clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tony Snell: the league's next is 'Trick or Treat' Tony

The curious case of Tony Snell and why year-three will be a pivotal moment in his young Bulls career.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

'Trick or Treat' was a self-explanatory nickname given to perennial All-NBA defender Tony Allen back in 2010 by Bill Simmons. That nickname -- Simmons' way of venting his frustration; believing that if Allen ever found a way to become consistent, he'd blossom -- conveniently applies to first-namesake Tony Snell of the Chicago Bulls.

I have an irrational belief in Tony Snell, who will be entering an all-important third NBA season next year. I don't think he'll be a star, or an All-Star someday -- just that he's a very good, very useful player waiting to happen. The problem, of course, is that I'm often vexed by Snell rather than left satisfied. He's either impactful or he's a complete ghost on the court. Hence, Trick or Treat. He's Trick or Treat Tony 2.0, the modernized version.

See, everything about Tony Snell is what NBA teams covet from the wing position in 2015: he's long, athletic, and an above average shooter equipped with tools to become a multi-positional defender. In two-plus seasons, however, Snell's traits haven't exactly translated into skill. There's still too much grey area, too much inconsistency.

He can do this:

But, then...

To this point Snell hasn't amounted to much more than a fringe rotational piece. His rookie season was a lost cause, though that was no fault of his own as early-season injuries to Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler thrust Snell into minutes he simply was not ready for. Last season, however, after a miserable start where he went a calendar month without registering a point, Snell had real moments.

The place I'd like to start is the perception of Snell by Bulls' fans. His hushed personality tends to lend itself to this idea that when his shot isn't falling -- it can be traced back to a lack of confidence. (For what it's worth: Snell shot 37 percent from 3 in 2014-15, league average was 35 percent.) Now, confidence is a part of every player's game, and Snell is no exception. But this idea that the attributing factor to Snell missing shots is confidence seems pretty ridiculous to me. Replace the word 'confidence' with 'comfort' and I start to come around. Perhaps Snell's level of comfort within Chicago's offense was the true problem. And what I mean by that is since over half of Snell's shots came from 3-point range last season, defense's understood him to be a one-trick-pony.

I don't think for a minute Snell lacked confidence, I think instead that defenses knew exactly how the Bulls planned on using him and that Snell had troubles with deviating from that plan. Those rare moments this season where Snell would actually get creative -- a smooth slip pass in pick-and-roll, an unhesitating hard drive to the rim out of the corner -- he seemed to surprise himself. Snell didn't burn defenses enough for treating his off-the-bounce game with such little respect, and that's on him to improve. His recognition of coverages must get better because teams are going to overplay pin downs and crowd him on-ball, so it's up to Snell to make a play in those situations more often. I think he's fully capable of being more than a shooter, I just hope he -- and more importantly, his new head coach -- thinks the same.

To be clear, this isn't to excuse Snell's inconsistencies as being due to the wild swings in his playing time. I mean, yeah, going from playing 32:37 against the Wizards on Jan. 14 to the dreaded DNP-CD (did not play, coach's decision) two nights later is tough. But insinuating that Snell lacks confidence is just as ridiculous as saying he needs X amount of minutes in order to perform. That's just life -- especially for a young player -- in the NBA, not every player is going to have a defined role or know their standing. Last season was on Snell to trust his ability more than he did. Had he, there's little doubt in my mind that he would have seen more frequent success despite infrequent minutes.

And as much as I've focused on Snell's untapped offensive ability, it's actually his defense that leaves a lot to be desired. For example, Snell's worst quality is fighting through screens and tailgating his man. This is partly due to his slender frame, but Snell's still remarkably easy to screen:

In that first example, Snell's head is planted in Tim Duncan's chest, which tells me that his body positioning prior to getting screened was extremely poor (it was and usually is). In that second example, although it may appear Snell is getting pushed in the back, trust me when I say that Kawhi Leonard is employing a love tap and not a body blow. There's very little contact here, less than the picture lets on. Which is why Snell hunching over and almost toppling should concern you.

Also, this was highly problematic for Snell mostly because Kirk Hinrich's best (read: least bad) quality as a basketball player these days is fighting through screens and disrupting plays off-ball. So while I don't want to get into whether or not Hinrich played too much this past season (obviously, as Thibodeau's favorite pupil, he did), I can at least rationalize why Thibodeau preferred Hinrich to Snell in terms of defensive ability. And the guy who started over Snell, Mike Dunleavy, is really good at fighting through screens, too. I really, really, really hope Snell picked up on some of Dunleavy's veteran tricks whilst watching him first-hand in games and practices for two seasons.

Snell's pretty effective as an on-ball defender, though. The best game of his professional career came on Feb. 12 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and showcased as much. Snell was tasked with defending LeBron James for the better part of that night, and here was LeBron's line: 31 points on 12-26 shooting (2-9 from deep) to go along with eight turnovers and finishing a season-worst -24. Snell, on the other hand, finished a career-high +28 in nearly 38 minutes of action. A one-game sample, sure -- but a landmark moment in a young career, no doubt.

In Fred Hoiberg's first training camp, if the Bulls aren't bringing Dunleavy back next year I envision the starting small forward spot to be Snell's job to lose. While Hoiberg and Doug McDermott, another small forward, appear to have some history, I'd urge you to be mindful of how completely dreadful McDermott was his rookie season. I don't see much difference between these two players per 36 minutes, do you? Here's to hoping that Freddy H's offensive tutelage can develop both, but the much more plausible scenario would be for Snell to make the leap next season than it would be McDermott.

At any rate, next season will probably be make-or-break for Snell. Take make-or-break somewhat loosely, though. I've maintained that it's a perfectly acceptable reality that he could become the seventh-best player on a contending team. If Snell were that to the Bulls last season, maybe they might've witnessed a different fate? Granted, likely not much different a fate, but we did see lack of wing depth undermine them in the postseason.

This upcoming season, though, Snell can't play uncomfortably any longer. The Bulls need to see some consistency, be it in the form of a reliable bench player or an average starter, but nothing less. No more week-long hot streaks followed by three-week-long flame outs.

The book has not yet been written on Tony Snell. Plus, the history of the original Trick or Treat Tony, Tony Allen, serves as a reminder that these things can take time, or require a change of scenery, or playing within the proper culture. Or in Allen's case: all three. But let this be a warning, because time is starting to tick on Trick or Treat Tony 2.0, indeed.