NEW ORLEANS — D.J. Augustin’s return to his hometown was a tad bittersweet, as the Bulls fell to the Pelicans, 88-79, Saturday night at New Orleans Arena.
But the native of New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood had a team-high 23 points and seven assists, continuing on what’s been an impressive run since joining the Bulls after being waived by Toronto. Now for the Bulls’ starting point guard, the performance was no anomaly for the former University of Texas All-American, as he entered the evening averaging 13.7 points and six assists per game for the Bulls, along with shooting 42.7 percent from three-point range.
But despite playing sparingly for the Raptors and having an underwhelming campaign for the Pacers a year ago, the floor general has shrugged off his success with the Bulls as simply playing up to his potential.
“Just feeling comfortable, having a rhythm. Being able to play a lot of minutes you get a rhythm and you get a feel for the game. Just feeling comfortable, man,” he explained. “As a basketball player, the more minutes you play, the more you’re out there on the floor, you can get a rhythm. It’s hard to come into a game, play three or four minutes, and then you’re out. It’s tough, I don’t care who you are. But when you’re out there feeling comfortable, playing freely, just playing basketball, you feel good. Coach has done a good job giving me confidence, running plays for me, and my teammates have been doing the same.
“I didn’t expect to come in and fit right away, but I was happy that I got a chance to play. The more games I played, the more I knew the offense, the more comfortable I felt. Now I’m at the point where I know all my plays, I know where all my teammates are supposed to be. When I’m out there I’m just playing freely,” Augustin went on to say. “Coach is just giving me the ultimate confidence, running a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, which I feel comfortable with. That’s what I’ve been known for and just playing confident. My teammates are playing the same way.
“All I’m thinking about right now is going out every night and just playing hard. Whatever Thibs runs, whatever plays he runs, I’m just trying to run it and do the best I can. He runs a lot of pick-and-roll stuff and that’s what I’m comfortable with, and it’s working for us.”
The ninth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Augustin experienced similar success for his original team, the Bobcats, averaging 14.4 points and 6.1 assists per game as a Charlotte starter in the 2010-11 season. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau cited Augustin’s track record as a reason why he thought the point guard and the Bulls would be a good match, aside from the obvious: Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury, not to mention the departed Marquis Teague’s lack of development and veteran Kirk Hinrich’s propensity to get hurt.
[BULLS NOTES: Update on rose, praise of Thibodeau, Anthony Davis]
“One, he was ready. Even though he wasn’t playing, he took good care of himself. He’s a very bright kid. He fit in right from the start. He was learning on the fly. He has great instincts, very good pick-and-roll player, very good in transition, he can shoot the ball and is a good leader, so we’re excited to have him. He’s done a terrific job and he’s a good fit for us,” the coach explained. “I knew D.J. for a long time, so I think I had a pretty good read on him because when you’re going against him, I always felt he was a hard guy to game plan for and he had already shown that he was capable of playing well in the league, so I think sometimes when you have a guy like that, you keep files and when they become available, if the opportunity presents itself, then you hear things, too. I know people who have coached him, how they felt about him, so I knew that he had great character, very smart and I liked those characteristics.
“I think it shows you the nature of the league and how quickly things can change. Things can go from good to bad very quickly and they can go from bad to good very quickly. So I think he came in, it was good opportunity for him. We needed him and they needed us. But the fact that he had already played well in this league — very well his first two years — it told you that he had the capability of doing that. I watched Indiana play quite a bit last year. I thought he had some good moments for them and then for whatever reason, he wasn’t playing a lot in Toronto. He came in here and he was ready to go, so he’s taking advantage of it,” he continued. “He’s a very bright kid. He’s very, very smart, picks things up very quickly. He’s played with some of these guys on our team before. We knew that he was a very good pick-and-roll player. He can shoot and that was something that we desperately needed, so he’s provided that.
“I know from sitting on the other bench and trying to stop him, particularly when he was in Charlotte, he was hard to guard. So we were fortunate that he was available.”
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His new teammates are similarly appreciative of what Augustin, who’s also a good fit in the Bulls’ locker room because of his low-key nature, has brought to the table.
“I think D.J.’s playing great basketball for our team. D.J. is playing really confident basketball right now. He’s a good fit. He makes the right play all the time. The right pass, big shots. He can really shoot the ball. He’s been big for us,” All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “We rely on scoring. We need scoring, and he’s been doing a good job of just getting guys the right shot and scoring as well.”
Taj Gibson chimed in: “He’s big-time. Big-time professional, great teammate. He’s one of the best point guards in this league, I think. This is a guy who’s been in a starting role for years. It’s just a shame that happens, when you go to certain teams and they have so many backups at certain positions. I think that he’s shining on this team because of the lack of point guards, especially healthy, and I just think that he’s a phenomenal guard. We always talk about having a guard with his capabilities — keep his dribble alive, real unselfish, can knock down big-time shots at any given moment. I’m just happy we have him.”
Hinrich, who has matched up with Augustin as an opposing point guard, added: “I think he’s a proven player in this league and he’s always been that type of offensive player. He’s a very good pick-and-roll player, he’s a knockdown shooter and you can’t say enough about how big he’s been for us.”
Backup point guards under Thibodeau — C.J. Watson, John Lucas III and Nate Robinson, for example — have thrived, as the Bulls’ system, designed to emphasized Rose’s strengths, even when tweaked to feature Noah’s uncanny playmaking ability, are perfect for players who can operate the pick-and-roll at a high level.
“They’re good players. Sometimes it’s the situation. We had a need. DJ had a need. A lot of it is circumstance. The guy comes in, you need shooting. The one thing we already knew about DJ is he had already shown he can shoot the ball well in the league. If a guy keeps himself ready, usually he’ll take advantage of the opportunity,” Thibodeau concurred. “As a team what we try to do is get everyone to play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses. The good teams do that. You function as a team and try not to play individually. I think it’s important to play five-man offense and five-man defense. The same thing with Nate, he had been up and down. But there were times he had played very well. So you knew he had that in him. John Lucas, the same thing. A lot of it is opportunity. Sometimes the timing is right too. You get a guy who has been through some things and he learns, gets better and when you get him he’s a better player. DJ deserves a lot of credit. He’s been great for us.
“Because of his ability to shoot the ball, I think it opens up a lot of things for us. We can use the pick and roll to set up post ups and catch and shoot. He’s very good in transition, pushing the ball, finding easy baskets. I think he helps guys play to their strengths. He knows what he’s looking for in transition. There are certain guys who run the floor and finish well. Other guys are more spot-up shooters. I think he has really helped our 3-point shooting because of his ability to get in the paint, force the defense to collapse and then kick out. And those are rhythm threes. Those are good ones and usually coming off the weak side in transition,” he added. “See, that’s the value of the shooting because you have to come up on him and he’s very clever in the pick-and-roll. If you go under, he’s going to make you pay and he knows how to read a pick-and-roll. He knows how to read defenses well and he’s capable of keeping the game real simple, so in any pick-and-roll situation, if you’re the ballhandler, you’re the first option and now, when a team has to adjust to that, it opens up everything else. Then, you have the responsibility of making the right play. He’s done that without hesitation. He’s a quick decision-maker, makes the right play, hits the open man.”
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That’s one reason the coach, who’s very loyal to incumbent players, has apparently given Augustin the starting point-guard role, as a reward for excelling while Hinrich recuperated from a hamstring injury.
“As you guys know, D.J. has played very well, and I like the option of having the possibility of playing the two of them together, so I have to look at the amount of minutes that Kirk can handle. Does it make more sense to start him or bring him off the bench? So I have to look at that,” Thibodeau said. “I mean is it better to start a game like that or is it more important to have a guy that can finish the game? That’s what you’re weighing. We’ll look at all of the possibilities. I like the way D.J. has played, and D.J.’s minutes, whether he starts or doesn’t start, I don’t think his minutes are going to change. His minutes are pretty much going to be a starter’s minutes.”
Thibodeau also likes Augustin’s mental makeup and ability to get through issues. After having to relocate from New Orleans to Houston after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina before his senior year of high school — a two-time Louisiana state champion at Brother Martin High School, he was a McDonald’s All-American at Texas’ Hightower High School following the move — getting cut by the Raptors, let alone adjusting to his new coach’s intense style, must have been a piece of cake.
“I think you have to be mentally tough to get through things, and I like that about him. This kid’s already dealt with a lot of adversity in his life and he’s been able to rise above it all. So I like all the qualities that he has,” Thibodeau said. “High character, intelligence, driven. So when things weren’t going his way, he wasn’t pouting. He stayed ready and it showed because I think sometimes when a guy isn’t playing, it’s easy to place blame on other places and then not take care of your game. So obviously he was working pretty hard when he wasn’t playing, so when this opportunity rolled around, he was ready to take advantage of it.”
While Augustin now makes Houston his offseason home, New Orleans will always be first in his heart.
“It’s always good to come back home. It’s a little different now. When you’re younger, you’ve got to buy all kinds of tickets for everybody. But now, I’m in my sixth year, so I let everybody know ahead of time: ‘Hey, we’re coming on this date. You all need to get your tickets.’ But it’s always fun to see everybody and go to familiar faces, and just have fun,” he explained. “[But New Orleans is] a lot different. It’s not the same from when I grew up, but at the same time, they’re trying to make it better, trying to do things to bring it back. But I don’t think it’ll ever be the same. A lot of the people who were here are not here in New Orleans. It’s just a matter of the people who are still here still bringing that same atmosphere, that loving feeling that New Orleans always brings.”
Given the way he’s played, it would stand to reason that Augustin will have plenty of suitors trying to convince him to make their city his in-season home when free agency hits. For Augustin’s part, while he understands that there’s still a season to play before he’s faced with that decision, he’d love to remain in Chicago.
“Yeah, I love it here. I love the fans, they come out and support us every night, and I love my teammates. I love playing for Thibs, so I love it here and that kind of situation, you never know what can happen. I don’t want to look too far ahead, but just focus on getting better now and keep winning,” he said. “I’m getting an opportunity. I didn’t get an opportunity the last two years of my career. When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now, and the last two years in Indiana and Toronto, I didn’t get an opportunity. I’m getting an opportunity here and playing a lot of minutes, and when I play a lot of minutes, I think I play pretty good.
“I know what I can do. I’ve been knowing what I can do. Just being confident out there, confidence is the biggest key in playing in the NBA. Everybody in the NBA is good, but the guys who are better and play great play with their ultimate confidence.”
Not to end such a positive piece on a negative note, but Bulls fans shouldn’t get too comfortable with the idea of Augustin backing up Rose or playing alongside him next season. Who knows what the market will dictate on July 1, but assuming Augustin’s play remains consistent, he might have already played himself out of the Bulls’ price range, according to a league source, and with Rose’s return next season, although the Bulls will want an insurance policy in the case of injury, spending on a backup point guard isn’t an immediate priority as of now.
But Bulls fans should enjoy Augustin’s run for the time being, as he’s helped salvage the team’s season and if he moves on to greener pastures, it will be much deserved.