Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- Count Ayo Dosunmu out and watch what happens.
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That rookie season where it looked like, on paper, he might be headed to the G League? First, he cracked the rotation. Then, he seized the starting point guard position when Lonzo Ball suffered his first knee injury.
It’s happening again.
Dosunmu’s role decreased last season following Patrick Beverley’s arrival. And on paper at least, he looks like the odd man out of a crowded guard picture that features newcomer and main free-agent signing Jevon Carter along with holdovers Zach LaVine, Coby White and Alex Caruso.
That crowded rotation didn’t stop Dosunmu from re-signing with his hometown Chicago Bulls on a three-year, $21 million deal.
“I want to play so hard and be so able at both ends that Coach (Billy) Donovan, he can’t not have me on the court,” Dosunmu said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago following Wednesday’s training camp practice at Belmont University.
Management and Donovan have declared the starting point guard position to be an open competition between Carter, White and Dosunmu. And Donovan added that whichever player emerges to start the regular-season opener on Oct. 25 against Oklahoma City may not be the permanent starter.
That’s how much the position is in flux. Which is why Dosunmu is so focused on rebounding from his up-and-down second season.
“I think someone’s progress is not always particularly a direct path upward. Ayo probably in a lot of ways exceeded expectations. When Lonzo went down and we were in a jam there, he really stepped in and played incredible basketball the second half of his rookie year,” Donovan said. “But with that opportunity comes more film and more preparation from opposing teams. And there were things that for him that he probably wasn’t ready to see quite honestly. And I think he had a really good summer. He was in here the whole summer. He put the work in.
“Offensively, he can see the way he was being guarded. I think he knows the things that he needs to get better at as it relates to finishing at the rim, decision-making, shooting the basketball---him being efficient and confident. That’s the biggest thing for young guys. I think for Ayo, even though it was challenging at times for him last year, it may end up being the best thing for his growth to actually have to go through some adversity and challenges like he did. Because he handled it great not only in the season but in the offseason as well.”
Indeed, Dosunmu discussed how he attacked the offseason, his decision to re-sign with the Bulls and his expectations for himself and the Bulls during his interview, which has been edited slightly for length and clarity
NBC Sports Chicago: How many times have you been asked for a loan this summer?
Ayo Dosunmu: Ha, not a lot. Keep the circle tight.
Free agency was a drawn-out process. Was there ever a moment you thought you might not be re-signing with the Chicago Bulls?
I mean, you’ve been doing this business for a long time. You pretty much know how the business works. Of course, it’s always a possibility in free agency that anything can happen just with the nature of how the league is going. I came into free agency with an open mind that I could be playing anywhere. Put my feelings aside and basically try to secure what’s best for me and my game and my family for the future. Ultimately with praying, leaving it up to God, that was my path, to sign back with the Bulls.
Why did you want to re-sign?
Of course just playing with the team for two years and building up that camaraderie and knowing we had a lot of unfinished business, that was a big reason.
It’s a crowded guard picture on paper. But it seems like every time whenever you’re counted out, you keep coming. So what’s your approach to this competition?
Basically just going out there and trying to incorporate everything I learned this summer. It definitely feels different going into my third year of training camp, just having more knowledge. And knowledge is key. Going through the war wounds, being in big playoff games against the Bucks and play-in experience against the Raptors and Heat, that elevates you as a player. That experience makes you grow. I’m eager to show the growth I’ve had and the trials and tribulations I’ve had.
We’ve been told by management and the coaching staff there’s an open competition in training camp for the starting point guard position. How are you approaching that?
I’m a competitor. I’m going to try my best. Ultimately, I think that competition is going to help our team in the long run. We go at each other and try to kill each other in practice. When we’re on the court together, it’s going to make our team much more smooth. Me going into my third year and our core group being together pretty much the same time, it’s getting time for us to turn the corner.
You took a big jump from your sophomore year to your junior year at Illinois. So what do we have in store for Year 3 of Ayo in the NBA?
That’s been my path, even back to high school. I pretty much took my jump my junior year. The first two years I’m pretty much learning. And my sophomore year is always the year where I pretty much hit the little roadblock. And my junior year is the year I come over. I’m excited. I put a lot of work into my game, watched a lot of film. Playing over 150 games against the top players in the league. Guarding the top players in the league, I learned so much. Me going into Year 3, I’m eager to take that next jump.
What specifically did you work on this offseason?
You know, I worked No. 1 on being in tip-top shape to be able to physically sustain the whole season at a high level. I think first acknowledging that, being in the best shape, being able to run and put more time on the clock, I think that will be able to elevate my game in the best ways. And then of course, just my jumpshot, being more confident on the unders [when defenders go under screens], taking what the defense is giving me. And then controlling pace. I think the more the game slows down, the more I’m able to make the right reads. I work on the reads every day, two or three hours a day. Once I allow myself to slow down and read the game, I’m able to make the best decisions.
Is that read on you right, that whenever you’re counted out you seem to rise up and butt into the picture?
For sure. I’m a competitor. Ultimately, I want to win. I put so much work into my game this summer—two-a-days, three-a-days, waking up at 5 or 6 am throughout the whole contract process still. I tried to progress. I want to play so hard and be so able at both ends that Coach Donovan, he can’t not have me on the court. That’s I want to have this year. I want to have that presence where my teammates know that when Ayo is on the court, good things happen.
Last season is weird because, statistically, it’s very similar to your first season. But it just looked different. You’ve been up front with some struggles and hitting some speedbumps. When you look back on your second season, how do you assess it?
I assess it as it was what was destined for me. It was a part of the map. From my first year to my second year, I missed a lot of open shots. I think that’s probably why people may say that it dropped. But I’m capable of making those shots. And then like I said, just slowing the game down, taking the next step. Just reading the defense better. Once they go under, stop behind and shoot it. When they go over, come off, make the right read. Playing in transition. Get to the free-throw line. Rebound. That’s the next step that people were expecting me to make last year that I’m going to take this year. Those little things and using that experience and those trials and tribulations to elevate and keep going.
From a team perspective, last year was obviously a disappointment. And there just seems like quite a bit of talent in this gym. So what do you think you can accomplish as a team?
I mean, if you look at our team, I think we’re pretty deep. One through 10, one through 12, we got a lot of talented players. And now it’s all about trusting each other. It’s all about having that that fun and camaraderie together at both ends. If you look at all the teams that go far or have won the previous years, their depth was a key factor. It was guys who stepped up that people may not have thought were capable of doing that. I think we have the team to do that with our Big Three and then quality, talented young players who are eager to put their footprint in the league and eager to get better. I think there’s going to be a time this season---quote me---where we’re all going to turn that corner. And every time you look up, it’s going to be just good basketball played at both ends. Because we got a lot of hungry and talented players.