Born Again Bulls

With the Bulls going through more changes than Tom Brady’s hair this summer, it might take a while for fans to get used to the influx of new players and playing styles. It will also likely take a while for these players to get used to each other. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, the Bulls have only seven returning players on their current 16-man training camp roster, a jarring number when you consider the Bulls’ success the past two seasons.

But while you struggle to pronounce the names of all the really tall new guys on the Bulls, there’s a couple of other players – I’m going to call them born-again Bulls – you should be watching out for – Rip Hamilton and Jimmy Butler. Sure, they’re not new, but both are in their second seasons with the team, and neither has had a chance to showcase his strengths on a consistent basis.

Hamilton spent most of last season on the bench with groin and shoulder injuries, and only appeared in 28 games during that shortened 66-game season. When he was on the floor, however, he contributed as best he could, averaging 11.6 points per game and three assists. And while he isn’t the Bulls’ most explosive player, he’s a solid all-around starter and a reliable and smart veteran presence. For fans to finally see what kind of role player Hamilton can be, he’ll have to stay healthy, or signing him as a missing piece to the Bulls’ championship puzzle could’ve been a wash.

Butler, believe it or not, appeared in 14 more games than Hamilton, though of course his minutes were much more limited given that it was his rookie season. The Bulls’ 2011 first round draft pick is known for his superb defense, which fits right in with Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. Though now more than ever, the Bulls will need defensive power after losing guys like Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik. An extrememly solid backup to Luol Deng, Butler is reliable on both sides of the ball, a quality that’s quite lacking on this team.

Despite the Bulls’ collectively mediocre preseason performances so far, both Hamilton and Butler have shown glimpses of what key roles they could play throughout the season. While the ‘Masked Man’ sat Saturday night’s game to get some extra rest, he helped carry the team in the previous two games, averaging 11.5 points and two steals per game. He’s obviously been working hard to get healthy, and told that he added a physical therapist to his workout regimen this summer.

Butler has also shown improvement this preseason, and even started for Deng in Saturday’s 82-75 loss to Minnesota. While he still needs to work on minimizing turnovers, Butler squeaked out nine points in his last two performances, and on the other end of the court he’s producing an impressive average of seven rebounds per game. Obviously time will tell, but Butler is one of the Bulls’ most promising bench players and a probable future starter, so look for him to shine if he continues to put up solid numbers every night.

While many expect the Bulls to be the antithesis of the team they were last year, Hamilton and Butler give us a few reasons to believe otherwise. Now that they’ve each been with the Bulls for a season, albeit shortened, they’ve had time to get used to the system and find their niche on this roster. Hamilton even admitted that last season, he had to learn everything “on the fly” because he didn’t get to play in training camp. Now, things should be different, and fans will have to see if Hamilton and Butler step up as returning players now that they’re familiar with Thibs and his system. Otherwise, it’s going to be a lot harder that pronouncing Kryrylo Fesenko.

Next victim: The Bulls will take on the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night at the United Center. Tipoff is at 7 p.m., and both Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng, who sat out Saturday for rest and a groin injury, respectively, are set to play.

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