ATLANTA — Ayo Dosunmu sure loves playing here.
Something about State Farm Arena brings out the best in the Chicago Bulls’ third-year guard.
“It’s fun because of the crowd,” Dosunmu said. “I love the crowd in Atlanta. It’s a fun atmosphere. Throughout the whole game, the fans are loud and electric. So it’s always fun.”
Business trips to Atlanta are also becoming memorable for Dosunmu.
He scored a career-high 29 points in the Bulls’ 136-126 road victory over the Hawks on Monday. He made 12 of 18 shots, including five 3-pointers, his career-high, for the second consecutive game.
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The last time the Bulls played at Atlanta, on Dec. 21, 2022, Dosunmu won the game on a putback as time expired. He scored only 9 points that night but initially ranked his game winner as the better memory than his career night.
“I’d definitely say the tip-in,” Dosunmu said. “That was a fun time. Today was fun, too, just knowing how big this game was. Just losing to Orlando, knowing that we’re trying to climb up in the standings. So this was fun, too. I’ll say it’s about even.”
There was significance in the outcome for the Bulls but much more for Dosunmu.
The victory moved the Bulls two games ahead of Atlanta for ninth place in the East standings, with one game remaining for both teams before the All-Star break. Chicago, playing without critical glue guy Alex Caruso because of foot soreness, also displayed the type of competitiveness that led chief basketball executive Artūras Karnišovas to keep this team together through the trade deadline.
But the real story is Dosunmu.
After a sophomore slump last season, this was Dosunmu, in what’s been a quiet but strong bounce-back year, assembling a career-defining performance. Around this time last season, there were growing questions of whether Dosunmu would be re-signed by the Bulls. Even when his contract extension arrived, Dosunmu walked into a crowded backcourt this season. But, remember, he vowed to find a way. He always has.
Much like his rookie season, Dosunmu is proving himself to be a valuable piece who still has major promise. Monday night inside State Farm Arena showed why Dosunmu could be a fixture in Chicago for quite a long time. His development was on display in every way. His usefulness was undeniable when the Bulls needed it most. And his impact, borderline dominance, was felt on both ends.
“It was a two-way performance by him,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “For him to do what he did offensively and then to play the defense he did was a pretty remarkable performance on both ends with the number of minutes he got.”
Dosunmu’s defense against Hawks All-Star Trae Young was spectacular, as it has been for the better part of the past 2 1/2 seasons. Dosunmu had help from Jevon Carter on the assignment, but Young finished with 19 points on 3-for-14 shooting. He went 2-for-10 from 3-point range. Young dished a game-high 14 assists. But the first sequence of the third quarter showed Dosunmu’s suffocating effectiveness.
Ayo Dosunmu when asked about his effectiveness guarding Trae Young.
“My length is able to affect him,” Dosunmu said. “But he’s a good player, and he brings the competitiveness out. I love competing against him because every play you’ve got to be ready.” pic.twitter.com/e7vSyJ61QL
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Young curled off a screen, caught a swing pass and tried a two-dribble pull-up from the free-throw line. Dosunmu left his feet along with Young and batted the ball back down. Just before halftime, Dosunmu scored 10 of his 13 second-quarter points in the final 3 1/2 minutes of the period to help the Bulls storm back from 11 down. He hit the Hawks with a series of blistering drives and smooth shooting.
“He’s got incredible stamina and endurance,” Donovan said. “In a lot of ways it’s a skill. I’ve been fortunate. (Udonis) Haslem had it. Joakim (Noah) had it. The more fatigued and tired they get, the more stubborn they get, and the more competitive and the more they push. And he’s got that in him. He can really keep his motor high.”
But clearly, there’s more to Dosunmu’s game than defense and energy. His shooting is really starting to pop. He’s up to a career-high 41.1 percent on 3.2 3-pointers per game. Over his last 14 games, he’s averaging 15.9 points on 59.2 percent shooting — 52.5 percent on 4.2 3s per game.
Dosunmu credited his improvement to his offseason work with his father and brother, as well as sessions with Bulls first-year shooting coach Peter Patton. He also pointed to a conversation Donovan had with him following a 16-point road loss to the New York Knicks in early January. Dosunmu went 1-for-6 from 3 that night.
“In the film (room), he came and he told me, ‘You should be a 40 percent 3-point shooter,’” Dosunmu said.
Really, there was one problem. Dosunmu rarely was ready to shoot. His knees were straight. He couldn’t possibly beat closeouts.
“He said, ‘If you just get shot-ready, it’ll help your shot go in more often,’” Dosunmu said Donovan told him. “I took that constructive criticism, and since then it’s been feeling way better.”
Patton has drilled Dosunmu on shooting fundamentals such as ball positioning and holding his follow-through. Whether simulating dribble-handoffs or a defender ducking under screens, Patton pays close attention to those two basics.
“If I do it wrong one time, he’s stopping me,” Dosunmu said. “He’s sending me film at nighttime saying, ‘This is a good shot. This is a bad shot.’ And we have a relationship where he can coach me hard. I had everything that he told me in my mind (against the Hawks) to go out there and do it. So I thank him for that.”
Donovan said he saw flashes of Dosunmu’s growth in training camp.
“Even if he wasn’t completely making the level of plays that he made tonight,” Donovan said, “you could see that his intention and mindset was to do that.”
But now Dosunmu has adapted to the pace of the game, how he’s being guarded and the ways he can counter. Now, he’s less hesitant and more sure of himself.
It’s unlocked a multifaceted threat whose best days are still ahead of him.
“The work that I’m putting in is high level,” Dosunmu said. “So it’s easier to come out here and let it translate. When you see the work start to translate, you just want to keep going harder and see how I can maximize it to help the team win and maximize it to be the best player I can be.”
(Photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)