As the Bulls pulled away in the second half, the chants started, first in the upper bowl before spreading throughout the entire United Center crowd: “BOBBY PORTIS.” There were even a few signs calling for more minutes for Portis, the No. 22 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Finally, midway through the fourth quarter, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg emptied his bench and Portis entered to a rousing ovation. It wasn’t his NBA debut—he’d played similar garbage-time minutes in two previous games this season—but it was his first game in front of the home fans, and he noticed the response.
"That was crazy," Portis said afterward. "I really cherish that. It was a very overwhelming moment."
After that, things went back to normal for Portis, who didn’t play in Wednesday’s 98-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Minutes have been few and far between, as he and everyone else expected for a rookie big man on a team with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.
Hoiberg has been tinkering endlessly with his frontcourt rotation, trying to find combinations of those four players that work. Finding minutes for a rookie was always going to be low on the list of priorities.
But after Portis’ performance in the Sixers game—he scored seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in four minutes—and general rave reviews from practice, the #FreeBobbyPortis groundswell has grown larger and more difficult to ignore.
“He's playing behind four veteran guys who've been in the league a long time,” Hoiberg said. “He's going to be ready when his name is called, which it will be. I've got 60 games, he's going to be called on to play important minutes for this team this year and I'm confident he's going to compete at the highest level and we won't have much of a drop-off because of his energy and the way he runs, his ability to hit guys. Believe me, I'm trying to find time for him but with four guys he's playing behind, we've made that decision. But he'll get in there and I'm confident he'll play well when given the opportunity.”
The struggle to find minutes for Portis is understandable given the amount of tenured and productive players in front of him.
But for a team that has at times lacked consistent energy, Portis’ relentless intensity could be worth an extended look. His game is still unpolished, but his skill set is diverse—he can score around the basket, shoot from mid-range, rebound and at least stay on the floor defensively.
He doesn’t take anything off the table, which is impressive for a rookie.
But learning an NBA scheme will always be an adjustment for all but the most exceptional rookies, and that part is still a work in progress for Portis.
“It’s been different,” Portis said last week after practice. “Coming from college to this is very different. College is more up-and-down, tempo type of thing. NBA is more confined and structure-based. It’s different because at my college, we didn’t even run plays. We just got me the ball or got [Arkansas teammate] Mike Qualls the ball, a clear-out type thing. But now it’s more of a dribble-drive, setting pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, so it’s kind of different for me.”
Portis may be glued to the bench for the foreseeable future with the logjam at both frontcourt positions, but the opportunity is there for him long-term.
Gasol and Noah are both free agents this summer—HoopsHype indicates that the former has a player option—and it’s highly unlikely both will be back in Chicago. One of them, or Gibson, could even be moved before February’s trade deadline.
The Bulls’ front office doesn’t have a history of making meaningful in-season trades, but if it's trying to find minutes for Portis, it may have no choice.
In the meantime, Portis has drawn consistent praise from his teammates for his work ethic and high motor in practice. They all tell him the same thing: Be patient and stay ready.
“Bobby’s been playing great, especially in practice,” Gibson said on Wednesday morning at shootaround. “Everybody pushes him. I trash-talk to him every day, so he’s doing a good job. I tell him to be ready every day. Being a rookie like that is tough because you know you got a lot of potential and he knows he can get out there and help us. All of us went through it from Jimmy [Butler] and everybody, just waiting your turn. He’s been handling it well. He did a great job [on Monday] coming in the game, being ready, taking the shots when he was open because he puts in a lot of work.”
That’s all Portis can do for now. His opportunities will come when they come, and Hoiberg insists that he will play non-garbage-time minutes at some point this season. In the meantime, all he can do is capitalize on those openings when they come.
He knew all along that he was going to have to fight.
“Once I got drafted, I kind of knew it,” Portis said. “It's not hard to tell. You've got Mirotic, you've got Gasol, you've got Joakim Noah, you've got Taj Gibson in front of you. They've been here longer than I have and obviously I'm a rookie, so I've got to play to my role. And my role is to be a positive guy on the bench and cheer for my teammates and bring that positive energy. My role is not to play right now. I'm cool with that. I'm cool with waiting on my turn, and once my turn comes, I'll be the Bobby Portis I've always been.”
The last time Portis spoke to reporters at practice, he ended by shouting, “Free Bobby Portis!” as he walked away. Nobody knows when that will happen, but when the day comes, he’s going to be ready.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.