A proven shooter, Bulls' Snell is focusing on defense

Bulls rookie Tony Snell talks about improving defensively, how working in the weight room pays off, and his transition to Chicago as he prepares for training camp

More on Snell: UCLA’s Alford: Snell always early to work on his game

Tony Snell’s ability to shoot the basketball, particularly from the perimeter, is a big reason he was selected by Chicago in the first round of this summer’s NBA Draft.

So, as one might imagine, Snell has hoisted countless shots during workouts at the Berto Center since his arrival. But there is another aspect of his game to which he’s put an even greater emphasis. And his words are likely music to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s ears.

Tony Snell
"I really want to accomplish my goals and the only way I can do that is by doing what people don’t usually do—go in early and leave late," said Snell. "The longer I stay in the gym, the better my results will be."

“My main thing was defense,” said Snell of his primary focus heading into the summer. “To me, defense wins games. I love playing defense. I’m just trying to get used to defense at this level, being in the spots I need to be, and helping my teammates. That was my main priority. My offense is going to come around, but I’ve got to be consistent with my defense.”

In his three seasons with the Bulls, Thibodeau has repeatedly coached a team that has been among the best in the NBA defensively. That fact is not lost on Snell, who understands that to truly be a fit in Chicago he must continue to improve on that end of the court.

So he’s been putting his time in at the Berto Center, and after his sessions on the court, he moves to the weight room to work on his strength and conditioning training. He hopes that by getting stronger and quicker—coupled with watching film and getting a firsthand feel for the professional game—he’ll become a better defender.

“It’s all of those things,” said Snell. “It’s definitely a matter of getting stronger, especially at this level. Guys are professionals and they play with a high IQ. So it’s simple things like getting my legs stronger so I can be in a defensive stance more often—when you stand up, your reaction isn’t as fast. I try to stay down in my stance in order to react quicker.”

As for the Bulls, it didn’t take too many hours of watching tape for Snell to acquire an understanding of what has worked for them defensively under Thibodeau.

“They help, communicate and work together,” he said. “It’s no surprise they’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.”

Snell said he’s enjoyed getting to know his new coach, and while summer workouts at the Berto Center might have a more relaxed, laidback feel, he’s fully aware the intensity will substantially increase once training camp begins at the end of September. But having played for a demanding coach at New Mexico in Steve Alford, a Bobby Knight disciple who also stresses accountability on the defensive end of the floor, Snell looks forward to playing for Thibodeau.

“We’re really cool,” said Snell of Thibodeau. “I don’t know how he is during the season, but it’s one of those things where sometimes you have to get after your players to always play hard. It’s very understandable. I can tell he’s a great coach. He’s been pushing me to keep up with all of my conditioning drills so I’m ready for training camp, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Tony Snell and Erik Murphy
“I expect it to be hard. It’s always hard for rookies," said Snell, shown above with fellow rookie Erik Murphy, of his expectations for training camp. "But I’ll adjust to it, get in the flow of things and be ready.”

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

While working on his conditioning is nothing new, it wasn’t that long ago that strength training was not part of his regimen—Snell didn’t lift weights at all until he arrived at New Mexico in 2010.

As a freshman, he weighed 174 pounds—not much considering his 6-foot-7 frame—but when he saw that his work in the weight room was paying off and making him a better player, he dedicated himself to it the following summer and checked in for his sophomore year 20 pounds stronger.

Snell remained in the 195-200 pound range for most of his college career, but has added another few pounds of muscle this summer to weigh 203 currently. He says ideally he’ll get to 205 or 210 pounds by the end of this season.

More time at the Berto Center will certainly help in working towards that goal.

Snell came to the Bulls with the reputation of being an extremely hard worker. As Alford told Bulls.com earlier this summer, “The thing I’ll remember most about Tony is that he literally was usually the first one to practice. I always knew practice was 20 to 30 minutes away by when Tony came into the gym. He was always early to work on his game.”

Snell credits his AAU coach for pushing him and instilling a strong work ethic within him.

“He always told me, ‘Hard work pays off,’” recalled Snell. “So I was always willing to go in early and leave late every day. I really want to accomplish my goals and the only way I can do that is by doing what people don’t usually do—go in early and leave late. The longer I stay in the gym, the better my results will be.”

It’s an attitude Snell carried over from high school to college. Now, he’s putting it to use as he readies for his first NBA season. And he hopes that hasn’t been lost on the Bulls.

“I do want them to notice that I’m in early every day,” said Snell. “It’s part of fitting into this system and learning as much as I can. Coach Thibodeau and I have had some good talks. Whatever he tells me, I want to try and accomplish.”

Snell provided a glimpse of what he brings to the table during the NBA Summer League, when he averaged 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 34.4 minutes in five games as the Bulls went 4-1. In Chicago’s last outing against Dallas, Snell finished with 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, to go with seven rebounds.

Tony Snell and his mother Sherika Brown
“We’re really close,” said Snell of his mother, Sherika Brown, together at the Luvabulls debut event this summer. “I love her to death. I see all the hard work it takes for her to do what she does and it pushes me to work hard too. She made a lot of sacrifices for me so it’s a blessing to have her around.”

“It was a great experience,” said Snell of summer league. “The first game I was a little nervous, but once things were flowing, I began to feel pretty good. And we won. As the games went on, I tried to get better, get used to the pace, and adjust to some of the differences on defense. I got more and more comfortable as each game was played.”

Snell is also getting more comfortable in Chicago. Originally from the Los Angeles area—he grew up a diehard Bulls fan despite his proximity to the Lakers, born five months after Chicago won its first NBA championship and religiously watching Michael Jordan highlights as a child—he recently found a rental home in the north suburbs with help from Bulls Special Assistant to General Manager Randy Brown. And he won’t be alone, moving his family which includes his mother, Sherika Brown, step father, two younger sisters and one brother in with him.

“It’s very important to me to have them around. My little brother looks up to me,” said Snell of D.J., who just turned seven years old. “Everything I do, he tries to mimic it. That’s inspiring me because I never really had anyone to look up to at a young age that was doing positive things. I saw a lot of negative things growing up, so I want to give him hope that he can accomplish whatever he wants to accomplish. It’s a good feeling for me.”

Snell hopes that having his family around will help the transition as he continues with his preparations. He’s excited to have gotten acclimated with a handful of members from the Bulls roster. Aside from fellow rookie Erik Murphy and Marquis Teague, who also played in summer league, Snell has met Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah so far. And they’ve all made him feel right at home.

“I’m just blessed to be a part of this organization,” said Snell. “It’s all about working out and getting better every day. I feel great. This is probably the most fun I’ve had in my life. I’ve been working all my life to get here and I can smile because I’ve accomplished that. But I’ve got new goals, bigger goals to chase after now.”