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Setting Realistic Expectations for Bobby Portis in His Rookie Season

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Bobby Portis had a strong showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, which is encouraging news for Chicago Bulls fans. The Bulls took Portis with the 22nd pick in the draft this last summer, a pick that appeared to be a possible steal. Many projected Portis to go somewhere around 15, and the fact that he fell to the Bulls helped them fill the need for frontcourt depth and a big man who can knock down open jumpers.

If you’re interested in a review of Portis’s effort in the Summer League, you should check out what fellow writer Michael Wonsover put together earlier this week. To summarize, Portis averaged 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and had a 19.89 PER in six games played. He had his moments where he looked great, such as his Bulls debut in which he scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting (3-for-4 on three pointers) in 27 minutes.

He had bad moments, as well, such as his follow-up to that fantastic debut in which he shot 1-for-10 from the field and scored just five points in an 81-66 loss to the Toronto Raptors. In the end, the nature of the Summer League for a 20-year-old rookie is that there are highs and lows. While nothing that happened in Las Vegas for Portis should be considered too discouraging, nothing should be overly encouraging either.

At 6’11” and 246 pounds, Portis will reasonably be able to play power forward and center in the NBA. Portis was drafted to a team that already has several established players at the positions that he can play. Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic are in line to receive the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt.

But the minutes situation isn’t without a glimmer of hope. Gasol is 35 years old this season and it’s believed that the Bulls’ front office is looking for his minutes load in the regular season to lighten a bit from the 34.4 minutes per game he played under Tom Thibodeau last year. Noah played over 30 minutes per game as well, and his health situation is up in the air going into 2015-2016. The same could be said for Gibson, who had surgery in the offseason to fix his ankle.

Mirotic should see a rise in minutes next year, and a portion of that could come at the small-forward spot in theory, although the Bulls already have Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell to fit in at that spot. I think the best-case scenario for the Bulls’ frontcourt is to cut Gasol down to around 28 minutes and Noah to between 20-25, if his knee can handle it. Assuming his health and productivity, keeping Gibson at about 25 minutes per game is reasonable as well.

At the two spots, you’ve accounted for roughly 75 of the 96 minutes. That leaves 21 minutes per game for Mirotic, in addition to any minutes he might play at the small forward. So where does Portis fit in all of this? Well, assuming the whole team is healthy, he kind of doesn’t.

But that’s a fairly large assumption, given the Bulls’ history. Gasol played in 78 games last season, but he’s no stranger to missing large chunks of a season with an injury. Noah’s knee is bone-on-bone at this point, and assuming he’ll have to have the occasional night off would be fair. Who knows whether Gibson will be fully ready to start the season, much less being in the right condition to perform at the level the Bulls need from him.

If the Bulls deal with injury issues early in the season, Portis could earn his way to the court that way. I’ve written before about his strong fit in the Fred Hoiberg system, and Hoiberg is used to dealing with young players. I don’t envision Hoiberg being of the Thibodeau mindset on rookies, which is that they’re to be neither seen nor heard. But I also don’t see him bumping a veteran out of a rotation spot for a first-year player, either.

I think a completely reasonable expectation for Portis this year is that he earns spotty minutes, flashes some brilliance on rare occasion, and mostly finds himself glued to the bench. Depending on how the season progresses for the Bulls and the situation surrounding Noah and Gibson (the former is a free agent after the season), it’s possible a midseason deal opens up some time for Portis. But this would likely be indicative of a season that’s not going as the franchise had hoped.

I wouldn’t throw a comp on Portis like Zach Randolph, but I’ll use Randolph as an easy (read: lazy) example. Portis is about two inches taller and quite a bit lighter than Randolph, who was around 270 pounds on draft day. He was taken 19th by the 50-32 Portland Trail Blazers in the 2001 draft. At the time, Randolph was just 20 years old and was nowhere near ready for the NBA.

Randolph made it into 41 games in his rookie year, playing just 5.8 minutes per contest. Of course, he trimmed about 20 pounds off his frame and transformed into one of the premier big men in the NBA over the last decade. I’m not saying that Bobby Portis is headed for this same kind of success, but it’s not hard to see him following a similar path in his career.

Portis doesn’t have weight issues, but like nearly all rookies he has no idea what he’s in for as far as the grueling day-to-day nature of the NBA season. He’ll need to put on more muscle and condition himself properly, and that takes time and hard work. Based on what little we’ve seen of him, he strikes me as the kind of guy who wants to work hard and understands what he has to do to be successful.

That’s going to be a long process, and don’t bet on seeing much in the way of results this season.

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