Doug McDermott looks to take the next step

Young and athletic? Yes, that's right, says Doug McDermott, perhaps one of the potentially most significant X-factors for the Bulls this season. There's plenty of young, he says, and enough athletic, and he figures you'll see a lot of that this season for the Bulls.

That's why McDermott was in Las Vegas the past week practicing with the Bulls champion summer league team, and why this week he'll be joined by Denzel Valentine on a team of the NBA's top young players to practice against the USA Basketball men's Olympic team.

The Bulls have added some savvy veterans, but, notes McDermott, there's still a significant group of players ready to push the ball, space the court, shoot and play aggressively.

"I wanted to practice with the summer league team," said McDermott, who sat near the Bulls bench for the summer league finale Monday. "I love being around these young guys. Bobby (Portis), Cris (Felicio), Denzel, Jerian (Grant); these are guys I'm going to be playing with a lot coming off the bench. So if I can get as many reps in as possible with them it's an opportunity I didn't think twice about. I like what we have going with those young core and we're excited.

"This is kind of the second unit we've built that really fits Fred's style," said McDermott. "People have been questioning bringing in D. Wade and (Rajon) Rondo, saying they don't fit Fred's style. But we have four or five guys coming off the bench who really do fit Fred's style and we can gel with those other guys, the superstars. You know Fred will make it work; he's a brilliant offensive mind and we're figuring it out defensively as we go along.

"We have guys to spread the floor, fit Fred's style perfectly," noted McDermott. "We'll make it work and Fred will adjust. I think we have plenty of guys who fit his style. People like to look at the main three, but I think it will work out just fine."

Yes, there are more than three to a team as 30-year-old types Rondo and Wade aren't going to be playing major minutes all the time. The the Bulls' depth features versatility with McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Valentine, Grant and Portis. They are capable of stretching the floor with shooting. It suggests a limited view of the possibilities if just the latest Bulls Big Three is considered responsible for all the play.

McDermott, the 6-8 third year pro and onetime lottery pick, is a quiet big part of all this.

Relentlessly humble and introspective to the point of excessive self examination over his flaws, McDermott began to show progress the second half of last season.

He proved a reliable shooter all season, shooting almost 43 percent on threes. But post All-Star in about 24 minutes per game, McDermott averaged 11.4 points with still only about nine shots per game. He showed latent athleticism with a dozen driving dunks during the season. In a dozen February games, he averaged 14.4 points and shot 52 percent overall. He also produced in big games, averaging 19.7 points on 69 percent shooting in the four wins over division leader Toronto.

But his development was continually overshadowed—like that of most everyone else and everything—by the dark cloud of injuries, failed expectations and the uncertain futures. It obviously all came apart with missing the playoffs and the departures of Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah.

"It was a lot to handle in such a short time," McDermott said of the Bulls makeover. "It's bittersweet losing those guys. I really built some good relationships with those guys. But I think it's for the betterment of our team. I think we got a lot better. We added Dwyane Wade; he's a champion along with Rondo. We're excited about the additions. The Wade one was really shocking to me; no one thought he was leaving Miami."

McDermott likes his potential as a shooter with those new teammates.

"I think they need someone to stretch the floor and give them room to work with and I'm more than fine to do that," said McDermott. "Obviously, those guys are going to draw a lot of attention. So it's a good thing for me and I feel I can shoot at a high rate. I know I can score the ball and shoot. So now I'm really focusing on defense because that's an area I really have to get better at and this is the best competition I can go against (with the Select Team); we're playing one on one after practices. It's been really good for me."

McDermott surely is sincere about his desire to improve defensively.

But he's also a victim of the simplicity of some media and fans, of first impressions and knowing nods.

I saw this phenomenon play out with Toni Kukoc, who as the "foreigner" came in with the given reputation of being a poor defender. Kukoc wasn't bad; he wasn't great. But it became an easy shorthand to blame Kukoc if someone went for a steal and let his man go, if there wasn't the right help from the right place. Sure, we know Toni can't defend, it was agreed. Heads nodded with self assured smiles.

McDermott gets a lot of that even if he really is a competent defender.

He's not fast, but he is athletic. We've seen the running dunks. Kyle Korver can only dream about having those hops. Yet, you don't hear Korver condemned for defense. He's a starter who became an All-Star. So it's almost as if McDermott has to go on a self flagellation tour to acknowledge for everyone. It's much easier to know that you are correct than witness that you are wrong. Plus, it's bad form for the victim to protest too much.

Bad defense is when you don't try, don't help with the pick and roll, fade back into the lane, lay off too much. McDermott always tries. Plus, defense is primarily team oriented. Watch many of your stars. McDermott may be all-defense compared with Stephen Curry.

McDermott will have to wear that one, but his true value is with his shooting. And this is a season he really could bust through and make a difference for the Bulls. He's the best three-point shooter on the roster, and he's mostly been misused or underutilized in his two seasons with the Bulls.

Though the front line is somewhat crowded these days. So it will be intriguing to see how that develops.

McDermott has been better than he's seemed or credited, swallowed up in two seasons of Bulls injuries and changes.

He actually started fast as a rookie with a dozen points in two of his first four games, shooting just below 50 percent overall. But suddenly he was playing just garbage time for no particular reason and then had a knee procedure and never got back into the lineup. So much for the rookie season.

McDermott had a strong summer league last season, but then got lost with the give and take of new coach Hoiberg and the habits of the remaining veterans. McDermott found his footing—and stroke--some after the All-Star break, averaging 11.4 points in 24 minutes the last two months and 14.4 in February on 52 percent shooting. He still wasn't even getting 10 shots per game.

"It's been a whirlwind, all gone by so fast and so many different things happening in a short amount of time," McDermott said of his two years. "My first year, obviously, was not how I expected it. I had a great summer league and my confidence was high. That first game even in the NBA I felt good, and then things just started going wrong and then I got injured and that first year became like a red shirt year. But I kind of got my body right. It was kind of a blessing in disguise for me because I don't think I was quite ready for the NBA.

"I feel I changed my body (athletically)," McDermott said. "I give a lot of credit to the Bulls strength staff. I've been working with them and trusted them since Day 1. I thank those guys every day. I'm doing the lifting and it has made me a better player and kept me healthier. I ended up missing just one game last season, which was also a goal to play a whole season. So I thank them a lot.

"This last year I was a lot more comfortable," McDermott agreed. "I don't know what to expect (now) because it's kind of the unknown, but I think there's a lot of excitement about it because we'd had the last two years not going the way we wanted and now we have a whole different deal. I think everyone is looking forward to it."

McDermott admits he's had a tendency to become somewhat paralyzed with self analysis. He had so much collegiate success at Creighton, becoming a lottery pick, the Bulls trading two first round picks for the right to draft him, and then he slipped into a maelstrom of internal struggle and debate.

McDermott said his remedy was to work through while maintaining belief, and he still did remain among the league's best three-point shooters. He said he's worked to improve his two-point percentage, which is barely better than his three, by finishing more accurately with an impressive floater. He's hardly just the stand still college shooter. There's a lot more to his game.

"I know we had the injuries," McDermott acknowledged about last season. "It's not an excuse, but I don't think we clicked well; there was something off. But I think our coaching staff is doing a really good job this offseason, especially with us young guys who have been around. They have brought in some good pieces and it's up to us; we have guys who have won rings, we have Jimmy Butler back and a great young core. So we are excited to get started.

"I've always been someone who is probably too big a perfectionist," McDermott admitted. "Sometimes I can't let things go. But I've really grown in that area to move onto the next game. I feel after the All-Star break everything started to click for me. Now on the Select team (a second time). It's cool and an honor; I'm comfortable where I am at.

"I want to build on last year," McDermott added. "I shot the ball really well from the perimeter, but my mid range can get a lot better and my in between and not being just a spot up. I think Fred's system will allow me to move around more without the ball. We saw a little bit of that last year, but I feel I'll have to do that more with the respect I'll get from the perimeter. I just have to continue to grow."

And perhaps just the right time to blossom with a Bulls group deceptively young and athletic.