DEERFIELD – The Bulls selected New Mexico’s Tony Snell with the 20th pick in the NBA draft Thursday, adding help on the perimeter.
The Bulls decided to go with a wing player rather than a big man and grabbed a 6-foot-7 guard who is considered a strong shooter.
Snell converted 39 percent of his 3-pointers while averaging 12.5 points as a junior for the Lobos last season and helps fill a big need on the outside for the Bulls. He is considered a solid defender who can guard multiple positions, which had to please coach Tom Thibodeau.
“It was crazy knowing I went to the Bulls,” Snell said. “I watched [Michael] Jordan play my whole life. I watched Derrick Rose. He’s a really great player. I can’t wait to work with him and help the team win.”
The Bulls also took Florida forward Erik Murphy with the 49th pick.
Even though he’s 6-foot-10, Murphy is known as much for his ability to connect from the outside as his inside play. He averaged 12.2 points and led the SEC in 3-point shooting at 45.3 percent as a senior last season, earning first-team, all-conference honors.
Snell and Murphy join a team eyeing a return to contention in the Eastern Conference with Rose poised to return from his knee injury. The former MVP sat out last season after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee.
How effective Snell and Murphy will be at least at the start remains to be seen. But Rose’s comeback makes the Bulls far more compelling after a 45-win season in which they were in more of a holding pattern, waiting for the return of a superstar that never happened.
Just about every other key player got banged up at some point, and the ailments continued to add up in the postseason. Even so, the Bulls still managed to knock out Brooklyn in the first round before bowing to eventual champion Miami in five games.
There were a number of ways the Bulls could have gone in the draft, given their need for another big man to support Joakim Noah and their issues on the perimeter. The Bulls ranked 21st in 3-point accuracy, and there’s a chance Marco Belinelli could land a bigger role with another team and leave as a free agent. So the Bulls went with Snell, who played with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, Calif.
“Both of us are hard workers,” he said. “I’ve seen how hard he works, and I know what it takes to be a great player. The position he’s in right now, he did a fantastic job and I hope I can do the same thing.”
He also credited former New Mexico coach Steve Alford for improving his footwork, defense and mental toughness. The Bulls were the first team Snell worked out for after the combine, and he had a good feeling he might wind up in Chicago after that.
“I felt really good, had a little taste of what it’s going to be like,” he said. “I really felt great throughout the workout.”
Snell sees himself as a player who can come off curls, catch and shoot. He’s also considered a solid passer, but at 200 pounds, he probably needs to add some muscle.
The Bulls could still use another big man given Noah’s plantar fasciitis in his right foot and the departure of Omer Asik to Houston as a free agent last offseason, and at least one prominent fan made it clear he thought that was the direction the Bulls should go.
During a toast at a state dinner in Dakar on Thursday, President Barack Obama said he hoped the Bulls drafted Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng. He called the 6-foot-11 shot-blocking and rebounding force from Louisville an “outstanding big man” and added “maybe the Bulls will get him.” Dieng wound up being drafted by Utah at No. 21 and traded to Minnesota.
About the only certainty coming in was the Bulls needed to land a contributor with their first-round pick, given that they have no cap room and are above the expected luxury-tax threshold. They owe core players Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Noah nearly $60 million next season, meaning any additions they make will have to come on the cheap and adding a rotation player in the draft is key.
To that end, they’ve had some success in recent years with lower first-round picks, with Taj Gibson at No. 26 in 2009 or Jimmy Butler at No. 30 in 2011. The jury’s still out on Marquis Teague, who showed some glimpses after being taken with the 29th pick a year ago.