Why the Bulls selected Tony Snell with the 20th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft might have not been readily apparent to casual observers before Wednesday night's preseason home opener, a 96-81 victory over Detroit.
But after the rookie's torrid first-half shooting display, it quickly became clear why the organization so highly coveted the quiet, lanky 6-foot-7 swingman's skill set. The New Mexico product scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting, including 2-for-4 from three-point range, to go along with four assists and three steals, showcasing a smooth outside stroke, solid defensive instincts, good court vision for his size and just an overall nice feel for the game.
Not having played for a high-profile college program, Snell's July summer-league stint with the Bulls in Las Vegas, in which he fared decently, gave glimpses of his potential, but after an unassertive first three preseason games, he's been slow to make his presence felt during the exhibition slate. But instead of worrying about his offense, Snell chose to focus on another aspect of his game.
"Definitely defense. I knew my offense was going to come. As long as my defense is consistent, I'm fine with that," he said after the game. "They just told me to keep shooting the ball. Eventually I would find my shot. So I just kept shooting and I found it tonight.
"I just kept shooting. I know eventually they were going to fall in. They tell me to keep shooting the ball and eventually it's going to go in and it went in tonight," Snell went on to say. "It gave me a little bit of a boost, but as long as I'm playing good defensively, my confidence is always going to stay up."
With his slender frame, it could be expected that Snell would need time to adjust to the rigors of NBA basketball, though he gained strength over the summer through extensive work in the Berto Center weight room. That, in addition to the speed of games, which is faster than on the college level, starting to slow down for him, helped him speed up his learning curve, just in time for the Bulls' home crowd to be dazzled by his high ceiling in his United Center debut.
"Of course, because it's real physical in this league. Now that I'm getting stronger in the weight room, I feel that I can hang with them," Snell explained. "Practice really helps me for the games. It makes the game easier.”
He also said that his conditioning along with the mental aspect of the game is steadily improving.
"It's a little slower now. It's still fast-paced, but I guess I'm in shape now. I feel great. I'm in the weight room and it just started to slow down for me a little bit," he continued. "Every game I feel I'm learning something, just picking up on everything real quick. I feel I'm more comfortable out there. I'm learning the system. I feel great."
Snell isn't the typical NBA first-round draft choice, as he wasn't a household name in California high-school circles growing up outside Los Angeles, wasn't heavily recruited as a teammate of San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard and after going from an Arizona prep school for a post-graduate year to New Mexico, he still remained under the radar and wasn't expected to declare for the draft until a strong Mountain West Conference tournament last spring in his junior season.
That background contributes to his unassuming nature-although he admitted to being excited for his first game in Chicago during a quiet moment in the Bulls' locker room beforehand-but despite not being much of a talker, his teammates acknowledge that he has plenty to offer on the court.
"He can really shoot the ball. Tony's a worker," praised Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah, who made his season debut Wednesday. "He's been putting in a lot of extra work and Tony's a hell of a player. He's somebody who listens every day in practice and wants to get better. Very quiet player, but somebody who's just going to get better every game as the season goes along."
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau only briefly singled out Snell's first-half performance-"I thought the first half, he was very good. Our second unit did a very good job," referring to the 15-3 second-quarter run the team's reserves used to break open the game before halftime-but the proof was in the pudding, as he opted to leave Snell on the floor with his starting lineup, which was missing shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who sat out the game because of a bruised left knee suffered in Saturday's win in Brazil.
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The fact that Snell didn't look out of place with the Bulls' starters bodes well for his future, as he fit right in with the likes of Derrick Rose, making his return to the United Center. His poise, unselfishness, playmaking ability and of course, defensive focus are all qualities that, while regular rookie-year playing time is far from a definite in a wing rotation featuring Butler, All-Star small forward Luol Deng and experienced veteran reserves Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy Jr., at least will help him earn Thibodeau's trust moving forward.
And if Snell can continue to knock down outside shots to stretch opposing defenses, his future as a major contributor will not only be solidified, but could come quicker than expected.