When starting wings Jimmy Butler and All-Star small forward Luol Deng were most recently healthy at the same time, Bulls rookie swingman Tony Snell endured a stretch of three consecutive games in which he essentially had fallen out of the rotation, playing around five minutes a night.
Asked if he was struggling with basically playing garbage minutes after playing upwards of 20 minutes per game since the Circus Trip, Snell was confident in his answer: “Not at all,” he told CSNChicago.com.
“That was just an opportunity I had to take advantage of and try my best to help the team win. Now, we have our starters back. I’m going to still continue to work hard, continue to learn from Jimmy and Lu and just watch them play.”
Well, Deng and Butler are out of the lineup again, and Snell regained his starting spot, albeit by default, Thursday evening in Oklahoma City. On the surface, it wasn’t a bad outing, as he scored 10 points in 41 minutes of play. But Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was none too pleased with the New Mexico product’s 4-for-15 shooting in the game, even excusing the fact that he was tasked with defending Thunder superstar Kevin Durant in the loss.
“Some good and bad. He played a lot of minutes. He had a tough matchup, I thought. When you’re guarding Durant, your hands are full, and so I think it was good overall,” Thibodeau said. “There’s some things he’s got to do a lot better. I think the balance on his shots could be better, and we’ve got to work on that with him.”
For Thibodeau, who rarely criticizes his players publicly, that meant making it clear to Snell exactly what was expected of him. The rookie seemed to get the message Saturday, scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range, to go along with five rebounds, three assists and solid defense in the Bulls’ 100-84 win over Cleveland at the United Center. Coincidentally, Snell’s career-high 18 points were notched in the team’s last game against the Cavaliers, a road loss.
“Well, I didn’t like the way he was playing, and we talked about it. But I liked when he first got into the rotation. I thought he was taking good shots and he was shooting a very high percentage, and I thought he started forcing a little bit. Tonight, I thought he played like he had been playing when he first got into the rotation and that’s really the way he plays, and I thought it’s one of his great strengths. Very few guys come into the league and have a good understanding of when to shoot and when to pass, and the game tells you,” Thibodeau explained. “You can’t predetermine, ‘Oh, I’m going to be more aggressive, and I’m going to shoot every time I touch it.’ When you do that, you’re going to shoot a low percentage. But when you take the right shots, you’ll be in rhythm and you’re going to shoot a high percentage, so I thought tonight was his best game because he got back to doing what he does well.
“I loved the way Tony played. I thought he didn’t force anything. He shot when he was open, passed when he was guarded. He competed defensively. That probably was his best game as a pro.”
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls rout Cavaliers to snap losing streak]
Indeed, Snell’s pure outside marksmanship, excellent feel for the game, length and high activity level on defense, overall versatility and subtle playmaking ability were all on his display Saturday, as the Bulls snapped a four-game losing streak. What was also snapped was the rookie’s short-lived overly aggressive offensive mentality.
“Yeah, looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking, but that’s what the coaches are there for, to help me try to get my mind right, make sure we’re on the same page,” he explained sheepishly but in his typically earnest demeanor. “Just being more patient. Being more patient offensively and making sure I sprint back defensively so they don’t get transition points.
“I feel great. The longer I’m out there on the court, the better I’m learning. I’m still watching, still watching the veterans. When I’m out there, try to do the best that I can to help.”
Even for a mature rookie, which Snell appears to be, on occasional wake-up call can go a long way.