward Brandon Davies, in his second summer league in July after playing in France last year, has shown nice flashes of aggressive play.