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Inside the evolving Chicago Bulls player development program

Will Gottlieb Avatar
December 11, 2023

After a season of stagnation resulting in missing the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls knew that if they wanted to continue on with their current core, they needed to prioritize internal development.

Individual skill improvement is at the very basis of team improvement. And from Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley on down, the organization is more invested than ever in making that happen. 

“In general, this has been an ongoing focus over the past three-and-a-half seasons, since AK (Arturas Karnisovas) and Marc (Eversley) came here to Chicago,” Bulls Vice President of Basketball Strategy and Analytics Steve Weinman told CHGO. “It’s been a priority to do everything we can to create an environment for our players where we’re doing as much as we can to put them in position to maximize their abilities, and to do so in a way that helps our team.”

There is a unified initiative across the front office, to the coaching staff, and skill development department to help players grow.

“I feel strongly that our responsibility from a basketball analytics standpoint is to provide as much support for this process as we can, to help the coaches as they help our players,” Weinman continued. “More than anything else, our players are the product…the person most responsible for that player’s improvement, is that player.”

Shooting is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to juicing up the offense and making each player more dynamic. Last season, the Bulls were, on average, in an 8.4-point hole simply by losing the three-pointers made battle by 2.8 per game.

To rectify this area of weakness, the Bulls brought in Peter Patton as the team’s new Director of Player Development. Patton, a shooting coach by trade, believes that shooting is the foundation for individual improvement. Players need to be able to shoot well to pull defenders out of the lane. They need to have the floor spaced to create driving lanes to keep the offense humming. And they need to have a more modern shot profile — where on the court they’re taking their shots — to keep pace with the offensive boom happening across the league.

“We have an emphasis on shooting, specifically because our shot profile when I got here wasn’t ideal to the NBA standards,” Patton told CHGO. 

They’re operating through the lens of ‘skill over scheme’: the idea that players need to have belief in their ability in order to make the next play, keep the advantage alive and capitalize on what the defense is giving them. If they can maximize their offensive toolsets, they will be prepared to read, react and capitalize.

“I’m coming in to focus more on certain skill development, specifically shooting and basing everything off of ‘skills over scheme’,” Patton explained. “If they’re not comfortable with what they do, it’s hard to run a scheme.”

Skills over scheme

Ty Abbott is in his fourth year as a Bulls player development coach. A former pro in Europe and in the G League, Abbott started his career working with the Philadelphia 76ers affiliate team before eventually moving to the Bulls.

He’s playing one-on-one and managing drill work before games with Coby White and Zach LaVine. “Just having a guard background, it’s kind of natural for me to gravitate towards them and they gravitate towards me as well,” Abbott told CHGO. 

“The way that I see it, [my job] is really just to support these guys,” he continued. “You can look at it: you have your head coach who’s running the show, you have your assistant coaches that are coming up with the schemes and the way that we’re going to play. And then my job is to help our guys be as successful as possible and be as ready as possible to implement those schemes and show what they can do within the framework of what we’re trying to do as a team.”

The Bulls have a strong group of player development coaches including Abbott, Jordan Ash, Logan Power, and Nico Hobbs. Patton added to the group, bringing Peter Crawford with him from Dallas, and then hiring Austin Dufault away from Detroit.

“Everybody has an expectation and standard that we’re going to set with how we work with players,” Patton said. “What time we get here. What time we leave. Attention to details when we watch film with ourselves, our players. We’re going to study the game, study each other and encourage each other to communicate ideas and have an open forum in our office.”

In bolstering the skill development staff, the Bulls feel they can have a greater impact on player’s growth. Players need to trust and believe in the coaches they work with. Those coaches need to be able to relate to those players and challenge them with the right feedback as it relates to eventually implementing those skills in game. 

“Once [players] come into their own, they start to understand, alright, ‘this is my look here, this is my look here,’ and they start to have a progression in any given scenario,” Abbott said. “And as you see guys start to really understand the offense and understand their strengths. You see them go through those progressions. You can see how they’re playing the game within the game.”

Younger players like White, Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu are starting to show those flashes more consistently — a product of the work they’re putting in.

“You gotta do it when you don’t want to do it,” Abbott said. “And that’s more than just being on the court. Are you taking care of your body? Are you watching the film? Are you paying attention in practice? Are you learning the playbook?”

“All of our guys work,” he continued. “And they’ve fallen in love with the work. And they all feed off of each other’s energy.”

Learning your shot

Patton is always lurking behind players, arms folded and brow furrowed. He’s intently monitoring their shooting form as they work through drills. 

“He’ll operate in the shadows,” Abbott said.

Patton is looking at balance, hand placement, line to the rim. These elements are non-negotiable. 

He’ll never aim to tear down and reconstruct anyone’s shot form. That’s “asking for disaster,” especially during the season. Instead, his message to the players is consistent: he’s teaching them how to perfect their shot, not enforce his own upon them. 

“It’s his shot, not my shot,” Patton said. “It’s the player’s shot and whatever they want to do to make their shot better, they have to buy into it. I’m gonna give them a platform to do it. It’s a back and forth. The big thing is making sure they understand why they miss. So when they miss they can make their adjustments in-game.”

Dalen Terry is one of Patton’s personal projects. He’s constantly in Terry’s ear during shooting drills, preaching balance, elbow in, making sure the ball comes off the middle finger, not ring finger. Behind each jumper, Patton is there, guiding and instructing every motion.

And of course, the trash talk helps build the relationship that lays the foundation for skill development and application. 

“For me, it’s a lot of talking shit, for real,” Terry told CHGO with a smile. “Like he’ll say some shit just to see how I react.” 

For developmental players like Terry, earning minutes will be a challenge without continued improvement in skill areas like shooting. 

“A lot of these guys, younger players, have come up or they’ve been told how great they are,” Patton explained. “No one has really coached and challenged them…If you can’t shoot you can’t play…that skill set, breaking guys down getting to the paint becomes a lot easier, because that means they’ve got to close out and it’s a much easier read and go by.”

The team uses the Noah Shooting System, a state of the art tracking tool that measures and visualizes shot arc, depth, and left-right accuracy data to help players correct their shot.

According to the Noah software, “The perfect shot is 45/11/0,” Terry explained. 45 is the degree angle of the arc, 11 is depth, the point where the shot enters the hoop in relation to the front of the rim, and 0 is the margin left or right of the rim.

“He’ll say my shot wasn’t perfect,” Terry said. “And I’ll say, ‘well, that shit went in’. Then he’ll bring up the chart and tell me how it wasn’t (perfect). We’ll argue about it, and then I’ll do it his way, and he’ll say, ‘see, do it again.’”

There’s no arguing with Noah. As good as the shot may feel off of Terry’s hands, if it’s not 45/11/0, it’s not right.

Measuring success

Weinman is building other “tools and toys” to help visualize information geared towards optimizing offense. His job is to provide support and information to the coaches to disseminate to the players as they see fit.

It doesn’t have to be regurgitating stats and tables, but rather, a lens through which the coaches can package and distribute information. And the coaching staff and player development staff are as eager to implement this information as Weinman has seen during his tenure with the Bulls.

“This [coaching and player development staff] is by far not just the most interested in receiving information, but the most aggressive in pursuing it,” Weinman said. “We have a staff that is really interested in engaging with as much data as they possibly can.”

Of course, the Bulls want to see those percentages rise, but the goal is less about reaching specific thresholds, and more about steadily moving in the right direction.

“One thing we’ve talked about is a goal of continuous improvement,” Weinman said. “It’s not just trying to hit this target number and then we’ve hit it and that’s the end. That’s not the idea. It’s to find ways to just continue to be moving in the right direction, ideally in every facet of the game.”

And to their credit, they have. The Bulls offense at large is still a work in progress: their efficiency is 24th, right where they left off last season (though they’ve dropped a few points per 100 possessions). But they’ve moved up to 13th during their four-game win-streak and are showing real signs of growth. 

The shot profile is also looking a lot healthier these days: 32.9 in three-pointers attempted per game, an 11-spot rise in the rankings. 33.8 percent of their offense comes from three, compared to 30.4 percent last season. 

The Bulls have climbed 22nd to 14th in frequency of shots attempted from the corners. They aren’t just launching threes for the sake of it. Instead, they’re understanding how to generate better offense by prioritizing areas on the floor where the expected value of shots is highest.

Better yet, they’re increasing volume without sacrificing accuracy. The three-point percentage has remained consistent to last season’s average, an impressive feat considering the inverse correlation between those variables.

“Our players have put in a lot of work,” Weinman said. “And you’re seeing that in terms of, in some cases, increased willingness to shoot threes. In some cases, it’s just purely increased accuracy on taking similar volumes of shots.”

More than anything else, shooting opens up a higher level of upside for each individual on the team and the group on the whole.

“People think that the Chicago Bulls are a non-shooting team. We’re going to change that narrative,” Patton said confidently. “I encourage people to go under [screens]. That’d be fine. 

We’ll be just fine with that. We’ll be ready.”

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