It’s not quite a make or break season for Doug McDermott. After all, it’s just the third NBA season for the Bulls best three-point shooter, and only the second when he’s even in the playing rotation.
But perhaps in some ways McDermott’s success, or progress, carries some make or break for the Bulls season. The Bulls need someone to spread the court, make those three pointers and get that scoreboard clicking from long range. No one on the roster is better equipped to do so than McDermott. Can he? Will he?
As the Bulls Thursday prepare to close their preseason with a sentimental matchup in Omaha, Neb., featuring former Creighton stars McDermott and Kyle Korver, McDermott considered his progress and the coming season. Perhaps unfairly, but hanging over McDermott even with his role as a sixth man, is whether he can regain some of the extraordinary scoring ability he possessed when he was in Omaha full time.
"I feel it’s going well,” McDermott said about the drive to the 2016-17 season. “It’s been a really good camp. I think I’ve shot it pretty well overall. I got a little tired the second half (Monday, 0-3 in the second half against Charlotte). But that’s more a product of playing a lot of minutes and a long camp. I feel real comfortable with where I am with the team: Being a knock down shooter off the bench and being a solid rotation player.
“A lot more comfortable (this season), a lot more confident,” McDermott added. “My teammates believe in me. It’s great having a guy like (Rajon) Rondo as your point guard because he’s always looking for you. Then coming off pin downs, floppy actions for me. I feel a lot more comfortable in year three and I’m very excited about the regular season starting.”
More obvious by coach Fred Hoiberg’s actions than comments, he is relying on McDermott to show more of the extraordinary shooting and scoring prowess McDermott did in college in becoming the 11th pick in the 2014 draft.
McDermott delivered some of that versatility in a dozen games last February with Nikola Mirotic out. McDermott averaged 14.4 points on 52 percent overall shooting, opening some eyes with driving baseline dunks and an arsenal of runners and floaters he was known for at Creighton. McDermott did shoot 42.5 percent on threes last season, fifth in the NBA. But after that February run his playing time and scoring decreased amidst the juggle of rotations again.
So Hoiberg seemed to be sending a signal in preseason.
McDermott was by far the Bulls leader in minutes played, averaging just under 29 minutes. He was shooting above 40 percent on threes until that finish Monday brought him just below. Still, McDermott is second on the team in scoring in the preseason to Taj Gibson at 12.5 points. The message, apparently, to McDermott is that he’s going to be out there because the Bulls badly need his scoring and shooting. And perhaps for the team to make some judgments. McDermott for the first time becomes eligible for a contract extension after this season. Is he a big part of the Bulls future? They sure need someone to shoot like he does.
Mirotic hurt his back in Monday’s game and won’t travel to Omaha. There is no report on whether he’ll be ready for next week’s opener. Denzel Valentine is not ready to return from his sprained ankle. But Hoiberg said he should be ready for opening night, Oct. 27 against Boston.
Though players like Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are proven scorers, the Bulls come into this season with questions about producing enough offense. It’s hoped Mirotic and McDermott can provide that perimeter shooting, though McDermott is considered easily the best shooter on the team.
Can he bust out and increase his scoring average from the 9.4 of last season? If he produces the same escalation he did from his rookie year when he averaged three points, the Bulls will like where they stand.
It’s been an uneven path for the celebrated collegian. The 6-8 forward had a minor meniscus surgery early in his rookie year and never got into the rotation after that, playing 321 minutes for the season.
McDermott played in 81 games last season, but essentially without anyone to throw him the ball.
Playing off the bench, McDermott played with primarily shooting point guards, like Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore. Butler and Derrick Rose often played isolation basketball and Pau Gasol generally was the recipient of passes from Rose and Butler.
Which is why the late acquisition of Michael Carter-Williams may be more important for McDermott and the team’s offense. Though Carter-Williams isn’t a shooter, he is more the playmaker than the point guards the Bulls have had in training camp.
“He can guard multiple positions, a rookie of the year, so I think it will be exciting playing with him,” said McDermott.
With Rondo, that gives the Bulls a pair of point guards who last season combined for almost 18 assists per game, Rondo leading the NBA. It should benefit a shooter like McDermott, who also can expand his game with those drives and floaters.
The question with McDermott always will be about his defense. He is aware of the regular criticism and said he’s worked hard to improve.
“Having a guy like (assistant coach) Jim Boylan around all summer has been great for me,” said McDernott. “I think he's one of the best defensive minds in the NBA. We watch film together. We all know it's not going to be perfect every night. As long as I'm in the right spots. I think the thing about this group is our communication's a lot better and everyone has each other's back and that's really helped me, too.”
Which really is the essential component of defense. Every team has poor defenders, and many top stars have been poor defenders, from Charles Barkley to Larry Bird. James Harden remains one of the league’s poorest defenders and is an MVP candidate this season. McDermott won’t score like those players. But with a defensive improvement at center in Robin Lopez and a commitment to better teamwork on the defensive end, McDermott can be effective.
Then it’s just about what he does best, making those shots.
And perhaps another in Nebraska Thursday.
The Bulls had McDermott’s first homecoming in Lincoln, Neb., last year, a preseason game with Dallas in which McDermott hit the game winner with a second left for a one-point victory.
So it’s time for a little fun first. The game will be in Creighton’s home arena. McDermott’s father, Greg, remains Creighton men’s basketball coach. The practice court at Creighton is named for Korver and the player’s lounge is named for McDermott, two of the greatest basketball stars in university history.
Korver’s career track is perhaps an advisory about making premature judgments. Korver in four seasons at Creighton was two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Year and finalist for the Wooden, Naismith and Robertson awards. McDermott was two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Year and won those three awards.
Korver started in his second and third seasons with the 76ers and then not for five years, including two with the Bulls, before becoming an All-Star for the first time at age 33. McDermott shot 41 percent his first two seasons in the NBA on threes; Korver shot 40 percent. In Korver’s third NBA season in 31 minutes per game, he averaged 11.5 points and shot 42 percent on threes on the way to what’s become an excellent career as one of the game’s premier shooters. It sometimes takes time, but it would be nice for the Bulls if this season were one of those times. Though first a bit of a pleasant distraction.
"This year I’m more looking forward to it,” said McDermott. “Last year I was a little nervous going into it after not playing my rookie year, going home right before the regular season. But this year I know what I’m getting myself into and looking forward to seeing familiar faces and getting ready for the season and having fun.”
The Bulls also will have some joy if McDermott can continue to relax and carry that positive attitude and production into the regular season. It’s a big one for him. If he can improve, it could be a big one for the team.