Tony Snell, the sophomore wing for the Chicago Bulls, is about to face the biggest summer of his young life. The way he develops this offseason may have a ripple impact through his second season and career beyond that.
When the Bulls drafted him with the 20th pick in 2013, it was for his silky-smooth jump shot. From the moment he catches the ball to the time he releases it, everything is perfect. But the end isn’t so pretty; the ball doesn’t go in. Last season, Snell’s effective field-goal percentage on his jumper was just 44.8 percent.
Case in point. Watch the pretty miss.
And that’s a good image for Snell’s game. Much of what he does shows promise, but the results don’t look great. Last season, the Bulls gave up 3.0 more points per 100 possessions and scored 5.8 fewer when he was on the court.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required) sums him up:
As for Snell, he had a fairly typical rookie season—some ups, some downs. I’m not sold on him as a rotation player, but management is. They think he will become an excellent shooter and strong defender. He has the length for the latter.
In other words, he has potential, but there was reason to doubt he’d ever reach it last season.
That’s okay, though. Snell was a rookie, not a finished product. You could virtually watch his brain process plays while he was on the court, trying to figure out what was going on. He would invariably do the right thing, but just a fraction of a second too late, particularly on defense.
And that presents a conundrum. You have a player who needs reps in the system to develop and a coach in Tom Thibodeau who doesn’t play those who make mistakes in the system. And those who haven’t figured out things by their second year tend to get traded.
James Johnson was gone his second year, Thibodeau’s first. The Bulls bundled the pick they got back for him with Malcolm Lee to acquire Nikola Mirotic, so that one worked out. Marquis Teague got dealt for the NBA version of scrap metal: Tornike Shengelia, who amassed four points and 17 minutes in his tenure with the Bulls.
On the other hand, Omer Asik and Butler both found an increase in rotation time their second years. Asik jumped from 12.1 minutes per game to 14.7 and Butler from 8.5 to 26.0.
Snell will probably either see a lot more time on the court for the Bulls next season or be wearing a different uniform before it’s over. And that’s why this summer matters.
There are two things that could help him tremendously: minutes and confidence. To achieve those, he must do three things before the season begins: excel in Vegas, study film, and show it off in the preseason.
It’s critical for him to be effective in the Summer League games. He’ll have a year as a pro under his belt, and that should help. By shining in the summer, he should gain confidence. Confidence will mean less doubt, which will mean he’s less hesitant with the ball.
This is what he looks like when he's confident.
On offense, when he's just “doing,” he is much more effective. He had plays that were pretty sensational, but they came on broken or desperation plays. When he was in the set offense, he would hesitate before shooting or passing. He didn’t just let the game flow to him. That’s an indication of a lack of confidence.
Excelling in the Summer League would be a big boost to his ego, and unlike many NBA players, that’s something he needs.
After that he needs to train, and adding weight wouldn’t hurt. But, the part he needs to really work on the most after the Summer League is over is the part between his ears. He needs to watch a lot of film. Then watch some more.
He needs to watch it on a boat, on a train and maybe even with a GOAT, as in Scottie Pippen, one of the greatest defensive wings in NBA history. He needs to watch it to the point where he dreams about defense at night.
He needs to develop his understanding of the system to the point where he doesn’t have to cognitively process what he’s about to do before he does it, he just reflexively does it.
Per Draft Express, he measured 6’6” without shoes at the draft combine last year but has a 6’11.5” wingspan. That’s the equivalent of defensive candy to Thibodeau.
When that tumbler clicks into place and subconsciously starts dictating his next move, he should take a huge step forward on defense, and Thibodeau will happily gift him with minutes. But getting that knowledge into the subconscious is going to require training the brain, and that’s going to happen in the film room.
Then, when he gets to the preseason, he must prove to Thibodeau that he can execute what he’s learned.
Part of the reason for that is the Bulls don’t have their own D-League franchise. If they did, it would serve them well, as Caleb Nordgren of Hardwood Paroxysm wrote:
You’re a successful, veteran team without much use for young guys like Erik Murphy or Marquis Teague. But you don’t have your own D-League team. What happens?
Two things, as it turns out. First, you do actually send Teague to the D-League, only he’s running an unfamiliar system — having already struggled to grasp Tom Thibodeau’s system — and losing playing time to guys like Kalin Lucas. And because you’re not in control, you can’t do anything about either issue and eventually decide to trade Teague for Toko Shengelia, who plays all of 17 minutes over 9 games before being waived.
Second, Murphy ends up stapled to the bench for the vast majority of the season — he played all of 62 minutes over 24 games — and then eventually gets waived toward the end of the season. On a team mostly devoid of shooting, they couldn’t be bothered to develop a young big man known for his shooting. Because obviously.
Thibodeau is reluctant to change his rotations much, unless it’s an injury issue. If he’s not comfortable playing Snell in October, he won’t be in January, and Snell will probably be gone in March.
On the bright side for Snell, once players work their way into that rotation, Thibodeau is exceptional at developing them. Derrick Rose, Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have all seen their careers peak under his tutelage.
With Thibodeau, once you’re in the rotation, you’ve got it made—cracking it is the tough part. For Snell, that has to happen this summer. If he can gain confidence and understanding of the defense, then prove it in the preseason, he will be a part of it. Whether he’s a bust like Teague or a steal like Butler will be determined by that.