No one expected Jimmy Butler to become such an important part of the Chicago Bulls last season, making the most of injuries and the playoff absence of Luol Deng. Picking Tony Snell in the draft was just as a surprise, but seeing him shine in the Summer League, positioning himself to be more than a fringe player next season is not a big shock anymore.
Snell averaged 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals during the summer league, but his most important attribute being showcased was what Tom Thibodeau is looking for in every Bulls player: Defense. Snell was probably the most impressive defensive player in Vegas, even when he was forced to guard bigger players than him.
I understood that as soon as the Bulls draft me. If you’re not playing well defensively, you’re going to get exposed. And there’s no point in you going out there if you keep getting scored on and you’re not playing good defense, so I really take pride in my defense.
Snell has other weapons at his disposal – he’s a good shooter, although he needs to improve on the quickness of his release if he’s to make it in the NBA as someone who finds his comfort zone on the outside. He shot 39% from beyond the arc in college for New Mexico during his final season (Junior) for the Lobos.
Those backing him to become more than a rookie who sits and learns by watching next season (and with Thibodeau not known to give rookies a lot of chances, that just might happen) try and compare him to a former high school teammate of his, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard became a starter for the Spurs midway through his rookie season thanks to his defense, and added some offensive versatility to his arsenal this season, helping the team reach the NBA finals.
The problem for Snell is competition. Luol Deng is the starting small forward for the Chicago Bulls, even though they have been trying to trade him, or to be more exact, his $14 million expiring contract. Jimmy Butler? He’ll get to play more in the shooting guard position, taking care of a weakness the Bulls seemed to have in their very strong lineup, filling the backcourt next to Derrick Rose.
Butler shot 38.1% from beyond the arc last season in the regular season and an even better 40.5% in the playoffs, playing over 40 minutes a night. With both him and Deng usually needing a very little time of rest in each game, the opportunities for Snell early on might not be too great.
But Thibodeau will try him as a shooting guard next to Deng or Butler, and as a small forward next to Butler. Their of similar size, and if Snell proves to be a fast learner to the Bulls’ defensive system while one who can make the most of Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer drawing double teams in the paint with much-needed outside shooting, his rookie season might turn out to be a lot better than anyone anticipated.