Chicago Bulls' supporting cast found some success after rough start
Fourth in a series
When the season began, the Chicago Bulls' supporting cast -- at least the younger players -- was a complete mess.
Bobby Portis was suspended eight games for a practice altercation that landed teammate Nikola Mirotic in the hospital.
Denzel Valentine reprised his one-dimensional rookie performance by shooting 24 percent from 2-point range in October.
Jerian Grant and Paul Zipser couldn't hit a shot, Cameron Payne was on the shelf after foot surgery, and Cristiano Felicio fell into a deep slump after signing a generous contract extension.
By the end of the season, many of those guys turned things around. That's why the Bulls head into the summer with most of their roster spots accounted for.
At the top of this list is Portis, who began the season with the inexcusable practice punch. Letting him go seemed to be a reasonable option, but Bulls management instead rallied around him.
The reasons for this are impossible to fully understand. But those who were around Portis every day for two seasons, and in some cases witnessed the altercation, decided he was worth saving. During the suspension, the Bulls picked up his contract option for 2018-19.
It's very apparent Portis is popular inside the locker room. Off the court, he has an easygoing, friendly personality. He morphs into his intense alter ego on the court, which can be both inspiring and frightening.
But the bottom line is Portis played very well during his third season. He improved his 3-point shot, continued to score in the post and actually was one of the NBA's most productive bench players. After the all-star break, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and shot 41 percent from 3-point range while playing part-time minutes.
Portis is definitely in the Bulls' future plans. Here's a rundown of others on the roster:
Denzel Valentine: His midseason improvement qualifies as a surprise. Widely believed to lack the athleticism to excel in the NBA, Valentine began scoring off the dribble with regularity. He also shot 43 percent from 3-point range after the all-star break.
He still makes too many ill-advised passes, but Valentine appears headed for a nice career. Late in the season, he expressed the desire to be a starter. That might be a stretch on a good team, but he already has done some surprising things.
David Nwaba: Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, Nwaba quickly made a positive impression. He's an undersized small forward at 6-feet-4, but is a strong defender and his speed creates fastbreak opportunities.
Late in the season, coach Fred Hoiberg turned him loose offensively, which resulted in some poor shots, but Nwaba also showed the ability to finish at the basket.
He's a restricted free agent the Bulls are interested in bringing back. He can be an important piece in the rebuild, especially if his 3-point shot improves.
Cameron Payne: Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson talked about Payne being the backup point guard next season, so he clearly played well enough after the foot injury to build some trust. He seems to fit well in Hoiberg's fast-paced offense.
Jerian Grant: He's under contract for next season, so he could return, but he seems to be the odd man out in the point-guard rotation. Inconsistency was a problem, but he can rack up assists when given the minutes.
Cristiano Felicio: His play improved late in the season, but he didn't seem to have the same bounce as two years ago. Being able to move his feet is vital to Felicio's success in the NBA.
Paul Zipser: Injuries have held him back, but when his shot is falling he has been a valuable role player. He has the size and mobility to play both forward positions. He has a low-priced, non-guaranteed deal for next season, so he likely will return.
Sean Kilpatrick: Well-traveled shooting guard has two non-guaranteed seasons on his contract and played well enough late in the season to earn a look in training camp.
Noah Vonleh: A good rebounder who doesn't move well enough to be a standout at power forward. There's probably not room for him on next season's roster.
Antonio Blakeney: Unlikely the Bulls save a spot on the NBA roster for the G-League's rookie of the year, so his future is in limbo.
Ryan Arcidiacono: Former Villanova point guard made nice strides during the season. If he doesn't get a better offer, the feeling here is Bulls would happily bring him back as a two-way player.
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