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The only way to figure out if Cristiano Felicio is good is to play him

He’s a natural fit for the backup center role

NBA: Chicago Bulls-Media Day David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Cristiano Felicio surprised the Bulls by showing flashes of potential on both ends of the court at a premium position. After the Bulls smartly locked the undrafted rookie up to a two year minimum contract, Felicio eventually earned his way into a small rotation role and was an effective backup center at times. With both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah out of the picture, many hoped to see an increased role this season for the 24-year-old Brazilian center. Through 15 games, that hasn’t been the case.

Felicio is averaging just 9.7 minutes per game and has ridden the bench entirely for five already. Thus far, Fred Hoiberg has elected to use Bobby Portis at center when Taj Gibson or Robin Lopez isn’t manning the position. Tyler Pleiss recently explained why Portis isn’t cut out for that role, hurting both the team and Portis’s development.

Portis is a natural power forward, but simply can’t get minutes there with the far superior Gibson and Nikola Mirotic in front of him. Those third-string center minutes he’s grabbed have directly stunted Cristiano Felicio’s playing time. The Bulls are likely prioritizing Portis’s longterm development over any presumed short-term goals—but are they developing the wrong player?

Cristiano Felicio was a legitimately pleasant surprise last season as a competent rim protector and quietly skilled offensive contributor. Perhaps most importantly, he’s shown a promising ability to defend against the pick and roll. The best NBA offenses can destroy you on these plays, making big men who can hedge and contain ball-handlers a premium asset.

In Felicio’s short minutes this season, the Bulls have a 101.5 defensive rating, better than both the overall mark of 102.9 and every other frontcourt player besides Taj Gibson. Bobby Portis is at 108.2, better than only the infuriating Rajon Rondo.

He’s only played 418 career minutes, but thus far Felicio has been an effective mid-range shooter. Nearly a quarter of his shots have come from the long two range, and Felicio has knocked down a fantastic 50 percent of them. This is a tiny sample, but Felicio’s stroke passes the eye test. He seems likely to have three point range eventually, another premium skill for centers.

There’s no denying that the team is off to a fantastic and largely sustainable start to the season; still, more Cristiano Felicio will improve on a very average 14th-ranked defense. Combined with Felicio’s ability to both hit jumpers and effectively roll to the rim, he should prove to be a good fit amongst bench units:

The Bulls can’t find out exactly how good Felicio can be unless they play him. He’ll be a restricted free agent this offseason, when likely CBA changes will make it even more palatable for rival teams to steal away young players. While continuing to limit Felicio’s playing time will make it equally difficult for those teams to evaluate the center, front office personnel love to say that “it only takes one asshole”. The salary cap is expected to rise yet again, meaning many teams will have money to spend.

Robin Lopez is effective but past his athletic prime and less capable of managing the difficulties of defending small lineups; Taj Gibson will be a pricey unrestricted free agent this summer as well. The Bulls need to be thinking about the future of the position and should have enough evidence to see that it’s not Bobby Portis.

Given that Portis was last season’s first round pick, it’s understandable that the Bulls prefer to develop him. Nonetheless, this year’s team is trying to win, and Felicio gives them a better chance at doing that. If he doesn’t prove up to the task, the Bulls can continue their ill-fated attempt at making Portis into a center. While Portis’s rookie contract makes him a prized cost-controlled asset, it also gives the Bulls longer to evaluate his talent and future on the team. They have strong incentives both to win and figure out if Felicio is part of their future plans.

When Gar Forman and John Paxson elected to lure Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade to town rather than actually go “younger and more athletic”, they loudly prioritized short-term success over the long-term development of their young players. Giving the backup center minutes to Cristiano Felicio will make a good team even better while simultaneously giving the Bulls more valuable information on their asset.