When the Magic stunned the Chicago Bulls in Orlando on Jan. 23, a three-hour flight to Oklahoma City loomed.
Ayo Dosunmu finished that game with three turnovers, zero assists and a plus-minus rating of minus-18. As the Bulls’ charter flight ascended, DeMar DeRozan pulled “his rook,” his little brother, close for some NBA 101.
“The whole 3 hours he was just talking to me, giving me different NBA lessons,” Dosunmu said. “Mistakes that he made, how I could change and be better.”
Fast forward to Tuesday night.
Making his 10th straight start on the same night he earned a trip to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge exhibition, Dosunmu continued to play beyond his years. He narrowly missed posting his second straight double-digit assist game, finishing with 13 points, nine assists and just one turnover in 36 minutes.
The Bulls closed the game with an 11-0 run, with Dosunmu scoring five straight points that included the dagger 3-pointer with 1 minute, 46 seconds left. After that shot, DeRozan held Dosunmu in a long embrace.
“For him to give that hug just goes back to that (talk),” Dosunmu said.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Dosunmu’s minutes these days — or his growth throughout this most impressive of rookie seasons. With Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso both sidelined with long-term injuries, he has moved to more of an on-the-ball and distributor role, all while still often drawing the toughest defensive assignment.
“Before we had COVID and these injuries, he was finishing on the break. He was the guy getting it and going to the rim. Now he has the ball on the break and he has to recognize, ‘OK, Vooch is going down the floor, is there a guard on him? Zach (LaVine) is up on the wing,’” coach Billy Donovan said, using Nikola Vučević’s nickname. “These are things he hasn’t had to think about. But I really give him credit in terms of the security of the ball. Sometimes he misses things, but he’s not turning it over.”
And if he does, well, Dosunmu will already have looked inward first before either Donovan or DeRozan get to him.
“When he does something that he knows maybe wasn’t the right decision on that particular play, it’s almost like something goes off in him and he gets even more focused,” Donovan said. “He concentrates more, and he almost becomes more detailed.”
Dosunmu’s attention to detail has been on display all season. It has demonstrated itself in his practice of asking veterans and coaches repeated questions and his film study. It has played out recently in his ball security.
Despite playing heavy minutes, Dosunmu is averaging just 1.8 turnovers to 6.5 assists over his 10 straight starts.
And then there’s Dosunmu’s ability to remain unfazed, to step up and take — and make — big shots at big times.
“I just think it comes from my mentality,” Dosunmu said. “Since a young age, I always have had the confidence to know that what you work on when the lights are off and you’re by yourself — late nights, early mornings — I tend to have the confidence to take the shots when it’s the biggest stage. That went on to my high school career, my collegiate career. That was something that was always instilled in me.”
This poise extends to Dosunmu’s on-court demeanor. He let slip a smile after DeRozan’s hug. But rarely does he celebrate or show emotion. He stays even-keeled.
“That’s the one thing that I love about him is I think there’s a bigger purpose and a bigger mission for him where it’s not necessarily a play or a shot that he’s playing for. He’s playing for the team. He’s playing to make guys around him better,” Donovan said. “He has a really good ability to stay present and stay in the moment and not get wrapped up in something that happened previously or get too anxious or excited about what’s getting ready to come. He has really good poise for a young guy.”
Dosunmu finally dropped it — a little. Asked if anything about his strong play throughout a rookie season many projected to feature him outside the rotation has surprised him, Dosunmu revealed he’s human.
“I wouldn’t say surprising because I have a lot of confidence in myself and I put a lot of work into my game,” he said. “But I would say my rookie season, I wouldn’t expect it to come this fast.”