As Julian Phillips prepares for his 1st NBA Summer League, Chicago Bulls coaches believe the rookie’s defense could be a ‘superpower’

12 July 2023

Chicago Bulls second-round draft pick Julian Phillips set a simple goal for his debut at the NBA Summer League this week in Las Vegas.

“Winning,” Phillips said. “Win every game. Win as many games as we can.”

The Tennessee product will play his first minutes in a Bulls jersey when the team begins summer league action Friday against the Toronto Raptors.

After Phillips’ first week in Chicago, summer league head coach John Bryant said the coaching staff was impressed with the rookie’s attitude toward earning a place on the roster.

“He’s grown in four days and kind of come out of his shell, and it’s been fun to watch,” Bryant said. “I knew he was an athlete. He can run up and down the floor, he’s a good slasher, good driver. But it’s fun to see his personality come out.”

Before trading into the draft to select Phillips at No. 35, one strength stood out to the Bulls front office: defense.

Executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas said he believes Phillips is already equipped to defend at the NBA level. After the last practice of summer league training camp, Bryant said Phillips continued to stand out among his teammates as a top defender.

“It’s too early to show it, but he has gifts,” Bryant said. “Honestly no one has really gotten by him in camp because he just is that gifted athletically. Now he just has to realize how he can use that as a superpower.

“I’ve only been around him four days, so it’s hard for me to make any hard statements. But, man, he is gifted defensively.”

Phillips credited Tennessee coach Rick Barnes for molding this defensive mentality during his one year in Knoxville.

Yet while he recognizes that defense is his strong suit, Phillips said he’s already preparing for the heightened physical challenge of guarding NBA opponents.

“It’s something we hung our hard hats on,” Phillips said. “Obviously it’s different being a good college defender and a good NBA defender, so that’s something I have to learn, but with my mindset and my tools, it’s something I can accomplish.”

With only one year of NCAA play under his belt, Phillips is relatively untested even against his peers.

For Bryant, that means summer league will need to be focused on honing the rookie’s base technique, from offensive spacing to one-on-one defense.

“It’s important for him to learn how to close out,” Bryant said. “It’s about how to use his athleticism to both pressure the shot — to take away the shot — and to keep his man in front.”

Phillips’ athleticism was a major talking point after the NBA draft combine in June, when the forward posted a 43-inch running vertical and a 35-inch standing vertical — both the highest in the combine.

Despite being confident in his explosiveness, Phillips was surprised at his results compared with the rest of his draft class.

“I kind of knew I was going to be up there,” Phillips said, “because at my pre-draft I was getting numbers similar to that when working on it. So I kind of knew I was going to test pretty well. I didn’t know I was going to be No. 1, but I knew I was going to be up there.”

Phillips said he has yet to put that vertical to the test in a dunk competition.

“I should try it,” he joked.

Summer league will be a critical trial for Phillips, who has yet to sign with the Bulls after his selection two weeks ago.

The Bulls did not feature 2022 first-round draft pick Dalen Terry in the main rotations last season. On draft night, Karnišovas made it clear Phillips is not expected to move immediately into the lineup.

As the coaching staff measures how big of a role Phillips will play in his rookie season, Bryant said summer league offers an important first test — seeing how he matches up against other young professionals.

“I’m excited to just see him play and see what he’s got,” Bryant said.


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