The last time Tony Snell faced the Miami Heat, he did so unexpectedly in his NBA regular-season debut with his back against the wall guarding a red-hot LeBron James.
The results went as expected.
Snell finished that game 0-for-3 from the field with two personal fouls, a steal and a turnover in seven minutes that probably felt like 47 in a 107-95 loss.
“It was pretty tough. It was my first go, I didn’t know what to expect,” Snell admitted. “I was a little nervous. But I got my nerves out that day and it helped me get prepared for today.”
One month later, that same rookie stared down the defending champions and posted one of the most impressive performances of his young career.
Snell scored eight points, hit a pair of 3-pointers, grabbed three rebounds, handed out two assists and played impressive defense on the lethal Heat offense in the Bulls’ 107-87 victory Thursday at the United Center.
It was another chapter in Snell’s continuing progress that was put on an unexpected fast track after Jimmy Butler’s turf toe injury. In five starts for Butler, Snell is averaging 10.8 points on 51 percent shooting and has given the Bulls a stable figure in the starting lineup when they needed it most.
“Each day you can see him growing,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said of his rookie. “He studies hard, he prepares himself well, he’ll keep improving. The thing I’m most pleased with is the way he works, his attitude and his approach. I think because of that he’s shown that he’s ready for this opportunity and I think he’ll continue to get better.”
Part of Snell’s “Welcome to the NBA moment” in October was having to guard James in the midst of a classic second-quarter Heat run where the four-time MVP was creating and making moves that were nearly unstoppable for any defender, let alone a rookie being thrown into the fire in his first live action.
But Thursday night, Snell was much more relaxed, guarding James at times as the Bulls held the defending champs to a season low in points. In the first half, Snell stepped into a 3-pointer with James closing out. A month ago that would have given Snell jitters and the shot would have been off the mark; this time he shot with confidence and the ball went through the bottom of the net with ease.
“(LeBron’s) a great player, but I’m still going to play my defense and play to stop him. It was crazy. It was definitely crazy. I was dreaming (in October) like, ‘Wow, I’m standing next to LeBron James. ‘It was crazy. The second time, I was more relaxed, and he’s just another player.”
James isn’t “just another player,” but forgive the 22-year-old rookie for being excited about passing yet another test and picking up a victory for a team that desperately needed one. If not for the red jersey and “BULLS” print sprawled across the front, it still wouldn’t be difficult to figure out the kind of player Snell is. Built in the classic Thibodeau mold, he has made a commitment to his defense – “defense wins games,” he said – and is willing to play help defense off the ball, make the extra pass and hustle in transition.
“He’s unselfish, he plays for the team,” Thibodeau said. “If he makes a mistake, he tries to correct it. He’s not going ot make the same mistake twice, and winning’s important to him.”
It’s apparent winning is important to Snell. When asked if he had redeemed himself from the poor showing he had in his debut in Miami, Snell said he had.
“I feel like I redeemed myself because we won,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”