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Can Tony Snell Breakout for the Bulls?

For the first two years of his career Tony Snell has hovered somewhere in the region between “bust” and “hold on a minute, this might work after all.” Now, with Fred Hoiberg bringing his modern offensive stylings to the Chicago Bulls, can “Snelly Cat” break out in 2015-16?

There were some encouraging signs his sophomore year. He saw his minutes, scoring and rebounding all improve. His Player Efficiency Rating went from 8.0 to 10.2, and his Win Shares climbed from 1.6 to 2.4. And while some seem to regard him as a “bust,” only 10 players from his draft class have more Win Shares at this point in their careers, and only three of those, Mason Plumlee, Rudy Gobert and Gorgui Deng were available when he was selected, per Basketball-Reference.com.

The problem for Snell was that he struggled to get on the court consistently, and at least part of that was on former coach Tom Thibodeau, who ran a notoriously short rotation and played younger guys with a terminally short leash.One or two mistakes on the defensive end were enough to land one in bench purgatory in perpetuity.

Hoiberg promises to change that, using his full complement of players, and that could give Snell the chance he needs to find his groove.

There was a span of games where Snell was allowed to demonstrate his potential, though. And if he can maintain that level of play for a full season, he could be the Bulls’ next breakout player. In the 20-game stretch starting on Feb. 7, he was a bona fide sniper, connecting on 46 percent of his threes while taking 5.0 per game.

His effective field-goal percentage was 59.8 percent; his true shooting percentage 62.2 percent. Shooting like that has a place in Hoiball. What’s more telling is his shot chart from that period:


Other than the abundance of green around the outer semi-circle (with the exception of the right corner area), what’s notable here is the shot selection. Snell used 191.32 true shooting attempts (counting free throws) and only 25 of them (13.1 percent) were used outside of the “Morey Zones.” Those are the three-point line, the restricted area and the charity stripe and are the most efficient areas of the court.

Hoiberg understands this and runs his offense accordingly, and it’s worth noting that while he was lethal from three while he was hot, he wasn’t “just” a shooter. He showed flashes of ability to make a quick, straight-line drive to the rim and finish with considerable authority.

And his defense, while still not on the level of Jimmy Butler or even on par with the team defense of Mike Dunleavy, was significantly improved. Per ESPN.com, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus went from -1.69 in 2013-14 to -0.30 last year. And his nearly seven-foot wingspan is just the kind of thing that new defensive guru Jim Boylen loved in Snell’s former high school teammate Kawhi Leonard.

Snell doesn’t seem like the type of player who avoids defense. In fact, he seems to take pride in it. But, due to his lack of experience, he would get lost in Thibodeau’s complicated system and get caught out of position. There were times last year, such as when he outplayed LeBron James, that he showed he can excel as a stopper.

In Boylen’s system, Snell will get a chance to show off his athleticism and length in a more open court style of play.

Snell has also added more muscle. During the Bulls’ first Summer League game, Reggie Miller asked Gar Forman about Snell and Forman’s response was a bit surprising:

You know, he practiced with us (the Summer League team) all week in Chicago. And he’s in such a good rhythm. You know, when we drafted him he was 190; he’s up to 225. So, he’s in a good rhythm working out in our facility, lifting doing skill work. So, we had him practice with the team to get used to this system, but we decided to leave him there and keep him in that routine.

The first thing that jumps out is the 225 number. Allegedly he gained 18 pounds last summer, and he was listed around 200-205, depending on where you look. If he’s at 225 now, he’s getting up to grown man weight. That puts him at roughly the same size as Jimmy Butler.

The most critical benefit to the added muscle will come on both ends of screens: setting them or fighting through them. With his three-point shooting ability, if he can set solid screens in the halfcourt, he’ll be able to curl off them a la Kyle Korver and get open looks at threes.

And he needs to work on his handles. If that is among the skills Forman is referring to, Snell could have a breakout year. It won’t be on the level of Butler’s last year, but he could certainly become a high-end rotation player who is reliable on both ends of the court.

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