Rookies Deconstructed: Bobby Portis
The Chicago Bulls rookie has quickly muscled his way into a role in a very deep frontcourt. He did it with quickness, strength, and a willingness to get dirty.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge and appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just under half a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Antawn Jamison and the Quickness
Back in 1998, Antawn Jamison was cruising through his junior season at the University of North Carolina, on his way to winning National Player of the Year and making plans for his future in the NBA. At the beginning of February, his team, then ranked second in the nation, played archrival Duke, then ranked first. The Tar Heels won a resounding victory, and Jamison led the way with 35 points and 11 rebounds. I remember watching the game, primarily because of a specific statistic that was cited in the broadcast, although I don't remember the exact number and haven't been able to find it anywhere. In amassing all those points and rebounds, Jamison had possession of the ball for something like 52 seconds.
Jamison was a different player in those days than the one he'd become in the NBA; this was long before he moved his game behind the three-point line. The college iteration of Jamison lived inside the arc, at the elbows and on the low block, and he scored at will with touch, footwork, and finesse. But his biggest weapon at that point was a quickness unlike any I had seen before.
It wasn't speed, exactly, or rapid change of direction or covering large distances in short amount of time. The quickness wasn't confined to his lower body, either. It was a systemic trait, and it extended from his decision-making to his arms and hands, right on down to the floor. Every movement Jamison made—plain, fundamental, vanilla even—was executed just a little bit faster than the opposing defense could respond. In that Duke game, every catch moved fluidly into a scoring move. This was not just jumpers or layups but sequences of post moves, feints and counter-feints, all of them done in the blink of an eye.
Like Jamison, Bobby Portis won the genetic lottery, and like Jamison his prize is a big man's body with a small man's speed and leaping ability. He has grown into an increasingly important piece for the present and future of the Chicago Bulls, primarily thanks to two things: a respectable outside jumpshot and that multiply blessed athleticism. Portis's role on this team, at least right now, is essentially all about mobility. That is, to get that big body up and down the floor in transition faster than an opponent, to move it from side to side and keep it between a scorer and the basket, to use it as an impediment to free his teammates for open shots, and to slide it into empty space and make himself available for easy buckets. He is motion.
Stylistically, the connection between Jamison and Portis is not all that strong, but there is some aesthetic commonality in the speed and economy of their motion: the constant movement, none of it wasted; speed exerted over inches rather than feet; a rapidity that covers the entirety of their frame and often seems to have them playing at a pace fractionally faster than reality.
Bo Outlaw and Kinetic Energy
Where Antawn Jamison was an exemplar of speed and power in terms of fine motor movement, Bo Outlaw was a connoisseur of the gross motor. Essentially just one enormous fast-twitch muscle fiber with a pair of rec specs perched on top, Outlaw spent 16 NBA seasons flying around the court with his personal gas pedal pinned to the floor. He was a shot-blocking, pass-deflecting, rebound-corralling, end-to-end bull in a china shop. Outlaw never really evolved beyond movement as an NBA niche—and he couldn't do a lot of higher-order basketball things—but he sure as shit made the most of it.
There are many ways to move on a basketball court and Jamison (or at least my fondly remembered collegiate version of him) and Outlaw could be considered two sides of the same coin. Both win by leveraging movement: Jamison did it in tight spaces, beating defenders to a spot six inches away; Outlaw did it by beating you to that spot, or blasting you off it with shoulders and biceps should you have gotten a head start.
At different moments this season, Portis has shown the ability to do both. He crashes when appropriate, fighting for rebounding position or bodying up a post scorer, and navigates when that is what's needed, finding an opening on the baseline or slipping through a forest of bodies on a roll to the basket. The control and intentionality isn't quite there yet, but the way he moves, and how seamlessly he transitions from one end of the motor spectrum to the other, implies that he could someday have full command of both. That will be scary to watch.
Horace Grant and the Dirty Work
Projecting rookies is a game that's equal parts fun and maddening. At this point in a player's first season, there are infinite futures, and as many routes leading there. The skills and physical attributes we've seen thus far from Portis could be shaped or molded into a variety of forms. Selecting an ideal for Bobby Portis is a delicate task.
Portis finds himself in a strange place, becoming a Chicago Bull as the team straddles two eras. For nearly a decade, Chicago basketball has been about the physical, with athletic bodies the currency traded for wins. This season has been a transition from that physical identity to one centered more on skill and finesse. The change has been rocky, as one might be expect.
Portis began the season as the team's fifth big man, waiting his turn behind the tools of each style, old (Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah) and new (Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic). Noah is out of the picture now and coach Fred Hoiberg has decided that Mirotic is better off on the wing. This has created a larger opening for Portis, which seems appropriate, actually, because Portis could be a bridge between where the Bulls were and where they would like to be.
The Outlaw side of Portis is the bruises and scraped knees of the old Chicago. The more Jamison side of him is the elegant future. A perfect union of the two might look a lot like someone pulled from the deeper reaches of Bulls history, Horace Grant.
It's easy to remember Grant as a pair of goggles that occasionally set screens for Michael Jordan. But Grant was, in many ways, the mortar that made those first three Chicago title teams so immovable—he defended, he set screens, he rebounded, he made the mid-range jumpshots that needed to be made. Occasionally, Michael and Scottie would even let him take down some smaller defender in the post and have a little fun. He got in where he fit in, which is a valuable if overlooked skill.
Grant was an athletic player, but not in the blinding way that Jordan was, or the suffocatingly smooth way that Pippen was. His gift was an athleticism that was perfectly malleable, strong when the situation demanded it and fluid when necessary. He did movement in all the big and small, strong and quick ways that Chicago's system demanded.
Portis has so much of this down already—the frame, the jumper, the roughed-in outlines of the necessary skills. The movement is what makes it special, and Portis is hard at work on the rest.