At one point, Bobby Portis believed the Bulls drafting him No. 22 overall last year was his “worst-case scenario.”
For one, he thought he’d be a lottery pick – “everyone thought I’d be a lottery pick,” Portis says – and falling out of the top 14 picks reduced his rookie-scale contract by more than $4 million. For another, Chicago was already overflowing with big men: Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Portis didn’t want to get buried on the bench.
But in his first season with the Bulls, Portis has done a complete 180.
“They make their rookies earn their stripes,” Portis said. “I feel that’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
Portis is playing a somewhat surprisingly key role for Chicago, which is making a last-ditch effort to extend its playoff streak to eight straight seasons. Just 21, Portis is the Bulls’ youngest player by nearly three years.
“Bobby, he’s obviously going to be a huge part of the future of this franchise,” Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Yet, it’s Portis’ present that matters more than most expected.
Portis began the season outside the rotation, the “Free Bobby Portis” days. He showed so much promise early, the Bulls altered their lineup to get him more minutes. When Noah suffered a season-ending injury, Portis joined the rotation for good. Mirotic’s injuries only increased Portis’ role.
But the Bulls have been outscored by 9.0 points per 100 possessions with Portis on the court – easily the worst mark for any player on the team, let alone a rotation player. Portis has shot just 4-for-18 during a three-game losing streak – to the Knicks, Knicks and Magic no less – that has dropped Chicago to 36-36 and two games out of playoff position.
You get the sense the Bulls would prefer not rely on Portis at this critical time if they had other options.
Portis is averaging 6.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game – nice, though hardly unprecedented, marks for a rookie.
Seven other rookies – Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, Nikola Jokic, Willie Cauley-Stein and Justise Winslow – are averaging at least five points and five rebounds per game this season. In the last 25 years, 147 rookies have averaged 5-5 (minimum: 40 games).
But none of them have done so in as few minutes per game as Portis’ 17.7.
And it’s not as if Portis barely meets the thresholds to join a group that’s far outpacing him. In the 147-player sample, Portis is fairly middle of the road in scoring and rebounding per minute.
Simply, most rookies who show as much ability as Portis get a greater chance to grow it during games.
Portis isn’t on most teams, though. The Bulls are a veteran bunch, and their interest in player development over winning now is limited. That’s especially true with their depth in front of Portis.
But Portis isn’t deterred.
“Everything is really based on adversity – how you take it and how you deal with it,” Portis said. “It’s not about wanting to be the guy so good. You have to get through the crowd to get to the top.”
Portis knows plenty about adversity after his tough upbringing. Rather than run from the challenges he has faced, he confronts them head on.
Before each game, Portis imagines someone hitting his mom and then directs his anger at his opponent. Extreme? Yes. But it works for Portis, whose demeanor has impressed his veteran teammates.
“He’s a guy that competes, brings a lot of energy, has confidence in himself and his game,” Gasol said. “Very intense, very energetic.”
Said Jimmy Butler: “The kid can play. He don’t play like a rookie. He isn’t scared not of nobody.”
As Portis adds polish and eliminates some of the rookie mistakes that plant him on the bench now, his role should expand – maybe rapidly. Noah will be a free agent, and Gasol will likely opt out this summer.
The Bulls could do worse than to rebuild around Butler, Doug McDermott, Mirotic, Portis, a top-10-protected draft pick from the Kings and Chicago’s own first-rounder.
Portis is skilled for a hustle player. He rebounds hard, and has shown some shooting ability. His energy on defense will go a longer way, with his 6-foot-11 frame and solid mobility, once he better understands the scheme.
There’s something intriguing about Portis as the second-best floor-spacer in a big-man combo. He won’t strain defenses as a stretch four. But as a stretch five next to Mirotic with the opponent’s second-best perimeter-defending big on him? That could work.
Portis’ ability on the glass would also complement Mirotic well, though Portis would have to improve as a rim protector.
But before anyone gets ahead of themselves the Bulls have 10 – they hope crucial – games remaining. Playing the Hawks, Pacers, Rockets and Pistons this week could determine Chicago’s playoff fate.
Whether he’s playing or riding the bench, Portis has learned to embrace his situation.
“Everyone’s story is different. This is my story,” Portis said. “This is what is going to make Bobby Portis who Bobby Portis is.”