Is the future shooting guard present?


Mar 5

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So what do you want from a starting shooting guard?

Obviously, someone who can average in double figures scoring and spread the floor with three point shooting. Though it also would be a plus if he could handle the ball and make plays, allowing your high level point guard, as Isiah Thomas famously did on the way to two championships with Joe Dumars, to play off the ball and be an additional weak side threat. And even better if he was tall and thus able to defend the bigger two guards in the NBA.

The Bulls have been waiting for this guy for a long time, and maybe he’s been here all along, well at least for the last several months.

“It is important to me that I can score the ball from three point and at the same time can dribble and create something for my teammates,” Marco Belinelli was saying Tuesday before Bulls practice as he prepared to start Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs again for the ailing Richard Hamilton. “That’s a part of the game where I improved in the summer, worked on my ballhandling. I like to play point guard (as he did much of Sunday’s game against Indiana). The most important thing is to stay on the court and play ball. I want to help this team win. I just want to do my job.”

Marco Belinelli

Well said as a player for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, and Belinelli, the likeable 27-year-old 6-5 guard, continues to make an impressive case for being the Bulls shooting guard of the future. Of course, as a free agent this summer that will take some negotiating by each side.

But Belinelli would love to stay with the team of his boyhood heroes.

“The NBA is not easy,” added Belinelli, playing for his fourth team in six seasons. “You have to be lucky to find an organization, to find something to really trust and a guy to give confidence to you. Right now I am so happy to be here. I love everybody, the fans, organization, coaching staff, my teammates. I want to play the best I can. I would really love to be here. We will see this summer.”

Watching Belinelli you can see a lot of the makings of the prototypical guard. Plus, he doesn’t back from the big moment, already making two game winning shots this season and being called upon by Thibodeau Sunday to attempt to tie the game at the buzzer. He didn’t Sunday, but Belinelli figures to get more chances as Thibodeau even playing with Marquis Teague or Nate Robinson has been using Belinelli to make plays at point guard.

“He has playmaking abilities,” agreed Thibodeau. “I liked with the ball moving side to side it gives you an opportunity for another pick and roll. I thought that was effective (against the Pacers). He got us in a pretty good rhythm. He does a little bit of everything. Obviously, the catch and shoot, the playmaking. He’s gotten more comfortable as the season has gone alone. He’s got good size to pass over the top of people.”

Though the larger question is whether he may be ready to step past some people, namely Hamilton. Not that Hamilton has done anything wrong, but he didn’t travel to San Antonio with his back issues. And given his stops and starts with injuries and to better save him for the playoffs when his veteran experience will be invaluable, perhaps Thibodeau finishes the last 22 games starting Belinelli.

We know Thibodeau doesn’t change lineups, but given injuries — and the Bulls have had plenty — there have been numerous different lineups. It’s no shame to come back slowly as Amar’e Stoudemire has in New York.

And preparing to play the Spurs, it appears Belinelli will get plenty of action again. Kirk Hinrich is not expected to play with swelling in his toes and foot problems. Robinson will play after a rib injury Saturday which Thibodeau jokingly called “upper body.” Teague valiantly gave it a try against the Pacers with little experience, though he struggled mightily. Plus, Taj Gibson remains out and, of course, Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer was attending to personal business Tuesday and due at the ESPN national game Wednesday.

So Belinelli will get his 16th start of the season, and when he starts he is very good.

As a starter averaging 35.9 minutes in those games, Belinelli is averaging 14.5 points and shooting 42.4 percent on threes. Coming off the bench, Belinelli in 20.5 minutes per game averages 7.9 points and shoots 33.3 percent on threes. For the season, he is averaging overall 9.9 points overall and shooting 39.8 percent on threes. Plus, the two seasons Belinelli was primarily a starter in New Orleans he averaged in double figures each season.

Now, Belinelli hardly is complaining and conversely is the ideal team player. He’s a joy in the locker room, always upbeat and approachable even as his English is hardly perfect. Though since that’s barely even a first language for many media people, Belinelli remains something of an international linguist.

He truly loves being in the NBA, another kid with a lifetime dream realized and as grateful as any player I’ve seen, and cherishing whatever role he plays.

But it is easier to start, and Belinelli tends to be a player who comes on stronger the longer he is in a game. Often he doesn’t play enough minutes to have that spurt, like against Indiana Sunday when he had 15 of his 20 points and three of his four threes in the second half. He’s a money player not afraid of the moment.

Marco Belinelli

And perhaps he will be given Hamilton doesn’t have that much regular season left to recover.

Which would only add to the dream of a six-year-old nascent hoopster in soccer rich northern Italy, a fan of the Bulls and, of course, Michael Jordan.

“Everybody when young growing up loves Michael Jordan and the Bulls,” Belinelli said. “Every time there was a NBA game, we don’t in Italy have anything like NBA TV and 24 hours just basketball. Sometimes I wake up like 2 o’clock in the morning to watch games, the NBA Finals. I was a big NBA fan.

“I remember when I was really young and in school they ask you what you want to do when you are 25, 30 years old,” Belinelli said with a smile, “and I just say, ‘I want to be a basketball player. I want to play in the NBA.’ They would laugh. People smile at me and make a joke about that. But I worked every day. I wanted to improve and be a better player.”

And Belinelli, taught to play by his older brother, was becoming something of a prodigy who had a start perhaps like no one in the NBA.

When Marco was 15 he’d go to school in the morning, and then his parents would drive him to practice where he was a professional player. Then his parents would wait to take him home to do his homework. Forget one and done. Imagine that.

“It was a little bit crazy,” Belinelli concedes now.

It just seemed normal then and the first step toward a dream.

“I don’t know if you can do that now,” Belinelli said. “School in the morning, practice in the afternoon. It was a little tough for me, but especially for my parents because they had to bring me to Bologna and they had to go to their job. Now I am so happy I made the sport I love.”

Belinelli grew up in San Giovanni in Persiceto in northern Italy in the province of Bologna. The town was famous in World War II during the Nazi occupation for Nazi and Fascist resistance.

The way Belinelli explained it he was playing in his small town and scouts from Virtus Bologna, the team Manu Ginobili played on before coming to the NBA, scout for young talent and took a liking to Belinelli when he was 12. He was involved with the team but not professional for a few seasons playing and then turned professional at 15.

They may in Italy, where the national elections are underway with a raunchy comedian becoming a power, have as wacky and kookie politicians as we have. But kids tend to grow up more quickly and mature faster in Europe. It was only about a half hour ride for his parents, so they made the commute. So much for the travails travel soccer back here, eh?

Belinelli played three years for Virtus and then switched teams to Fortitudo Bologna, where at 19 he started and helped them win the league title. He scored 25 points against the U.S. in the 2006 World Championships and in 2007 entered the NBA draft and was picked No. 18 by the Golden State Warriors.

That was the draft the Bulls got Joakim Noah at No. 9 and now have Daequan Cook, who was No. 21.

Because he started so young, Belinelli said they played him at point guard first and then as he grew he evolved to shooting guard. Though Belinelli said he enjoyed doing both.

“It important to me to score the ball from three point, and at the same time I can dribble and create something for my teammates,” he said. “Every summer I work in being a complete player.”

After two seasons not playing much with the often dysfunctional Warriors, Belinelli moved onto Toronto, again playing sporadically and then enjoyed two solid seasons with the Hornets, though the team mostly went unnoticed while losing.

So when free agency came for Belinelli last summer, he knew where he wanted to be, with the team of his youth, the Bulls.

“It was a dream for me,” said Belinelli. “Everybody knows about the Bulls.”

And now more and more people are finding out about Belinelli, and maybe an answer to a long sought question for the franchise.

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