After disjointed Wizards run, Tomas Satoransky finally gets his shot with Bulls
After three up-and-down years in D.C., the point guard's steady hand has been validated
NEW YORK -- At a morning film session in Manhattan, Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen delivered the most basic instruction imaginable to a group of professionals: "Shoot the basketball."
Three players, in particular, were guilty of turning down open looks. Starting point guard Tomas Satoransky was one of them.
"He's very intelligent," Boylen said. "And he wants to be perfect, which I kind of talked to him about: 'Don't worry about that, just play.' He wants to please, and he wants to raise his teammates up. And what I've asked him to do is don't lose yourself within that. You gotta take your open looks."
The way NBA coaches and players typically talk about aggressiveness, you might get the impression the winner of each game is the team judged to be the most forceful, not the one that scores the most points. Stars credit their teammates for telling them to have an attacking mentality; coaches say that they are more than willing to live with "aggressive mistakes." You will not hear anything like that out of the 28-year-old Satoransky, a purist from Prague who still checks in on Euroleague games and the Spanish ACB.
When Satoransky hesitates or passes up a good look, it is not because he lacks confidence. He believes that sharing the ball is contagious. If he is not allergic to selfishness, he is at least extremely averse to it.
"I always try to play the right way every time," Satoransky said.
Another name on the board that morning: Thaddeus Young. The cerebral, do-it-all forward likes that Satoransky knows how to run a team, doesn't care about individual stats and helps his teammates in subtle ways. He also understands why Boylen called them out.
"We want to move the ball, we want to take it from one side to the other, get some type of flow going," Young said. "And it kind of gets us in trouble because sometimes we're overthinking and sometimes we're overdoing it."
For Satoransky, the solution is to think about it in a team framework. He has always been a pass-first player, but if he is only looking to make plays for others, opponents will defend him accordingly. Shooting 3s early in the shot clock might not be instinctive for him, but it will help the Bulls' spacing. Hard closeouts will bring catch-and-go opportunities, which he can turn into assists. Sometimes, the most altruistic thing he can do is take the shot that feels wrong.
"I feel like you have to find a balance," Satoransky said. "And as you get older, you see those moments and you see your opportunities where you can be a little more selfish."
Satoransky turned pro at 15, playing for his hometown team in the Czech NBL. "It was like a shock," he said, to play against grown men, but "I'm never scared to compete." At 17 he left home for Seville, where he spent five seasons. In that time he developed into the leader of a young team, dishing the ball to Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez while learning from Spanish legend Aíto García Reneses, who coached the likes of Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro early in their careers.
"We needed someone who will actually teach us a lot of details," Satoransky said. "Sometimes practices got slower, but it was good because it was those teaching moments that he helped us. And he also gave you freedom, and you need it at a young age. You don't want to be like a robot."
The Wizards drafted him No. 32 in 2012, but by the time he came over he had become something of a star in Europe, having run the show for FC Barcelona and making All-Liga ACB in 2016. His international credentials, though, meant nothing in the NBA. He played his second regular-season game on his 25th birthday, logging one minute and 25 seconds in garbage time. Washington didn't see him as a point guard, using Trey Burke as John Wall's backup until it signed Brandon Jennings for the stretch run. Tim Frazier came aboard in the offseason.
His break came in January of 2018. Wall needed knee surgery, and by then Satoransky had leapfrogged Frazier in the rotation. He stepped into the starting lineup and the Wizards won five straight, extolling the virtues of ball movement with a new motto: "Everybody eats." The story was that Washington had stumbled on a nice surprise, empowering a second-year player who came out of nowhere. He experienced it differently.
"It wasn't a big deal for me," Satoransky said. "I went through so many competitions and so many important games over in Europe. But I guess you really have to show it here to gain that respect. And I was ready for that."
Wall came back in April, though, and Ty Lawson, signed on the final day of the regular season, played more minutes than Satoransky in the playoffs. This was incomprehensible to Satoransky and to observers: A headline on team blog Bullets Forever read "Tomas Satoransky's mismanagement is another indictment on Scott Brooks and the Wizards' front office."
It was not until last season that Satoransky entered training camp as Washington's primary backup. When Wall had foot surgery last December, Satoransky produced the same way he did 11 months before. He was a bright spot in a dark Wizards season; The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy described him as "the chemistry guy in a chemically imbalanced locker room."
Fans and bloggers who had admonished the organization for misusing him were vindicated. When he got a three-year, $30 million offer sheet from the Bulls, though, Washington elected not to match it.
At times in D.C., a frustrated Satoransky wondered whether or not coming to the States had been the right decision. The fan support helped, though, as did conversations with his wife, Anna, and teammate Marcin Gortat. The Polish center played a total of 41 minutes in his first year in the NBA, and he spent two and a half seasons after that as Dwight Howard's overqualified backup. Satoransky knew he would have to earn respect, and he did his best to stay positive.
"Everyone has it when things are not going his way, you start thinking about stuff," Satoransky said. "But then I said let's be patient, that's what I choose. I'm not giving up easily. I'll fight until the end."
Satoransky was drawn to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as a kid, "but that's like for everyone," he said. The player he looked up to the most was Manu Ginobili. There are stylistic differences between Satoransky and the future Hall of Famer he called his "biggest idol," but the influence can be seen in his creativity and, crucially, his competitiveness.
"He can do anything and will do anything it takes to win a game," Satoransky said.
Even Ginobili, though, had a difficult transition to the NBA -- it took time for him to gain Gregg Popovich's trust and play with the confidence he had already shown on the international stage. And, given Satoransky's reverence for Ginobili, his view on starting vs. coming off the bench makes sense. It was validating when the Bulls named him their starting point guard, but the "point guard" part is what matters to him.
"I played my whole career in Europe as a point guard and a point guard mentality," Satoransky said. "You can see it when I'm playing the game. That's where I feel the most comfortable. I think starting in this league is so overrated here. Everybody is just talking about who starts or not, but that's not the point for me. Playing at the point guard position and having control also on the game, it's really important."
Satoransky's Bulls experience so far has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, shortly after Young raved about him at Madison Square Garden, he made this pass:
On the other, hand, Chicago lost that game, still the New York Knicks' lone victory. Two nights later, It lost in Cleveland. The Bulls are now 2-5 after losing to the severely shorthanded Indiana Pacers on Sunday, a deeply disappointing start for a team with playoff aspirations and a relatively soft early-season schedule. They have been much better with Satoransky on the court than off it, but his finishing at the rim has been poor -- Boylen said he needs to work on his "deep-drive decisions" -- and he has an uncharacteristic eight turnovers in his last two games.
If Chicago is going to reach its potential, its improved shot profile must translate to better efficiency. The Bulls are first in rim attempts, per Cleaning The Glass, and only the Houston Rockets have taken midrange shots with less frequency. They are only 22nd in offensive rating, though, and they rank 19th on defense, playing a hyper-aggressive style that has yielded shots at the rim and above-the-break 3s more often than any team in the NBA. Satoransky compared the youth of the team to his situation in Seville, albeit with one key difference: Coach Aíto was calm.
Boylen "reminds me a little bit of those Yugoslavian, Balkanic coaches, with a lot of energy, talking to the players," Satoransky said. Boylen is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and quipped to the Chicago Sun-Times that he thinks Satoransky actually grew up there, too, "because he's a nasty bastard." They may be an odd couple, but they have a mutual respect based on a shared attention to detail.
"People here, I never had a college coach, but they describe him a little bit like that," Satoransky said. "What I like about him is that he has a relationship with every player. I think it's a rare thing in the NBA. His communication is a huge part in our team. He knows we're still finding ourselves, the way we want to play, but he was great in communicating with us."
Satoransky said there are a lot of ups and downs in a season, and he thinks the Bulls are headed in the right direction. Their trajectory is up for debate, but, as they try to get their act together, Satorasky's teammates notice him showing up to work every day with a smile on his face, ready to play his part. "You don't realize what type of people that you're dealing with until you actually have to work with him or are in the gym with him all the time," Young said. The veteran might stare at Satoransky quizzically when he curses at himself in Czech after making a mistake, but he knows it's coming from a good place.
"That's the sign of a very, very good basketball player," Young said. "Somebody who cares about the game, somebody who's not bullshitting the game."
Satoransky has surely beaten himself up over his late-game turnovers in Indiana. "I am not satisfied until I do everything perfect," he said, but in the big picture he is pleased with where he has landed. No longer is he the supposedly unproven backup he was in D.C., and no longer is his role contingent on somebody else being hurt. Chicago thought his presence would expedite its young players' development and bring the best out of them on the court. Like his shot selection, that is a work in progress. Finally, though, the ball is in his hands.
"I have the responsibility that I always wanted here," he said.
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