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Injury means opportunity for Chicago Bulls young players

Will Gottlieb Avatar
February 25, 2024

The Chicago Bulls beat the New Orleans Pelicans 114-106 on Sunday night, led by DeMar DeRozan’s 24 points and seven assists and Nikola Vucevic’s 22 points and 13 rebounds — his 500th career double-double.

But it was the young players on the roster that are beginning to develop and thrive in their roles as the team looks to overcome an injury plagued stretch run.

Alex Caruso, recently emphasized to reporters the need for a collective effort to compensate for the absence of key players such as Patrick Williams and Torrey Craig.

“It’s going to have to be by committee,” Caruso said. “We’re going to have to do a better job covering up for each other. Maybe throw some more wrinkles into the game plan of coverages and giving different looks, a little more gimmicky stuff to buy us minutes here and there.”

But of course, end of bench players are going to get into the rotation and rotation players are going to step into bigger roles.

Guys like Ayo Dosunmu, who had 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting and eight assists, is a perfect example of the latter.

But Julian Phillips and Dalen Terry have a chance to contribute in meaningful minutes, which is valuable time for them to develop and grow.

“It’s also time for the young guys to step into their own and be who they are,” Caruso added. “They’ve shown to us they can play and have shown to us they’re good players. It’s time for them to believe.”

Against the Pelicans, Dalen Terry seized his opportunity, emerging as the first player off the bench and making a substantial impact with a team-high +17 in just 15 minutes of play. He scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting and missed his only three-point attempt, but Terry’s defensive prowess and playmaking chops were evident. He registered two steals while connecting the offense with three assists.

Terry had four fouls, which curbed his production, but he’s clearly benefiting from being a connective piece — attacking closeouts, making extra passes, generating steals and transition opportunities — rather than having to create his own offense the way he did in the Las Vegas Summer League.

Caruso knows this from experience better than most. The former two-way player worked his way into the Los Angeles Lakers rotation, ultimately starting a game in the 2020 NBA Finals before joining the Bulls in free agency the following offseason.

“Every time in the NBA you get an opportunity, you do one of two things: You either take it and flourish or it kind of holds you back and you don’t take that next step,” Caruso explained. “I think everybody on this team that is going to get this opportunity is good enough to take that next step and flourish.

“I’m a prime example of that when I was in LA,” he continued. “(Lonzo Ball) got hurt the first time and (Rajon) Rondo was hurt a little bit and I just had to grind and take my 7-8 minutes and turn it into 10-12, turn that 10-12 into 15, turn it into 20 and ended up starting Game 6 of the Finals. Everything they want is in front of them. It’s just about them taking the opportunity.”

Playing time during games with stakes does matter for young players trying to develop. It’s different than mopping up garbage time minutes, or running around for 82 games in a season geared towards draft picks.

“Trial by fire,” Caruso said. “You don’t figure it out unless you mess up. That’s why I referenced my path and my journey a little bit. I got cooked a lot when I first got in the league just because the speed is different and these guys have the tricks. They’re crafty at getting fouls. The more I got real minutes, the more I started to feel the flow of the game a little bit and understand player tendencies, understand coach and team tendencies. From there, I just learned. I think as long as you learn and develop and use the meaningful minutes to understand what’s going on and learn and grow from that, then it can be beneficial.”

For Terry and Phillips (who was scoreless in just two minutes) specifically, they’ve got to learn how to exist without making negative plays, like turning the ball over or putting the opponent on the free throw line, to build up trust equity with their team and coaches.

“They want to get better,” Caruso said. “They’re receptive to advice. I’ve talked to both of them about trying to play without fouling. That’s the hard thing. When you’re young, guys are older than you and crafty and smart. The game is slower for them. Anytime you get a hand in or are out of position, they take advantage of it. Both those guys have such great length and height that they don’t need to foul. I try to tell them to get their feet in position and then they can use their hands as weapons instead of the opposite where you use your hands and your feet try to catch up.”

The progress is slow and while it can be non-linear, development is taking place.

“They’ve done a good job,” Caruso said. “Dalen has had a couple of games now where he’s been in points of decision-making on the break and he could easily reach out or slap and he hasn’t. Or he has gotten in and stepped into shots and taken them. Julian took one in the corner the other night (against Boston) and looked like he was in rhythm and didn’t think about it twice. Those are the things I’m trying to stay with them about.”

“The game is going to happen,” he continued. “You have to think before the game happens so when you get in there, you can just play and use your ability. They both have a lot of that.”

Up next: Bulls are back at home on Tuesday night to face the Detroit Pistons

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