Could McDermott shoot his way into a starting role?

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By Sam Smith | 08.04.2014 | 10:00 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

It was during one of the USA Basketball scrimmages last week with the 20 hopefuls and the Select Team of young NBA players in the role of basketball tackling dummies. Bulls rookie Doug McDermott, who had been impressive with his shooting, was wide open several times as teammates Marcus Smart and Victor Oladipo kept ignoring him.

USA coach Mike Krzyzewski laughed as he saw the young guards missing their shooter and turned to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who is a USA assistant.

“You going to let him shoot?” Krzyzewski said with a laugh.

“He’s going to shoot,” responded Thibodeau.

And it could be one of the more intriguing early stories of this Bulls 2014-15 season.

Much of the attention last week at USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas was on the return of Derrick Rose, his play and his health, which seems strong. The offseason Bulls story was Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love, which transitioned to the signings of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Not exactly lost in all of that, but left behind, was the draft day trade to acquire the rights to Creighton shooting forward Doug McDermott for two first round draft picks and two seconds.

The moves once again have imbued the Bulls with impressive depth and perhaps the best front line in the NBA with Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, Sixth Man runner up Taj Gibson, Gasol, a four-time All Star and Mirotic, the two-time best young player in Europe award winner. There’s the return of MVP Rose with high level backups in Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks.

Of course, the absence of Rose was the principal flaw in the Bulls offense the last two seasons. But even with Rose, there are questions about shooting. In McDermott, the Bulls have potentially one of the best young shooters in the game.

“I think he’s really good,” said Kyle Korver, arguably the game’s best shooter in setting the all-time record for consecutive games with three pointers last season. “He’s got the right temperament and mindset; he’s not going to get down when things don’t go his way, gets pulled out. Has the right head for that situation. He’s got great balance to his shot. He’s got great technique and form. He’s always on balance. To be a great, consistent shooter you have to be sound. His legs are sound under his shot. He’s got a form that can endure. I’ve been really impressed with his shooting. I knew he was a good shooter. I didn’t know he was as good a shooter as he’s shown.”

Which raises an intriguing question for the Bulls this season: Start a rookie?

Most coaches don’t do that with good teams ready to compete, as the Bulls are. Though Rose did pretty well starting. McDermott is no Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, obviously. But as a four-year college player who plays a complementary game and probably is the best shooter on the Bulls roster, it’s hardly a ridiculous notion to have him start with a veteran group with Rose, Noah, Gasol and probably Jimmy Butler at shooting guard. Which probably would benefit someone like McDermott even more.

“He’s on a great team for him to fit in well,” said Korver. “There’s a real need for his skill set. He’s going to learn how to play defense. He’s going to have Jimmy taking the No. 1 (offensive) guy. He’ll get the second guy. There’s no two and three in Thibs’ offense. You’re the guy who’s coming off the doubles [screens]. Or you’re the guy who’s not coming off the doubles almost for the wing. He’s going to be the guy coming off the doubles and he’s going to be able to shoot that thing and put a lot of pressure on the defense. (The Bulls) have added a lot of pieces. He’s got a really good feel for the game. He got the ball a lot at Creighton, but it wasn’t like him getting the ball and holding it, making a one-on-one move. He learned to play without the ball and that’s so important in Thibs’ offense. You can’t have everybody be a drive-and-kick guy. You have to have shooting. You have to have the guy who shoots the ball after the drive and he’s going to be able to do that.”

The view heading into the season is the starting lineup will be Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Gasol and Noah.

Though the Bulls added players and have enviable depth, the potential weakness remains shooting guard as Butler is more naturally a small forward. It’s why someone like Dunleavy needs to be in the lineup to keep the floor spread for Rose’s drives. But it’s asking a lot after Dunleavy started so many games last season when his role was supposed to be a reserve. After all, with all that depth you should be nursing your players more for the post season. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense to start Rose with Hinrich since Hinrich isn’t a shooter who occupies the defense and then have Butler at small forward.

None of the main front line players are three-point shooters other than Mirotic, who is, at best, a fourth forward.

The ideal would seem to keep Butler at shooting guard, but pair him with McDermott to keep a great shooter on the floor and then have Dunleavy being preserved for the season by coming off the bench. Not that anyone is lobbying at this point. But Rose watched McDermott with the Select Team last week and liked what he saw.  

“He rarely messes up,” said Rose. “He never pushes the issue, I would say. He never tries things he can’t do. He knows exactly what type of play he wants. For me, I need him because you can’t leave him. He has a lot of confidence in his shot, and he works on his shot every day. When I was playing with him while we were back in Chicago, I had to tell him whenever he’s open, I’m passing him the ball and he better shoot or I’m going to yell at him every time. If you can shoot, you can fit in.”

It obviously would be a big step for McDermott, but he’s been taking them each year and improving.

“Being a college guy last year (with the Select Team in a USA camp), I don’t think anyone knew who I was,” said McDermott, who headed for rookie orientation from Las Vegas. “I was getting a lot of open looks. I don’t think they knew I was a shooter. This year guys (on defense) are starting to find me more. They are a lot more physical with me. The biggest takeaway for me is how physical it is and how good they really are.

“This year I’m doing a better job rebounding and defending,” McDermott said before leaving camp the end of last week. “Maybe not getting as many open looks as last year, but I am making the most of them, making better reads off screens, trying to improve in different areas. Not just shooting. Whether I’m getting the shot or not, I’m getting a lot of attention on the screens because guys view me as a shooter. It leaves open areas for other guys.

“I feel I can guard a wing fine,” said McDermott. “An undersized four I can also guard because that’s who I guarded in college. It’s going to be a huge adjustment period for me. But having coach Thibodeau and the veterans guys will help. I’ve become good off that floppy action, the down screens, curling.  Always watched Kyle. He’s so good at setting his man up. That’s what coach Thibodeau has talked to me about.”

Just then Korver, who also went to Creighton, walked by as McDermott was doing his interviews.

“The real hot sauce,” McDermott said nodding at Korver with a laugh.

Stacey’s got another guy!

“He’s really excited to be there,” said Korver. “He’s going to learn so much from Thibs. Early on in my career, I wish I would have had someone like Thibs to show me how to play really good team defense. That would have helped me a ton in my career. I feel like a lot of the success I’ve had the last couple of years is because of what I learned in Chicago. Being there with Thibs and learning how to play defense and being in an awesome, championship-caliber culture was really big for me. So Doug’s going to get that right now, like right at the very beginning, and it’s only going to do great things for his career. He takes the game very serious. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He plays with an edge. He wants to be really good and he’s going to work for it. He doesn’t just want it; he wants to work for it. He dealt with every kind of defense. He’s been prepared for the NBA in so many ways, just in how he was guarded all the time, the pressure that was on him in Omaha, at Creighton. He’s a younger guy, but emotionally, he’s very mature.

“The thing I told him is you don’t have to drive that traffic every day,” Korver said with a laugh. “I can go back (to the Bulls) and do either Thibs or the traffic, but I could never do both again. I was like, ‘You don’t know how good you have it.’ I say that in fun, obviously.”

And McDermott seems to be having plenty of fun already.

“I’ve come a long ways,” McDermott conceded. “It’s pretty crazy to be invited here two years in a row. I’m real thankful for that. I don’t want this to be the highlight of my career, though. I want to be back here on a bigger stage. They (Bulls) did a great job putting together a terrific team. Without D. Rose, they struggled to score a little. I feel they added a lot this offseason that can help with Pau and others. So that was huge.”

Asked about what he could bring, McDermott responded: “A great shooter, but not just a shooter. A guy who plays hard every time, has a great motor, great instincts. People have questioned my athleticism, but I think I ‘m a decent athlete as well and can guard different positions.”

And his coach for the Select Team last week, Northwestern’s Chris Collins, agrees.

“I coached J.J, Redick in college and it was all this, the similar critics saying, ‘Who is he going to guard, how’s he going to be a pro?’ Guys like that who have scored 3,000 points in college and every game they played in college they put two guys on him and tried to take him out of everything and they still scored 30 a game, those guys are really good players,” said Collins. “That’s why I know Doug will figure out a way to be a very good pro.

“He hasn’t been intimidated,” Collins added. “That’s the first step. When you are a rookie and get around very good players who have the names: Are you knocked back by the environment? But he’s played with confidence. For him, this is unique. You’re playing against a team with Kevin Durant, Paul George and Anthony Davis together, that length.  He’s learning the window to get your shot off is much quicker. How he can get open and what he can do. As the week has gone on he’s gotten better and better. I’m excited to watch him being in Chicago myself. I think he’s the perfect complement to the star pieces they put together.

“He can really come off screens,” Collins added. “He knows how to play off the ball. He’ll be a great spacer. He’s an underrated defender. He knows concepts. He’s more of a three. He doesn’t miss. If he gets his feet set, he doesn’t miss. His stroke is lights out. The NBA three is no problem for him.”

Which is vital since it’s been a big problem for the Bulls.

If McDermott can be that shooter, that floor spacer and that threat, it’s hardly unreasonable to believe he can be the starting small forward. After all, he just played against the best players in the NBA with strong performances.

“He’s a basketball player,” said USA coach Mike Krzyzewski of McDermott. “He’s smart and he can shoot the heck out of the ball. He doesn’t need the ball long, so he’s an easy guy to play with. He can stretch a defense. He knows the game. He doesn’t dominate the ball, so he’s an easy teammate. But because he has that scoring ability, he gives space and the ball to his teammates. Pretty good. Not cocky, a great kid. He’s going to be a good guy for the Bulls.”