CHICAGO — Bobby Portis hasn’t played a real NBA game yet, but he’s already had his first encounter with the force that’s become one of the league’s rites of passage for rookies: Kevin Garnett’s mouth.
“We were going back and forth,” Portis said this week at practice. “Talking a little trash. I can't really say [what he said], it's too explicit.”
Portis went right back at Garnett, both verbally and physically. The No. 22 pick in this June’s draft finished that game with 12 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes; it was just one chapter of a stellar, eye-opening preseason for the rookie that has impressed his coach, Fred Hoiberg, and the veterans he’s competing with for playing time.
“He is making it hard,” Hoiberg said. “I’ve said since day one that my biggest job is going to be to figure out a rotation and try to get everybody to buy into roles. It’s going to be tough. A lot of guys deserve to play.”
Dividing up minutes in the Bulls frontcourt is going to be Hoiberg’s toughest challenge during his first year in the NBA. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, both in contract years, have only played one preseason game together. They’re still feeling each other out in Hoiberg’s offense after seeing mixed results while sharing the court last year.
Nikola Mirotic has looked more confident launching threes, and he’s expected to be a focal point in an offense heavy on spacing and outside shooting. Taj Gibson, the Bulls’ most consistent defensive big, is going to command plenty of minutes with the second unit as always.
These are veterans who are all used to big minutes, and they all deserve to play. For a team that deep and experienced, the expectation would normally be that a rookie such as Portis would get on the court sparingly, waiting his turn and making the most of opportunities in garbage time or when an injury arises. But his production at both ends of the floor in preseason is already making it difficult to justify not keeping him in the rotation once the real games start.
It’s Portis’ relentlessness, above all else, that has set him apart early on in his NBA career, helping him prove he belongs. He’s averaging four offensive rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game so far in preseason, and he’s shown a surprising shooting touch.
Portis’ eyes are always open wide, and he says he’s drawn visual comparisons to the likes of Plaxico Burress, Roy Hibbert and Darius Miles. He’s also earned a nickname that perfectly sums up his on-court approach: Crazy Eyes Portis.
“I'm just taking that nickname from what everybody else is calling me,” he said. “Everyone always talks about my eyes being bugged out and everything. That’s something I’m going to take and run with. I like the name.”
Portis’ greatest strength is that he doesn’t take anything off the table. His energy is raw and unrefined, but his skill set and discipline are mature beyond his years. He’s a monster on the glass, and he’s not going to burn the team defensively. The Bulls were not expecting him to still be available at No. 22 (he had been widely pegged as a late-lottery pick before the draft), but they also weren’t expecting to have to find minutes for him this early.
"I love his confidence," said Derrick Rose on Thursday. "That’s big for a rookie. It’s big for any player in this league. But it’s big for a rookie. I think he’ll push our bigs to play harder."
Opposing coaches have taken notice, too. Detroit Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy was high on Portis going into the draft and had some lofty comparisons for the 20-year-old on Wednesday.
“I’m not surprised with how well he’s playing,” Van Gundy said. “He’s one of the true inside-outside bigs you can get. He’s good on the block, but he can step out and shoot the ball with range. You don’t see much of that. There’s very few of those guys. Kevin Love can go down on the block and get something done and step out on the perimeter, but you’re talking a handful of guys. Chris Bosh. There’s just not very many guys who have that, and Bobby does. What we saw of him going into the draft is this is just a no-nonsense, hard-playing guy who is out there to win games.”
Portis may start the season glued to the bench, but it’s hard to imagine he stays there for long. And that is going to present some tough decisions for Hoiberg and the front office.
The Bulls aren’t fond of midseason trades, but if Portis maintains this level of play when the season starts, it could make either Gibson or Noah expendable. Asking either one of those players—team-oriented veterans who have done everything they’ve been asked to do and have made individual sacrifices for their entire careers with the Bulls—to take a reduced role to make room for a rookie is going to be a tough sell.
The Bulls need help on the wing while Mike Dunleavy recovers from back surgery, and they need help at the backup point guard position, where they didn’t upgrade this summer from Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich. Flipping Gibson or Noah for more depth elsewhere isn’t something the front office will want to do, but Portis may end up forcing their hand.
Too much depth in the frontcourt is a good problem to have, especially for a team that’s dealt with as many injuries as the Bulls have over the years. But there are going to be some growing pains with a new coach, a newly healthy core of bigs and an unexpectedly productive rookie all trying to figure out how to make it work and keep everybody happy.
It’s not going to be easy. But whatever happens beyond this year with Gibson, Noah and Gasol, the Bulls have found a keeper in Portis.