When the Chicago Bulls selected Tony Snell with the 20th pick of the 2013 NBA draft, they chose a player who, on paper, fit in perfectly into what they look for in a wing: great length, a hard-working, defensive mindset and the ability to knock down the three.
It raises the question, with the possibility of Luol Deng being traded or lost to free agency soon, can Snell replace him as the starting wing next to Jimmy Butler should Deng depart?
Snell’s best physical attribute is his length. He’s 6’7” with a 6’11.5” wingspan according to his Draft Express profile. His 36.5” vertical is good, but not great, as is his 3.25 second three-quarter-court sprint.
He has a reputation as a pure shooter. Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated said,
Snell might be one of the best floor-spacers in the draft. Last season he connected on 39 percent of his threes, and he’s shown that his range extends beyond the college line. Quick-footed and long, Snell can defend multiple positions.
And that encapsulates exactly what the Bulls want in a wing, what has become known as a “3-and-D” player, meaning a guy who can shoot the three and play perimeter defense. Being able to take the ball and drive to the rim would be nice, but it’s not essential.
On paper, everything looked right, but not everything on paper ends up being manifested on the court, and with any young player (ask Marquis Teague who was just sent down to the D-League) that’s the concern.
Fortunately for the Bulls, Snell is showing signs that he should develop into the player that they hoped they were getting when they drafted him. His outing against the Cleveland Cavaliers showed what he can be, and that’s everything the Bulls were hoping for and perhaps a little bit more.
Here are the complete highlights of Snell’s performance.
Now let’s break it down a little bit into what the Bulls will be hoping for him from in the future, and whether he’s showing signs he’ll fulfill his promise. We’ll begin with the most important thing he can provide: his three-point shooting.
In the GIF watch how fluid Snell’s mechanics are. Less than a second after getting the ball from Joakim Noah, the ball is almost to the basket. Note how deep Snell goes into his set before jumping (meaning he’s getting the power from his jump and not throwing the ball at the rim) and how steep the arc on the shot is (meaning it’s more likely to go in).
Mechanically, Snell’s shot is fluid and perfect, from start to finish. The only thing he needs is confidence. There are times when he looks off shots he should take. He needs to trust his shot. When he misses, it's usually a result of hesitation which throws off his rhythm.
He’s not just a catch-and-shoot player either. He has more ability to hit a jumper in traffic than normally expected. Watch him duck two defenders here and then do the “Dirk-Nowitzki-knee-lift” to keep space between himself and the defender.
Finally, his ball-handling skills are much better than anticipated as shown below. He’s not an elite driver, but he has the ability to put the ball on the floor, and because of his long strides, he’s able to get to the rim very quickly.
He shows he’s able to draw contact, and knows when to dump it off to another player too. Basketball IQ is another thing the Bulls covet, and here he shows it.
Snell’s ball-handling is considerably better than Deng’s, but he’s not as strong finishing at the rim. He doesn’t cut as well or set screens as well. The things which don’t show up in box scores aren’t there with Snell, but those things come with experience.
There's also the fact that Deng is a two-time All-Star. They're not just looking to replace a scrub in the lineup.
There’s a tendency to underrate Deng’s production because he’s not LeBron James, but he’s certainly better than average. Since coming into the league he is one of just eight players to amass 10,000 points, 4,000 rebounds, 1,500 assists and 500 steals. It’s hard to completely replace that with a No. 20 pick.
Of course with any Thibodeau coached team, it won’t matter very much what you can do on offense if you can’t play defense, so it’s important to look at what Snell is doing on defense as well. For that I want to show you clip form the Bulls' game against the Nets.
While Butler ends up getting whistled for the foul, notice how well he and Snell rotate together on this sequence, first guarding Jason Terry and then Paul Pierce. Going from college to the most complex, exacting defense in the NBA isn’t an easy task, but Snell is showing the aptitude to learn it quickly.
Playing defense for the Bulls means playing team defense, and that's not an easy thing to learn.
Snell will still make mistakes and get caught out of position from time to time, but he doesn’t look lost like he did at first. His confidence is growing with more playing time.
The biggest concern with his defense is that he lacks the strength Deng has, and he struggles fighting over picks as a result. He could stand to put on weight. Deng has two inches and 20 pounds on him though, and it’s questionable whether Snell could add that much bulk without it slowing him down.
Looking forward, Snell looks like he could capably, but not completely, replace Deng as the second starting wing next year should Deng end up walking during free agency. There would be some give and take with that exchange.
One assumes that were the Bulls to let Deng walk, it would be because they were successful in landing Nikola Mirotic, their draft-and-stash player currently dominating Euroleague with an Index Rating (their version of Player Efficiency Rating) of 34.11 per 40 minutes.
One also assumes that the Bulls would have also amnestied Carlos Boozer.
That would leave the Bulls, potentially, with a starting five of Rose, Butler, Snell, Mirotic and Joakim Noah, which would be offensively stout. With Butler, Snell and Mirotic spacing the floor for Derrick Rose next season, the Bulls could be looking at a more open offense than they've seen in recent years.
They might give something on the defensive end though with Snell not being the elite defender that Deng is, though he could grow into that role over time. Also, they’d be missing the “little things” that Deng does which are what gets Thibodeau apoplectic at the mention of the loss of Deng.
Those things are things that Butler and Snell can learn though. The Bulls may have to take one step back to go two steps forward.
In two or three years, if Rose stays healthy, and with the right additional pieces added on, the Bulls could have a championship core which included Snell and Butler as key pieces, but they won’t be the second option. Of course, neither would Deng.
The best chance of that person is Mirotic right now, and the trio of Mirotic, Snell and Butler have a higher ceiling in the future than Boozer, Deng and Butler, because the spacing they provide is more complimentary to Rose’s game. For that reason it makes sense for the Bulls to let Deng go and develop Snell.