When Arturas Karnisovas traded for Daniel Theis on March 25th, he didn’t just upgrade the Bulls roster, he added a player-type the Bulls didn’t previously have: A menace.
Theis is a 29-year-old big man who used his physical, all-around play to go from averaging 14 minutes per game in 2017-18 to starting 81 games for the Eastern Conference bound Celtics in 2019-20. Theis has carved himself out one hell of a niche in the NBA thanks to his commitment to filling that role. And while his performance is enough to warrant a starting spot somewhere in this league, that doesn’t at all seem to be something he cares about.
In his first conversation with reporters this past Sunday, Theis made clear that he is in Chicago to do one thing: Give his all.
“I had games in Boston where I played more or I played less,” Theis told NBA Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “But I always give 100 percent. It doesn’t matter to me how long I’m out there. Just help the team to get better and win games from the defensive end and offensively, just run and use my speed.”
Chances are, Theis knows he is here primarily to help change the Bulls defensive identity. The team has struggled all season to play an aggressive and clean game on that side of the ball. They currently allow their opponent the 3rd-most points in the paint per game and the 4th-most free-throws per game. Theis might be a tad undersized, but he makes the absolute most of his six-foot-eight frame. Last season, he held opponents to the 9th-fewest points in the paint among players who appeared in 50 or more games, and (as we pointed out the other day) he also recorded 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes and finished with a 104 defensive rating (which was 6th among centers who appeared in 60 or more games) in 2019-20.
The guy plays with an in-your-face mentality that the Bulls have desperately needed for years. Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford both had their flashy plays on the defensive side of the ball, but Carter constantly struggled with more imposing bigs, and Gafford couldn’t play along the perimeter (he also fouled quite a bit). Not only has Theis shown that he can body-up the big boys, but he’s also displayed the requisite finesse to avoid being absolutely embarrassed by more shifty players.
Indeed, during his debut performance for the Bulls, Theis’ defensive capabilities stuck out more than Yao Ming in a room full of preschoolers. He recorded 2 blocks and zero personal fouls in his 22 minutes of action. No, it wasn’t some kind of stellar statistical performance, but his engagement on that end of the court was a massive change of scenery for Bulls fans.
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 30, 2021
Meanwhile, his contributions on offense didn’t go unnoticed. While Theis finished with only 6 points on the night, he demonstrated great touch on a running floater and a monstrous poster slam over rookie James Wiseman.
You know what, let’s take a moment to appreciate that …
Theis is never going to be a bucket getter, but he has never proven to be anything short of reliable. His 76 percent clip (74/97) at the rim ranks in the league’s 91st percentile this season and his 54 percent clip (52/96) in the mid-range ranks in the 93rd percentile. The volume in which he is shooting isn’t staggering, but that also ties into his smart decision-making. Again, Theis is a player who knows his role, and it’s why we saw him pass-up an open mid-range jumper last night for a great bounce pass to Patrick Williams, who was stationed underneath the basket for the higher-percentage look. The big man’s other two assists came via a great inside feed to a cutting Ryan Arcidiacono and a quick pass to the ready-to-drive Tomas Satoransky. He kept the ball moving, and that is exactly what we want to see from him in this Billy Donovan offense.
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 30, 2021
Of course, while we’re on the topic of assists, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Theis’ screening ability. The same physical mindset that allows him to succeed on the defensive end has done wonders for his teammates on the offensive side of the ball, which is made evident by his 9th-place finish in total screen assists last season. To be fair, he has taken a small step back in 2020-21 (19th), but with Nikola Vucevic also being one of the league’s better screeners (7th in screen assists), it’s encouraging to know the Bulls don’t have to sacrifice this skillset when Theis on the floor.
Using Theis to the best of his ability is going to be a work in progress. There is little doubt he is overqualified for his current backup position, but that doesn’t mean the Bulls can’t find a way to get starting-caliber production out of him moving forward. Like many of you, I’m very excited to see the kind of impact he can have on this Bulls team over the next few weeks.