How Lonzo Ball fits Bulls', Billy Donovan's desire to play faster

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Ball fits Bulls', Donovan's desire to play faster originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Play fast.

That’s been the consistent drumbeat from coach Billy Donovan leading up to and through the first week of training camp.

Take advantage of the myriad scoring options, the athleticism and from what the Chicago Bulls believe are players with high basketball IQ and strike before defenses get set.

This is a team-wide commitment. But at the center of it is Lonzo Ball.

“That’s definitely where I’m comfortable at,” Ball said following Monday’s Bulls practice at the Advocate Center.  “I think the team we put together, we’re going to be better in transition. So as long as we get the stops and get out and run, I think we should have a lot of good options.”

As if his pass-first mentality isn’t enough of a clue, Ball has been cited by teammates early in camp as someone who is team-oriented. In his media sessions, he typically fields questions about himself and broadens his answers to talk about the collective.

The initial results of this approach will play out in Tuesday’s exhibition opener against the Cavaliers, for which Donovan said he wants to give his starters “a good run” because he doesn’t think four preseason games is a lot and it’s a new group.

“I think them playing with each other a good portion of the game would be important,” Donovan said.

No fully formed answers will come from one exhibition. But the debuts of Ball and DeMar DeRozan in Bulls uniforms are still anticipated.

It’s the first opportunity to unveil in public why management targeted these players so aggressively in free agency.

Over four seasons, Ball owns averages of 6.4 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game. He is widely lauded for throwing the ball ahead in transition to the open man, possibly recording the so-called hockey assist that leads to a basket. For the Bulls, he will be called upon to push tempo, defend and continue knocking down his improved 3-point shot. Though the Bulls feature other solid ballhandlers, Ball will be the primary one.

“Make the right play,” Ball said. “That’s what I try to do and good results come from that.”

Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas has downplayed questions about solving the Bulls’ point guard position since he took over. He rarely even calls the position by that name, opting for “lead guard.”

And in his preferred offensive vision, he fields a roster filled with willing and able passers. Last March’s trade deadline acquisition of Nikola Vucevic is another example of this approach.

Coincidentally, the Bulls engaged in trade talks at the same time with the Pelicans centered on Ball and Lauri Markkanen, who visits the United Center in his Cavaliers’ debut on Tuesday. Karnišovas had to wait until the offseason but landed his “lead guard” target.

“He likes to play fast. He likes to advance the ball, to guard,” Karnišovas said on Bulls media day. “He can be a primary ballhandler. Or he can play as a secondary ballhandler.”

The Bulls ranked 27th last season with 15.1 turnovers per game. In their postseason exit interviews, both Donovan and Karnišovas bemoaned the number of winnable games the Bulls let slip because of sloppy play down the stretch.

Ball won’t be the be-all, end-all cure for that. But the Bulls envision him as a connecting piece who can spearhead not only their desire to play faster but to play smarter.

“He’s got tremendous instincts as a player on both ends,” Donovan said. “Coming in and learning a whole new team and how we’re trying to play offensively, he picks it up all really, really quickly.”

Entering his fifth NBA season, Ball is on his third team. But the Bulls made such an aggressive long-term commitment to him because they see a player who will turn 24 later this month and is on his ascent.

“He loves to play,” Donovan said. “I think he’ll continue to get better at getting to the basket, finishing at the rim, getting to the free-throw line. He’s really cerebral. He’s got great awareness. I’ve always said this about him: He’s a guy I think guys enjoy playing with because of the way he passes.”

Might there even be a lob to Zach LaVine or maybe Derrick Jones Jr. in store on Tuesday?

“They can catch it anywhere,” Ball said. “Wherever I put it, I feel like they’re going to get it.”

Ball believes the Bulls have “a great team” because of “unselfish players” and “smart players.” The dress rehearsals that begin Tuesday are important because of the roster turnover. But the acclimation process can’t be rushed, even if the preferred tempo is faster.

“It’s all about chemistry,” Ball said. 

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