The Bulls are at a different stage than they have been in recent seasons, a good thing for fans but possibly bad for rookies.
Gone are the days when Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry played "entitlement minutes," as Tim Floyd derisively called them. Or when coach Scott Skiles, following a 23-victory season, started Ben Gordon before he was ready in an attempt to get him going.
In the days leading to Wednesday's 109-105 exhibition overtime loss to Minnesota, Skiles' rhetoric on rookies Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha has changed.
Instead of constant praising, he's protecting. Or perhaps prodding.
"I have to make sure that if I'm going to put one or both of them out there for the first game of the NBA season on TNT against the defending world champs that they're ready to compete in that kind of environment," Skiles said.
"I want them to feel comfortable because I want them to have early-season success and build on that and gain some confidence."
Of course, Skiles is careful to note that Thomas and Sefolosha might not play, which also could be viewed as a challenge. Seeing how rookies respond mentally can be just as important as developing their physical talents.
That both were on the court during a fourth-quarter run that trimmed all of an eight-point deficit is encouraging. That Thomas fouled out after scoring 12 points and Sefolosha committed three turnovers isn't.
"We're having a hard time getting Tyrus out of jogging gear," Skiles said. "He can dunk the ball. We know that. But the pace he plays at is too slow. They're typical rookies. They have struggling moments and good moments."
Thomas didn't appear concerned afterward.
"I'm learning game by game," he said. "I think I did OK. I have things I can improve on. That's the way it will be for awhile. I just have to keep playing hard."
There's little doubt within the organization that both players will contribute at some point. That the playing-time debate even is happening is yet another example of the heightened expectations surrounding the Bulls.
On that theme, and in a reversal from Tuesday, Skiles said he might barely play his starters for Friday's finale at the United Center against the Raptors.
This is a nod to other teams already completing their exhibition schedule and the tough back-to-back in Miami and Orlando to open the season next week.
Plus, starters Gordon, Luol Deng and Ben Wallace played down the stretch of regulation. And Kirk Hinrich played 35 minutes while scoring 21 points.
"I'd rather be out there than sitting the bench," Hinrich said. "But we didn't play that great."
Skiles, who praised Hinrich and Chris Duhon, agreed.
"We had 37 fouls, a lot of silly turnovers, ball-handling mistakes," he said. "Our shot selection was poor. We weren't ready on defense. Just an all-around bad game.
"We keep hoping we're ready to play a real game. I gotta tell you: I'm a little concerned."
Gordon fouled out after shooting 2-for-11 with five turnovers and six assists. General manager John Paxson talked with Jeff Austin, Hinrich's agent, as recently as Tuesday. But with five days until the deadline, the sides aren't close to a long-term extension. Michael Sweetney said his sore right knee "is getting better" and he's available to play. Skiles hasn't played Sweetney since he logged six minutes in the exhibition opener. Luke Schenscher didn't travel and will miss Friday's game exhibition finale with his sprained right ankle. Skiles said Andre Barrett could log extensive minutes in that game as the battle for the 15th roster spot continues. "Andre's played very well," Skiles said. "It's going to be a very difficult decision."
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