Because Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard was injured when the Bulls visited San Antonio for a late-January win, Bulls rookie swingman Tony Snell’s first NBA matchup with his former high school teammate was postponed. The duo paired up for a state title at King High School in Riverside, Calif., and Snell regards the path of Leonard, who has emerged as one of the league’s better young wings, as something to model.
“He’s a really great player. He motivates me to get better every day because of what he did and what I see he did in high school in college. I feel like I can do the same thing,” Snell explained. “We don’t really stay in touch. But on the court, we just have that mutual respect.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeai is also very respectful of Leonard’s overall game, which consists of physical defense, excellent rebounding prowess for a perimeter player, elite length and athleticism, dynamic finishing ability and an improved outside jumper.
“He’s terrific, his ability to play multiple positions—two, three, four—and he’s one of those guys that if you’re not paying attention to him, he’ll crush you. He moves extremely well without the ball, he’s shooting the ball better and better. There are a lot of things he can do out there, but he plays to win, which obviously you respect a lot,” Thibodeau said. “They have great depth, and you look at that bench and the way those guys are playing, and the thing that makes them so hard to guard is all the shooting they have.”
After barely playing early in the season and starting at various points since December, Snell has a consistent role in the Bulls’ rotation, where he’s expected to not only give the team a boost with his outside shooting, but be an effective defender, something that could be witnessed in him refusing to back down from Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade in Sunday’s home win over Miami.
“I think it was a lot better because I looked at film. I did pretty well. I could have done better, but I just learned from the film and tried to do the best that I can,” Snell said. “I’ve been in the weight room, getting stronger every day and I feel great.
“I just stay ready at all times.”
Thibodeau sees progress in the development of the New Mexico product, enough to trust him with a defensive assignment like defending Wade.
“He’s got to continue to work on it, a little bit better this time. That’s a tough cover for anybody. I don’t think you can guard guys individually, you have to guard them collectively. And so it’s not only the people guarding him, it’s the people around him. And he has to understand what his help responsibilities are. Each day he comes in no matter what. He puts everything he has into each and every day, and that’s what a rookie should do,” the coach explained. ““Well these guys are going to go at your weaknesses, and obviously he’s got to get stronger. He’s coming.
“He’s been steady from the time he got here. Great work every day. He’s had some real good moments. Just have to concentrate on improving and stay ready.”