Bobby Portis Could Become the Stretch Four Chicago Needs

Oct 6, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis (5) reacts after a foul call against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 6, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis (5) reacts after a foul call against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports /

Bobby Portis was the centerpiece of the Chicago Bulls undefeated run through the 2016 NBA Las Vegas Summer League. His confidence was evident as he crashed the boards, brought NBA-level intensity, and shot surprisingly well from the field. Bobby Portis showed signs of becoming one thing that the Chicago Bulls desperately need at power forward – a shooter.

The games, which more resemble scrimmages, that are played in Las Vegas each summer look crowded for the participants, while the seats look mostly empty. Of course, the seats fill up for the Lakers games, but that is an entirely separate story. The NBA summer leagues don’t offer much entertainment beyond the “debut” of the most prominent rookies in the league. This year, all of the players selected with the first 10 picks in the draft were in attendance for the Las Vegas games.

There’s a lot more to it than just the 34 minutes per game that Kris Dunn averaged over the two games that he participated in or the 19.6 points per game of Jamal Murray. There are scores of players who either went undrafted this year or are older and have spent one or more season in either the D-League or Europe. Adding another layer beyond that, there are evaluations to be made of coaches and referees. It’s only a matter of time before Becky Hammon is a head coach in this league. She coached the Spurs to a Las Vegas championship last summer.

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Every participant at all levels is looking to get something different out of their whirlwind week-and-a-half in the desert. The Bulls had a short list. Get a good first look at Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine, then see what Portis and Cristiano Felicio are going to bring into camp.

Each of those players will have roles to fill when the real thing gets going this fall, but none of them carries greater expectations or responsibility heading into 2016-17 than Portis.

When Portis fell to the Bulls in the 2015 draft, they elected to snatch up the best available player on the board, but they dropped the rookie into a deep rotation that featured Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.

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The rookie campaign started out about the way you might expect it to for Portis. After the first two months of the season he had played in just 10 games. As the season wore on, and injuries started picking apart the Bulls roster, Portis saw an increased amount of time on the court. He played more games each in January, February and March than he did in November and December combined.

His performances were both good and not so good during the 2015-16 season. In a December 19 loss to the New York Knicks he scored a season-high 20 points in 23 minutes, shooting 2-for-3 from 3-point range. In a late-January loss to the Los Angeles Clippers he played 18 minutes, scored eight points, shot 0-for-2 from deep and posted an awful -26 plus/minus.

Portis finished his rookie season with averages of 17.8 minutes, seven points and 5.4 rebounds. For a rookie that had a lot of work left in his development, playing behind veterans like Gasol, Noah, Gibson and Mirotic, that isn’t a bad start. It’s also not what the Bulls needed moving forward.

The entire Bulls organization has been, currently is and in the future will be a mess. Team management found a new coach, Fred Hoiberg, with a penchant for pursuing up-tempo offense and scoring while neglecting what some might call basic defense. Then they doubled down by expecting Hoiberg to work his scoring magic with a roster that just spent half a decade in the Siberian training camps of Tom Thibodeau. Sprinkle in all the injury issues and high expectations and you’ve got the recipe for disaster that put the Bulls on the outside looking in when the regular season ended and seven pedestrian teams cruised into the playoffs well ahead of Chicago, joining the future-champs from Cleveland in the dance of inevitability that is the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

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  • Thankfully for the sake of everyone, the 2015-16 season and all of its mishaps has come to an end. Then bizarre reshaping began. Gasol – out. Noah – out. Derrick Rose – traded. Cameron Bairstow – traded. Robin Lopez – acquired. Dwyane Wade – acquired. Rajon Rondo – acquired. Valentine – drafted. Zipser – drafted. Dinwiddie – acquired, waived, rostered for summer league, invited to training camp. Dunleavy – traded.

    Chicago started the off-season activity early and were busy. There just happened to be a very long period of silence where they elected to sit out the competition for all of the prized free agents and shunned the prospect of rebuilding in favor of adding veterans who are ball dominant, bad at perimeter defense and fail to spread the floor in any meaningful way due to erratic 3-point shooting.

    The changes also mean one big thing – Portis and Mirotic are in for bigger roles in the Chicago rotation. Lopez figures to get the starter minutes at center, while Felicio can serve as a backup option. Gibson also could be intriguing as a five in small ball lineups for 2016-17. Taj is also in a tricky position because he is a very talented forward who deserves some starter-type minutes, but lacks the shooting that the Bulls will need from their frontcourt moving forward. The likely incumbent for that starting role then shifts to Mirotic.

    The European product came to the United States with an excess of hype from people all around basketball, yours truly included. Some, not yours truly, even went so far as to dub him a kind of Dirk Nowitzki Lite. That hasn’t come anywhere close to fruition, but there are a number of factors to that which include bizarre injury, playing out of position and being squeezed in the rotation by better players and players already immersed in the NBA way of playing basketball.

    Mirotic can bomb when he’s feeling it and he’s also starting to learn that the NBA doesn’t have a rule which requires every shot or drive that starts on the perimeter to begin with a pump fake, even when unguarded. Strangely, though for the same reasons listed in the previous paragraph, Mirotic does present himself as a bit of an unknown. If he plays at power forward and gets minutes closer to what Pau had last season (31.8) instead of what he averaged in 2015-16 (24.9), he might take off or at least show what his role will be in the NBA moving forward.

    The Bulls can’t rely entirely on Mirtoic and that was probably never their plan. They also didn’t think Portis would be available, but now he is part of the plan. The role he plays will be determined by his improvement in every area of the game, but his biggest asset would be the ability to develop his outside shot to help spread the floor. The Bulls desperately need this now more than ever.

    A look at Portis’ shot chart from 3-point range last season indicates that he didn’t take a lot of shots, and he shot about as well from deep as Rose. That translates as “not good” or “bad” if you aren’t sure what that means.

    There was certainly limited opportunity for Portis in his rookie season, playing just 17.8 minutes per game, but in 62 games he only took at total of 52 3-point shots and one of those was from the back court, which he missed. He shot 30.8 percent on those 52 attempts last season and left a lot to be desired.

    Enter the summer league. While all of the other teams evaluated their prospects, D-Leaguers, and agents got some run for their Euro-bound clients, Portis was letting his game talk for him and his game stood up and said, “Shooting a basketball is lit AF!”

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    There was a poise about Portis, a confidence, that all young players need to dig deep to find when they enter the league. A lot of talented prospects never find it, they get knocked down and never find the strength or courage to get back up. Just 21 years old, Portis wasn’t even one of the oldest players on the Bulls roster in Las Vegas. However, he came in and bossed it like a savvy veteran. He had confidence and intensity. He had confidence to crash the boards. He had confidence to work on his defense. Most importantly, he had the confidence to shoot.

    Seven games in the desert is a lot like the theatrical Wild West portrayed in films. Everyone is a gun for hire and almost everyone is ready to shoot. All sorts of crazy, ill-advised things happen. Many players show up thinking they’re going to play like Will Smith in Wild Wild West, but by the end of the 11 days of mayhem it looks much more like Bone Tomahawk. By the way, here are the first three lines of the Will Smith song “Wild Wild West” which accompanied the movie:

    "Uh, wickey wild wildWicky wicky wildWickey wild, wicky wicky wild wild wild west."

    Those lyrics reflect the play of the summer league more than even Smith himself could have imagined.

    The point is that Portis showed out in the summer league this year. And he turned into a legitimate shooter for seven games. After 52 3-point attempts in 62 games as a rookie, Portis chucked 24 in just seven games at the LVSL. He made 10. Yes, Portis is a 41.7 percent shooter from deep so far in 2016-17. Seven games are a very small sample size, particularly when you factor in that these are just glorified exhibitions, but Portis took himself seriously and he took these games seriously. For the summer, he nearly averaged a double-double with 17.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Great news for his long-range shot – he shot better on his field goals overall and from the free throw line as well. With major improvement across the board there is still the possibility that Portis had seven games of outlier shooting, but it seems to indicate that Portis is evolving into a shooter.

    Even if he doesn’t break into the starting lineup this season, more consistent playing time and more opportunities should reinforce his confidence to keep shooting. Chicago should be particularly excited about the Portis performance in Vegas. There may not be a statistically significant correlation, but the raw numbers indicate that when Portis played and shot well, the Bulls were also doing well. The team was 29-33 in the games Portis played, but he averaged more minutes, 18.1 versus 17.5, when they won. Also, he shot 4.5 percent better on field goals, 7.7 percent better on 3-pointers, and 16.3 percent better from the free throw line in games that Chicago won than he did in games they lost. These numbers likely represent more how the team performed as a whole and didn’t rely on the performance of Portis, but he was a better shooter in Vegas than he was in the games he played last year when the Bulls won which shows just how much progression he had in his personal numbers from the 2015-16 season until now.

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    All of this might end up as nothing: Mirotic could end up turning into the Nowtizkian power forward that everyone hoped he might, Gibson might finally snap from being stuffed further down the depth chart for the seemingly hundredth time, the physical and mental development of Portis might make him a liability in all of the other areas of his game if they don’t rapidly evolve along with his shooting ability. Yet, Portis is shooting significantly better now than he was last year. He is more confident. Most importantly, Chicago needs him to be that confident shooter right now.