An in-depth look at Bulls rookie Tony Snell's journey, development

An in-depth look at Bulls rookie Tony Snell's journey, development
July 21, 2013, 7:15 pm
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Bulls first-round draft pick Tony Snell experienced mixed results in the team’s summer-league action in Las Vegas, posting averages of 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in five games.

Beyond the numbers, the 6-foot-7 swingman displayed flashes of his potential, proving to be a smooth ballhandler and capable playmaker for his size, active and versatile on defense, possessing a high basketball I.Q. and although his shots didn’t fall consistently, an effortless stroke from long range and off the dribble. Like most NBA novices, he also struggled with the speed and physical nature of the professional game, particularly the latter—his biggest weakness, literally, is his lack of strength—and while the organization has high long-terms expectations for his development, a debut season watching the squad’s veteran wing corps and playing spot minutes wouldn’t be surprising, as is typical for rookies under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

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But no matter how the first year of his NBA career unfolds, the journey the New Mexico product embarked upon to arrive in Chicago is somewhat remarkable, though considering the Bulls’ history of drafting first-round sleepers, it should be expected.

Similar to Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, Snell is a bit of a late bloomer when compared to the normal trajectory of most NBA prospects. Although he’s from a big metropolitan area known as a hotbed for basketball, Snell wasn’t the typical highly-touted prep prospect and even after a solid three-year college career for a successful program, he didn’t immediately jump out to many observers as a definite first-round selection. But his package as both a player and a person—diligent, coachable and focused—is exactly what the Bulls prize most.

The oldest of four siblings, Snell moved around frequently in the vicinity of Los Angeles, eventually settling in what's known as the Inland Empire region, where he transferred from Moreno Valley High School to King High School in Riverside, Calif., teaming up with current San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard to form a duo that beat nationally-ranked powerhouse Mater Dei en route to win the 2009 California state championship.

Not a high-profile name due to not having played on the AAU circuit—partly because he was occupied by babysitting his younger siblings when his single mother was working—Snell played sidekick to Leonard for King, but still wasn’t regarded as a household name on the area’s hoops scene.

“I knew of him before the summer of his junior year. The thing that stuck out to me—he wasn’t as tall as he is now—but the same type of dimensions: long arms, broad shoulders, and big hands, quick laterally, smooth. He wasn’t a great offensive player by any stretch of the imagination, but he had those same types of physical dimensions and athletic gifts,” recalled Frank Burlison, a long-time, highly-regarded Southern California basketball writer. “When he was in high school because he was so gangly and he was kind of unassuming, Kawhi was such a forceful—not so much personality because he’s quiet, too—but just forceful in the way he plays that Snell had to play off him. So he would spot up in the corners and Kawhi would kick it to him, and he made plays, like blocking shots and just do little things that showed off his athleticism and his innate ability to run and jump, and he could always catch and shoot it. Then, he went to New Mexico and obviously you just can’t do that, so he kind of evolved.”

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Not only was Snell a sleeper, he had to shore up his academics in order to become an NCAA qualifier, so he enrolled at Westwind Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., for a post-graduate year, playing with Memphis Grizzlies second-round pick Jamaal Franklin, who starred in college at San Diego State University. But even before that, after his senior year at King, he joined Team eLEAte, founded by former Pepperdine University guard Marvin Lea—the program’s namesake, Lea also coached Leonard, who went on to attend San Diego State, where he played alongside Bulls power forward Malcolm Thomas—to play AAU for the first time in his career.

“I first met Tony his senior year, when he was playing at King with Kawhi Leonard. He was playing center, so we didn’t get a chance to see what he could really do, but you could tell by the way he moved and his natural jump shot and the little bit that he handled the ball, that he had talent and he could do more than what he was showing. Then, when he played with us all spring on our AAU program, Team eLEAte, that was when we put him at point guard,” recounted Clint Parks, another Team eLEAte coach, explaining why Snell was overlooked by both talent evaluators and high-major college coaches.

“He was just so under the radar. He grew a lot. He didn’t play AAU basketball, so that was another thing. That all contributed to it. On the other hand, he was probably misidentified. These experts, they don’t always get it right. Having that eye for talent, the Bulls, their scouting department, they have an eye for that. Not everyone has that. I think it was pretty obvious, but sometimes people can’t project or get to know a kid’s work ethic.”

Burlison added: “[Snell’s recruitment at King was] probably just low-major and he had to go improve his academics, so out of sight, out of mind. When that happens, a lot of the programs that recruit high-major players, obviously they didn’t pursue him. So, he wasn’t always the guy that had 20 Internet guys call him every night. He wasn’t a spotlight player, but everybody who knew and understood basketball that watched him knew that he could be a very good player in the right setting. It certainly happened at New Mexico.”

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Snell wasn’t a star immediately in Albuquerque, but he was a contributor as a freshman for Lobos head coach Steve Alford (now at UCLA), averaging 4.4 points in 17.5 minutes per game. He started to show his considerable potential, as a sophomore, breaking into the starting lineup and putting up averages of 10.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists a contest, while shooting 38.7 percent from three-point range and earning a reputation for his defensive abilities, en route to honorable mention all-Mountain West and all-conference tournament honors for a deep and talented team that won its league and two games in the NCAA Tournament.

“Both of my AAU coaches [Parks and Lea], they really helped me get here. They taught me you’ve got to play hard, just gave me an opportunity to play my game. Both of them really helped me out a lot,” Snell said. “[Alford] did a lot for me. He taught me a lot about the game, helped me to get my footwork right and learn how to play the game—college ball—and helped me to work hard, and anything I needed to improve on, he helped me improve on it.

“Definitely my confidence, being able to talk, being able to walk with my head high—I used to walk with my head low—and that was a little tough transition. But just to walk with my head high, walk with confidence and just be a little more social to people.”

No longer overshadowed by the likes of star big man Drew Gordon his junior year, though he still shared the spotlight with point guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk, Snell wasn’t a consistently dominant scoring force for a nationally-ranked team, but the subtleties of his game, as well as a breakout performance in the 2013 Mountain West conference tournament, of which he was named MVP. Although the Lobos were upset by Harvard in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Snell was optimistic enough in the boost to his stature as an NBA prospect that he declared for the draft.

“He was pretty good as a sophomore and certainly had a breakthrough junior season, and a monstrous Mountain West tournament. He did a lot of things to show that he was an elite-level prospect. I’m sure the way he played in that tournament probably had a great deal with him deciding to go out and see what he could do NBA-wise,” Burlison said. “It just seemed like you always saw glimpses at New Mexico for two years off and on, but once the Mountain West tournament started, you could tell that he was getting more confident.”

Parks chimed in: “From his senior year to prep school, he turned into a guard, being a leader and running his team. From there, going to New Mexico, he started to become a lockdown defender over the course of his career. At New Mexico, he gained strength in the weight room and really started to work. He probably put on about 20 pounds in three years. He became a much better shooter off of curls and moving without the ball. The things he added to the game in college, credit Coach Alford for that.”

Observers like Parks and Burlison, who have closely monitored Snell’s development over the years, aren’t surprised by his progress and expect similar growth in the future. The swingman’s work ethic and humility as a human being jibe well with the Bulls, whose players are known for their selflessness. From his experiences playing center in high school and point guard at prep school, then finding his niche as a versatile defender and outside marksman in college, in addition to his work ethic and coachable demeanor, it’s to see why the lanky wing, while still clearly in need of further development, is believed to have such a high ceiling.

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Bulls general manager Gar Forman’s California ties likely helped the organization zero in on Snell and based on how Thibodeau’s preference for capable defenders and the team’s needs, the wing’s talents are an excellent match, especially considering his potential for both knocking down open shots off penetration from former league MVP Derrick Rose and being able to create off the dribble.

“In Tony’s case, we saw a guy that could be a secondary handler, that could push it out in transition, that could play in pick-and-rolls some,” Forman said at the introductory press conference for Snell and second-round pick Erik Murphy. “Even play some point guard and initiate offense out front.”

Snell added that afternoon: “I’ve been watching the Bulls ever since I was a little kid and just to have the opportunity to put a jersey on, that means a whole lot to me.

“I expect to learn from the veterans, just try to pick up on the plays and just try to work as hard as I can, just learn as much as I can,” continued the Scottie Pippen fan, a lofty comparison he’s garnered thus far. “I just bring hard work. If you tell me to do something, I’ll go do it.

“I don’t compare myself to anybody. I just play my game.”

Snell spoke to Leonard, who also had the good fortune to be drafted by a contending team—although the Spur had the opportunity to step into San Antonio’s starting lineup as a rookie, something that won’t happen in Chicago with Butler and All-Star Luol Deng at the wing positions—on draft night.

“[Leonard] congratulated me, and just said, ‘Keep working hard. You never know where it takes you.’” Snell recalled. “It’s a perfect example. He shows whatever you put mind to and you put your work into it, you can be successful.”

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While it’s easy to compare Snell to his former teammate Leonard, who had the opportunity to step right into the Spurs’ starting lineup as a rookie, because of their long wingspans—and similar hairstyles; braids are becoming rarer in the NBA—their games have very basic differences. Although both are defensive-oriented players, Snell is more of a natural long-range shooter and ballhandler, and Leonard possesses a sturdier frame with more interior tendencies on offense. Their most obvious shared trait is that neither is very talkative and wears the same blank facial expression on the floor, regardless of whether they’ve just made a mistake or a big play.

“He’s kind of like Kawhi. Quiet, he doesn’t say a lot, he doesn’t do a lot to bring attention, as far as vocally or demonstratively, other than just kind of playing hard in the games and doing what he has to do. They’re both very, very coachable. I think that’s what sets them apart from a lot of guys that are talented at that age. Some of these guys can fool themselves because of all the attention from travel-team coaches or Internet guys. They kind of lose the perspective of what exactly you have to do to go from just a good high school player and good prospect to being a good college player or possibly an NBA player,” said Burlison, who stressed that he isn’t comparing their individual games or saying Snell will have the same meteoric rise in the NBA as Leonard.

“Just like Tony, people said, ‘Well, he shot 30 percent and he’s passive’—well, being passive and doing what your coach wants you to do because that’s what’s best for the team, that’s not passive. That’s being a very coachable ballplayer, who understands it’s about winning and doing what it takes to help the team win, not showing off your skills to media or scouts.”

Parks concurred: “Everybody always asks me and one thing I want people to know is that he does not play like Kawhi Leonard or [retired NBA player] Darius Miles. That’s one thing I know for sure, outside of the hair.

“He knows he’s special, but he’s a team-first guy. He’s always willing to do whatever is best for the team and I think that might be his biggest weakness in the past, but I also think that might be his biggest strength in the past, and that was identified by Gar and Thibs and the scouting department. He played center in high school and that just shows you he’s willing to do whatever is asked of him. If you ask him to shut down the other team’s best player, he’ll do that. If you ask him to pass the ball into the post, he’ll do that. If you ask him to come off screens, he’ll do that. He knows he has the tools, but he’s a team-first guy in every sense of the word,” the coach continued to explain.

“He’s going to show up and be a professional. He’s going to listen, he’s going to be coachable, he’s going to make open shots and he’s going to play defense. I think all of those things translate. The biggest I think is that he’s going to be a pro. Now, he’s going to have to adjust to the game and those type of things, but from his mentality and his mindset and the way he carries himself, he’s a pro right now and he has been. That’s going to play in his favor, especially playing on a deep team and a team expecting to compete for a championship. You bring a rookie in on a team like that; I think he’s going to fit in.

“He’s someone who doesn’t care about stats. He just wants to win and you can’t teach that. He’s not putting a premium on, ‘Man, did I make shots? Did I get the ball?’ He’s going to do whatever it takes to win. That was his biggest thing at New Mexico. We never talked to him about stats because he said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. We’re winning.’ It’s about the team, about winning and I’ll probably never coach a kid like that from that standpoint probably ever. I’d be really lucky because it’s really about the team. It’s not lip service. It’s legitimate,” the coach went on to say. “Some kids in the draft, you talk about, ‘Man, is he going to be able to stay focused? Is he going to be able to handle all this?’ He’s still on Cloud Nine. He’s playing on the Bulls now, but he hasn’t changed, he hasn’t skipped a beat. He knows that getting drafted was one journey and the beginning of another. He’s got to write this next chapter.”

He won’t be Leonard, Pippen or Penny Hardaway (a comparison the admittedly-biased Parks cited) in the NBA, at least not from the outset. But with his track record of improvement and unique skills, just being Tony Snell will be good enough to make an impact for the Bulls, whether in the near future or down the road.