Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
NBA Summer League can be about many things for many players.
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It can be about development, about getting the feet wet as players try to adjust to the first step on the journey to the next level. Often, the focus can be individual.
So Julian Phillips’ answer following Wednesday’s practice at the Advocate Center when asked what’s the biggest thing he wants to take away from his imminent experience stood out for its collective nature.
“Winning. Win every game. Win as many games as we can,” the Chicago Bulls’ second-round pick said. “The guys here work really hard every day. The coaches put us in the right position, put us in the right plays to make. And we believe in each other. So we’re going out here and doing what we can do to win.”
The Bulls open their summer-league schedule on Friday against the Toronto Raptors. The first of at least five games will offer Phillips, 2022 first-round pick Dalen Terry and others the opportunity to showcase where they stand.
And unsurprisingly, Phillips’ focus initially will be at the defensive end.
“Obviously, guys are bigger, faster and stronger. It’s a different game from college, so just getting a feel of it throughout the week and being able to progress,” Phillips said. “But definitely a lot of versatility, that’s kind of my game. Defense, being able to guard multiple positions.”
The Bulls entered NBA Draft night without a pick and traded two future second-round picks to the Washington Wizards for the rights to Phillips with the 35th pick. At 6 feet, 7 inches with long arms and a 43-inch vertical, he possesses all the physical tools to become the type of wing defender who thrives in today’s NBA, where the ability to switch and guard multiple positions is so crucial.
Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas said on draft night that he believes Phillips “can step in right now and probably defend on our level.” That’s high praise---and some pressure---for a 19-year-old.
But Phillips’ mindset initially focusing on the defensive end is a good base.
“I think a lot of it came from college,” Phillips said of his defensive mindset. “Coach (Rick) Barnes, we were a really defensive-minded team at Tennessee. It’s something we hung our hard hats on and that’s something he taught me really well---how to be a good college defender.
“Obviously, it’s different being a good college defender and a good NBA defender. So that’s something I have to learn. But with my mindset and my tools, it’s something I can accomplish.”
Assistant coach John Bryant, who is serving as head coach for the second straight summer in Las Vegas, likes what he has seen through the initial days of practice.
“I’m excited to see him play because he has great length, athleticism and lateral quickness,” Bryant said. “I think it’s important for him to learn how to close out. Our principles are we’re always going to have a hand up to kind of avoid any catch-and-shoot 3s. So how to use his athleticism to both pressure the shot to take away the shot and to keep his man in front.
“Nobody has really got by him in camp because he’s just that gifted athletically. Now he has to just realize how he can use that as a superpower. Man, he is gifted defensively.”
Phillips said he obviously wants to get stronger as he adjusts to guarding opponents who are more physical “off the ball and off the bounce.” Offensively, he said he wants to become a more consistent shooter.
But his pride in recounting draft night was palpable.
“I was excited,” he said. “More than anything, just really happy for me and my family. It was a great moment for us.”
The Bulls had interviewed Phillips at the NBA Draft Combine in May, but he hadn’t done an individual draft workout for them. So when they traded up for his rights, Phillips said “it was kind of crazy” and something he didn’t expect.
“But we’re here now and very happy,” he said. “It just says that they want me here and expect a lot from me. It’s about working hard and being about the right things.”
As far as that athleticism and 43-inch vertical, which ranked first at the combine, Phillips smiled.
“I mean, I kind of knew I was going to be up there for sure because at my predraft (workouts), I was kind of getting numbers similar to that when working on it. So I kind of knew I was going to test pretty well,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to be No. 1. But I knew I was going to be up there.”
To this point, Phillips said he never has officially entered a dunk contest.
“I probably should try it,” he said, laughing.
But that’s for another day. For now, making an impact at the defensive end in Las Vegas will suffice.