DALLAS — When Justin Holiday signed a two-year, $9 million free-agent deal to join the Bulls’ rebuilding project, it was a bit of a head-scratcher.
Holiday was coming off one of his best seasons with the Knicks and appeared to be a perfect rotation player for a playoff team.
Instead, he opted to put on a hard hat and help with the rebuild. Crazy? Nope, just his plan.
“That’s what my whole career has been,’’ Holiday said. “Growing and getting to the next level. Hopefully, I can take another step this year.’’
Holiday wants to become a leader.
With Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo gone, there was a huge leadership void on the Bulls. Robin Lopez and Quincy Pondexter have years on their side, but Holiday just might have that ‘‘it’’ factor that players gravitate to.
“He’s done a good job of pulling the group together,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said. “If we’re having a stretch in practice where we’re struggling or we’re hitting adversity and we’re not handling it the right way, if we need a shot of energy, Justin is the guy that pulls the group together. And you have to have a guy like that.’’
More important, you have to have a guy who wants to take on that responsibility.
“It’s more of a leadership role, for sure,’’ Holiday said. “The main thing I’m trying to do here is make sure I lead in a way that helps [Hoiberg], and not in a way just for me.
‘‘Most of the time, I’m used to being on a team as one of the middle guys, so I just kind of make sure I take care of my business. Now I have to play this game, but you need to be able to teach and help others, as well.’’
Kris Dunn just might be the Bulls’ point guard of the future, but right now, he’s kind of their de facto enforcer.
He has had two edgy matchups with preseason rookie-of-the-year candidate Dennis Smith Jr. — in the Summer League and again Wednesday — but on Tuesday in New Orleans, he served notice that “he’s about that life,’’ as Butler used to say.
With 8:12 left in the second quarter, Dunn had more than words with 6-11, 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins of the Pelicans.
The two shoved each other before officials stepped in. Dunn said he he’ll stand up to anyone on the court — hyped rookie or proven veteran.
“I’m not going to back down from nobody,’’ Dunn said. “Where I’m from, that’s the nature.
‘‘I really want to go out there and compete. I love basketball, and I’ll do anything for my teammates. If I gotta do the gritty things, I’m gonna do it.’’
As promised, Hoiberg went with a new-look starting lineup against the Mavericks in the second game of the preseason.
Lopez, Holiday and Paul Zipser remained in the Bulls’ starting five, but Dunn took Jerian Grant’s spot, and forward Nikola Mirotic replaced Bobby Portis.
Zipser and Holiday retaining their starting roles seemed to tip Hoiberg’s hand for the regular season, but he downplayed the lineup moves.
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