CHICAGO — Bobby Portis fell into consistent playing time almost by accident, when the Chicago Bulls were at their lowest point. Now, he’s made it clear he’s not going anywhere.
All season, while the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NBA draft was waiting for his turn, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was adamant that Portis would play meaningful minutes at some point. It was just a matter of finding minutes in a crowded frontcourt rotation filled with veterans.
His opportunity came following the Bulls’ four-overtime loss to the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 18. It was the first of a back-to-back, so Hoiberg gave Pau Gasol the next night off in New York. That opened up room for Portis, and he responded with a 20-point, 11-rebound performance in just 23 minutes on the court.
The very next game, a loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 21, Joakim Noah suffered a shoulder injury that has kept him out the last two weeks and figures to sideline him for at least one more. A key injury like that isn’t an ideal way to make room for a rookie, but it got the job done, and Portis has been a consistent presence off the bench since.
“It's kind of crazy, actually,” Portis said. “Just the up-and-down scale of the whole season with me, being on the bench for the first 20 games, then being in the last five games, it's been crazy. It's a good opportunity for me, though. Just credit to the coaching staff and my teammates always having that trust in me to just go out there and play.”
During the early parts of the season, when Portis was glued to the end of the bench, his older teammates constantly told him the same thing all rookies are told: Just stay ready.
“Bobby’s work ethic is never going to change,” Hoiberg said. “He’s one of those kids, whether he’s playing 48 minutes or no minutes, he’s going to prepare the same way. He’s going to go out there and get his work in; he’s going to get in the weight room, get that extra work.”
In the nine games since he started playing regular minutes, Portis is averaging 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 21 minutes per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field. The stretch has included a pair of 16-point performances in wins over the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, and in the latter game, he shot 2-of-3 from three-point range.
His impact has been especially evident on the glass. In that nine-game stretch, the Bulls have rebounded significantly better with Portis on the floor. According to NBA.com, they grab 55.4 percent of all available rebounds when he’s on the court and just 48.9 percent when he’s on the bench.
Portis’ emergence poses a good—but very real—problem for Hoiberg and the coaching staff. Once Noah returns to the lineup, Hoiberg will have to shuffle the deck again to make sure everyone gets enough minutes. Portis has made it impossible not to keep him as a permanent fixture in the rotation.
“We’re going to continue to find minutes for Bobby,” Hoiberg said Friday. “There’s no doubt about it. He’s been playing too well. He’s playing with so much confidence. He rebounds the ball so well. He plays with a toughness and a swagger, and that’s what you want. Bobby’s not going to back down from anybody, and he continues to show that night after night.”
It’s not going to be easy. Between Noah, Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, Chicago doesn't have a lot of excess minutes to go around up front.
During the Bulls’ tumultuous mid-December stretch, trading one of the veteran big men made sense because of the desperate need for wing help. Now, in the midst of a five-game winning streak, such a trade would make sense to create the rotation space Portis has earned over the past two weeks, when he’s blown teammates away with his energy and consistency.
“My first time seeing him work out in the gym, I knew he was going to be dangerous,” Derrick Rose said Tuesday night following the Bulls’ 117-106 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. “He’s got that swag. He’s got that attitude, that confidence with him. And for a rookie, that’s huge. You never know how good he can become.”
Rose wasn’t the only Bulls player to use the “swag” descriptor for Portis’ brash, uncompromising style of play.
“He’s talented,” Jimmy Butler said. “When he’s out there playing, the swag’s really high and I think everybody likes that. That’s what you expect from him. But he plays his game like a vet. He knows his role, he knows what he’s supposed to do and he’s confident.”
The words of Portis’ teammates and coach are nice for the rookie to hear, and it’s possible the Bulls make a move before the trade deadline to free up more minutes for him. But Portis knows that getting on the court is only half the battle.
Now that he’s earned minutes, the next step is to keep them.
“It means nothing,” Portis said of his expanded role. “I’ve still got to come to work every day and work as hard as I can to get better, and I still have to come in and earn my stripes. That’s something I like about the Bulls; they don’t just put rookies out there. They make you earn your keep, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do, earn everything that’s given to me.”
Rotation-caliber big men are hard to come by, especially ones who are ready to contribute as rookies. Now that the Bulls know what they have in Portis, they have no choice but to make sure he’s a piece of their core for the long haul.
“He’s a good one,” Hoiberg said. “He’s one of those kids that’s fun to coach because he’s physical, he loves a challenge, he doesn’t back down from anybody and he’s only 20 years old. He’s got an extremely bright future. We’re lucky to have him.”