When it comes to the NBA’s rookie class at this early juncture of the season, few observers would disagree with the statement that Philadelphia point guard Michael Carter-Williams has been the cream of the crop thus far, as the Bulls witnessed firsthand in what then seemed like a shocking road loss to the 76ers.
Behind Carter-Williams, who already appears to at least partially justify the Sixers trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday in a draft-day deal, is Orlando Magic combo guard Victor Oladipo, but after that is where it gets a little dicey. It’s still extremely early, but what was panned as an underwhelming draft appears to be the case thus far.
Sure, there have been pleasant surprises: Steven Adams of the Thunder, though still very raw on offense may be the young, physical, athletic defensive-minded center Oklahoma City has been looking for; Milwaukee’s second-round pick, Nate Wolters, has started half of the Bucks’ games and proven to be a mature floor general; Boston’s Vitor Faverani, a native of Brazil via Italy, is a sleeper; undrafted Australian Matthew Dellavedova, a rugged guard who played his college hoops at St. Mary’s, has played important minutes for the Cavaliers.
Also, injuries have delayed the debuts of some of the more highly-touted players: Sixers center Nerlens Noel is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in college; Portland’s C.J. McCollum hasn’t yet suited up because of a broken foot; ditto for Washington’s Otto Porter, who has a hip injury; Suns center Alex Len has only played in four games thus far and didn’t play for Phoenix’s summer-league team; Mavericks point guard Shane Larkin got off to a late start after suffering a severe ankle injury in July; Jazz point guard Trey Burke has only played in seven games for Utah and has increasingly improved, notching his game high of 21 points Monday night in a win over Houston.
But the norm has been many of the top draft picks struggling, from No. 1 overall selection Anthony Bennett essentially falling out of Cleveland’s rotation to Timberwolves swingman Shabazz Muhammad, the top prep prospect in the nation two years ago, playing in only six of Minnesota’s games and logging just 25 total minutes on the season.
That’s what makes Bulls rookie Tony Snell’s recent showing relatively impressive now and possibly having more significant long-term implications. On the surface, Snell’s last outing, six points in 22 minutes (shooting 2-for-4 from three-point range and dishing out a pair of assists) Monday during the Bulls’ triple-overtime loss to New Orleans, isn’t saying much. But it must be taken into consideration that veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. had the hot hand, scoring a season-high 23 points, including 6-for-10 shooting from three-point range, and when Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau first inserted Snell into the starting lineup before last week’s loss in Utah, some of the rationale was that Dunleavy would be able to give the second unit some needed firepower.
When currently-sidelined starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler returns from his turf-toe injury, Snell is likely to return to the bench, but as a regular and vital member of the Bulls’ rotation, given his willingness to defend, underrated playmaking and ballhandling abilities, and most significantly, his outside-shooting prowess, something so desperately needed on the team. Still, just the fact that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau not only trusted to him to start, regardless of the circumstances, but has been so positive about the rookie’s contributions is a reason to be optimistic.
“I think he’s done a really good job, actually from the point where we drafted him. He worked extremely hard all summer, he did a good job in the preseason and even when he wasn’t playing, he was practicing well. He was really preparing himself to play,” explained Thibodeau, whose past track record with Butler and Marquis Teague, who was assigned to the Bulls’ D-League affiliate Tuesday, suggested that he isn’t keen on playing rookies, though he always makes mention of giving Omer Asik minutes — the center was older and had professional experience internationally, not to mention the Bulls’ had depth issues in the post — early in his NBA career.
“Usually, what happens with those guys, when they work like that and they prepare themselves that way, when the opportunity does roll around, they’re ready for it and he’s done that. So he’s not satisfied. Each day, he comes in, he tries to improve. When he makes a mistake, he tries to correct it and not repeat the same mistake twice. He’s done a good job for us.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how it unfolds,” the coach continued, when asked about Snell’s role upon Butler’s return. “We need everybody. I like what he’s doing. We’re going to see how the team functions. Getting Jimmy back will be a big plus for us.
“I like [Snell’s] demeanor a lot. I think that he’s very serious-minded. He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. He just comes in, it’s all business. It’s important to him, he’s very serious. He’s not afraid. Late in the games, he’s not afraid, so that’s a big plus.”
Snell didn’t receive double-digit playing time in the regular season until the Bulls’ blowout defeat at the hands of the Clippers, their first game without Derrick Rose, so to paraphrase Thibodeau, “throw that out.” He entered the starting lineup in the team’s next game, the following night in Utah and has now started a total of four contests, averaging 11.5 points on 53.1-percent shooting from the field and 42.1-percent shooting from three-point range in those games.
When compared to other players who observers believed the Bulls could have selected with the 20th pick in June’s draft — Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng, who went 21st overall, has played sparingly for the Timberwolves, though the center is averaging a team-high 1.1 blocks per game in limited minutes, while Brooklyn big man Mason Plumlee, the No. 22 selection, has been serviceable for the woeful Nets, averaging 6.9 points and 3.5 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per night — the most obvious player to evaluate is Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
The son of the Chicago native and former All-Star point guard by the same name has seen his minutes fluctuate — some of that is due to the absolute mess that is 3-13 New York: Oak Park, Ill., native Iman Shumpert, a third-year shooting guard, the subject of trade rumors, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith, who signed a contract extension over the summer, off to a horrific start to the campaign — but the 24th overall pick is managing to score 7.3 points per game on 44.3-percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent in 15.4 minutes an evening. Coming off a career-high 21 points in the Knicks’ last game Sunday, Hardaway could become more of a fixture for New York, whether Shumpert is traded or not.
While Snell and Hardaway, an explosive athlete who entered the league with a reputation for being a streaky shooter, have taken advantage of opportunities presented to them due to various circumstances — in the Bulls’ case, injuries; for the Knicks, turmoil — the two rookie shooting guards drafted highest (Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick, is being used more as a primary ballhandler by the Magic and another McCollum, drafted 10th, also projects as more of a scoring combo guard when he eventually suits up) have struggled to find their stride. Lottery picks Ben McLemore of Sacramento and Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are starting for their respective teams, but their levels of success thus far, perhaps affected by the personnel they play with, has been uneven.
McLemore, once projected to be the first player selected, slipped to seventh in the first round and after experiencing major issues with his shot, creating off the dribble in defense during summer league, his stock dropping was somewhat understandable, though the physical tools — including a picture-perfect jumper, a prototypical NBA shooting-guard frame and explosive athleticism — are there. The Kings, under first-year head coach Mike Malone, have started McLemore in nine out of 15 games and he’s averaging 8.8 points in 22.5 minutes per game, with shooting marks of 37.1 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from deep for a 4-11 team.
Caldwell-Pope, the eighth pick, flew under the radar in college, but was billed as a prolific scorer with good range, size and defensive potential. One of the few players on the 7-10 Pistons capable of spacing the floor, Caldwell-Pope has played in 15 of 17 games, with 10 starts under his belt, and per-game averages of 21.1 minutes and 7.4 points on 35 percent shooting from the floor and 27.1 percent from three-point range.
Going beyond the numbers, Hardaway appears to be a stable high-energy, instant-offense type for the Knicks, Caldwell-Pope projects to be a “3-and-D” guy for the Pistons and the hope is that McLemore can become an outside-shooting complement to big man DeMarcus Cousins for the Kings. But all of those teams are in flux, with Malone and new Detroit head coach Maurice Cheeks trying to implement their styles of play and Mike Woodson in jeopardy of losing his job in New York.
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Snell, on the other hand, has entered a situation in Chicago which he seems well-suited for, as his defensive focus has garnered Thibodeau’s respect and on a team needing both players who hit outside shots and create for themselves and others, he does both things, while adding youth and athleticism to the lineup. By no means is he a finished product, as Snell will have to add bulk to his slender frame, but with his strong work ethic, that shouldn’t be an issue and given his versatility and apparently high basketball I.Q., he’ll continue to make adjustments as he gains experience.
Again, it’s still very early — not only in Snell’s career, but in his rookie season — and there’s only a small sample size to judge, but in a year that didn’t yield much immediate-impact talent, the Bulls may have one of the league's better finds.