For perspective, way back on opening night at Miami, foul trouble brought Snell on the court for his first ever appearance in a regular-season game and, as expected, he looked like a deer in the headlights while guarding James.
His nearly seven minutes of action against the Miami Heat that night yielded exactly no points, one turnover and two personal fouls.
“It was pretty tough,” Snell said of the Oct. 29 contest, the same night the Heat received their championship rings. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was a little nervous out there and got all of my nerves out that day. It helped me to be prepared today. I just felt a little more comfortable and relaxed than I did before.”
It’s essentially another world for Snell now, as the 20th overall pick in the most recent NBA draft is in the starting lineup following an injury to Jimmy Butler.
Using the mindset of focusing on defense first while letting the offense come naturally, Snell was in a flow in Thursday’s 107-87 victory over the Heat. He scored eight points -- hardly the 18 he had against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday or his 3-of-3 shooting from 3-point range against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 27 -- but his defense made a difference.
Snell helped the Bulls hold the Heat to 41.6 percent shooting from the field and 27.3 percent (6-of-22) from 3-point range. He has been in the NBA for barely over a month and his growth has been significant.
“That was a tough situation to be thrown into,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Snell’s opening night challenge. “I thought Tony did a very good job in the preseason and then all of a sudden your first game you’re on the road against Miami and you have to guard LeBron. I think he learned a lot from it.”
Now Thibodeau seems to be learning a lot about Snell. Without Butler’s injury, Snell’s development might still be in the infancy stages. The rookie has been able to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Each day you can see him growing,” Thibodeau said. “He studies hard, prepares himself well. He’ll keep improving. The thing I’m most pleased with is the way he works and his attitude and approach. I think because of that, he has shown he’s ready for this opportunity. And I think he’ll continue to get better. He’s unselfish. He plays for the team. If he makes a mistake, he tries to correct it and not make it twice. And winning is important to him.”
Snell is doing things the right way, despite opening the door to be taken out of context. He meant to say that compared with the season opener, he realized that in Thursday night’s game he no longer has wobbly knees in the mere presence of James.
“It was crazy, it was definitely crazy,” Snell said of his first game. “I was dreaming like, ‘Wow, I’m standing next to LeBron James and it’s pretty crazy.’ The second time, I was more relaxed, you know. He’s just another player.”
Hey, you knew what the kid meant. And he’ll be reminded soon enough that James really isn’t “just another player.” But on this night, the Heat really was no match for an inspired Bulls team.
“I feel like I redeemed myself, definitely,” Snell said. “We won so that’s all that matters.”