After two games in the NBA summer league, the guard who is leading the 2-0 Bulls backcourt in scoring, assists and shooting is not the first round draft pick, Denzel Valentine. It’s not the player who came from New York in the big Derrick Rose trade, Jerian Grant. It’s not the point guard who has been starting games with Valentine and Grant, Dez Wells, the undrafted free agent out of Maryland.
It’s been the guy whom the Bulls released for free agency salary cap signing space, Spencer Dinwiddie, who spent much of the last two seasons in the D-league for Detroit before being traded to the Bulls before the draft for Cameron Bairstow.
“I’m happy to be here and excited to play with these guys,” Dinwiddie said after team practice Monday. “When they first traded for me they said they believed in me and had a plan for me.”
And it could be a surprising role off the bench in the backcourt.
In the two games, Dinwiddie is averaging 12 points, second to Bobby Portis’ 12.5. He’s the only guard shooting above 40 percent, at 44.4 and he is leading in assists.
It’s a long way from being released and then returning to the team last week, and even longer from a massive ACL tear in early 2014 that also included his medial and lateral meniscus. But Dinwiddie, a physical big guard who has pushed the ball most effectively in the two games, is a confident, determined worker who returned from the devastating injury as quickly as any basketball player.
Just seven months after rehabbing with the trainer for NFL player Adrian Peterson, who also had an expedited return, Dinwiddie was back on the court as a draft choice of the Detroit Pistons, a positive, articulate kid who decided to declare for the draft as a junior despite being on crutches.
It sent Dinwiddie’s draft stock plummeting into the second round from a previously projected top 20 or maybe even lottery choice. But Dinwiddie, a solid 6-6 and 210 pounds, stood strong. Though, yes, on crutches.
“My belief in myself never wavered,” said Dinwiddie, who played at the U. of Colorado. “Being a first rounder, the biggest difference would have been financial stability. But either way you want to get to your second contract to attain that. I felt confident in my abilities and in limited time I feel I have shown I am a player in this league.
“I wasn’t that disappointed about going into the second round because I knew the possibility when I declared,” Dinwiddie noted. “If I had been healthy and projected in the top 20 and then fell into the second round I’d have been hurt. But I knew that possibility was likely and I was ready.
“The injury was very devastating,” Dinwiddie admitted. “Having it on national TV and the full range of emotions in front of everybody, it wasn’t an easy time for me and my family. At the time, with the severity of the injury people didn’t think I was going to play four years (in college). It was a tough time, but I came back in seven months. Just hard work. During my time in the league, I heard questions on my work ethic, which is crazy to me because I cut an injury recovery in half, almost. I tore my MCL and medial and lateral meniscus, too. All in one play and the first time I was really injured.
“They were saying anything can happen (in a return),” Dinwiddie recalled. “Maybe at three months your meniscus fails, at four months when you jump maybe your meniscus, maybe you clean it up and there may be debris. To get through all those hurdles and come back in seven months, cut the timeline almost in half and have people question whether I want to play the game and work ethic is kind of crazy. I grew up in a religious household and I am a religious man; as much as I had adversity, I hadn’t to that degree where my dream had almost been taken away. My attitude was if you do get hurt you do. I knew if I did get hurt that early it would be over anyway. More than likely it would be curtains if I did something early.
“But I just went out there and wanted to have fun and it was a blessing,” said Dinwiddie. “Haven’t had any knee injuries since or problems.”
Which may be good for the Bulls as Dinwiddie’s play early in the summer league is giving him an edge over Grant in the battle for backup guard minutes.
It’s been more difficult for Grant, averaging 10.5 points but leading the team in turnovers and two of 11 on threes.
“At first when you get traded you are surprised,” Grant said about being in the Rose trade. “You don’t know why you are leaving. But once you sit back and begin to realize, ‘I get to Chicago where my uncle played, a team that wanted me.” So I was excited. I asked my uncle Horace about it and he said, “Chicago is a great place to be.’
“I had a lot of ups and downs last season, a lot of inconsistency, 20 minutes one game, two minutes the next, 25 minutes and then you don’t play at all,” noted Grant. “It affected my game and my confidence.
“I thought I was going to come in, run a bunch of pick and rolls with the ball in my hands,” said Grant. “But obviously having Carmelo (Anthony), playing in the triangle offense, it’s different. You don’t get to really run the show as a point guard; you kind of set everybody up and everybody does their own thing.
“Being on the court inconsistent minutes you get in and begin thinking ‘Do I shoot this? I want to stay in so maybe I should pass it.’ It’s tough to play like that,” said Grant, who seems still to be adjusting to a different offense. “I started the last month of last season (averaging 14.5 points and 3.7 assists in 31 minutes over six games). So I played with more confidence. They’ve told me how much I fit with what they are trying to do.”
Still, it’s been an adjustment and in the meanwhile Dinwiddie seems to have nudged ahead.
Though there’s a long way to go before rotations and training camp, some questions regarding the reserves are being answered at summer league with the point guard position and use of big men, like Portis and Cristiano Felicio. Dinwiddie has been one of the more pleasant surprises.
“I thought Spencer was great,” coach Fred Hoiberg said after the Sunday win over the 76ers as the Bulls resume play Tuesday. “He 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.”
Rajon Rondo will be the starting point guard, but the Bulls still are looking for a backup to push the ball and Dinwiddie has shown progress and promise. Though another guard could also be added in free agency with open roster spots.
“Obviously Rondo is our starting PG,” agreed Dinwiddie. “I want to be part of that second unit. Whatever facet I can be to help out and help the team win games. I was excited when I was traded. The Bulls were one of the teams that were after me in that draft, and they said they’ve liked me and it seemed like I’d get an opportunity.”
Dinwiddie was even known as, “the Mayor,” in college for his cool maturity and confidence running the team. Hoiberg, the Bulls other nicknamed Mayor, doesn’t seem threatened. Dinwiddie was a certain high first round pick with his exceptional guard size, ability to create, make a shot and play both guard positions. He was so highly regarded that even after the injury, he still was considered perhaps a low first rounder. He went No. 38 to Detroit and with a surplus of guards went back and forth to the D-league. He had a few big NBA games, including 12 points and nine assists in his first career start in 2014-15 against the Bulls.
But the Pistons couldn’t find a spot and traded him to the Bulls last month.
He was released to accommodate signings, and that seemed the end of his Bulls career. But he could be on the way to a roster spot the way he’s played this summer.
It’s a great story considering the end of his college career in excruciating pain with the ACL tear.
“After the injury, I sought out Adrian Peterson’s trainer, Russ Paine in Houston, because he had a very quick recovery,” said Dinwiddie, who fought through his own pain thanks to the help of Paine. “After I declared for the draft, I left school the end of April and went to Houston and trained and trained and trained and rehabbed and rehabbed and rehabbed. And I was able to make it happen.”
And he may with this Bulls team as well.