Bulls’ Billy Donovan finally gets his guy, even if it’s 13 years later

Like a lot of highly recruited high school players who were dominating when Donovan was coaching at Florida, Tristan Thompson was on the Gators’ radar before choosing Texas. It has taken a long time, but the two were finally united, as Thompson joined the Bulls over the weekend.

SHARE Bulls’ Billy Donovan finally gets his guy, even if it’s 13 years later
New Bulls player Tristan Thompson almost played for coach Billy Donovan 13 years ago at the University of Florida.

New Bulls player Tristan Thompson almost played for coach Billy Donovan 13 years ago at the University of Florida.

Darron Cummings/AP

At times, it sounds like coach Billy Donovan recruited anyone who could dribble a basketball.

That’s probably because he did.

During his 19-year career as the coach at the University of Florida, Donovan turned the Gators into a powerhouse, winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ’07. That success made Gainesville a destination for top players and had Donovan eyeing up the country’s elite.

Tristan Thompson was no exception.

“My high school coach wanted me to go there,’’ Thompson told reporters when he met with the media Wednesday for the first time since his signing with the Bulls became official during All-Star Weekend.

“Another one I lost,’’ Donovan interrupted as Thompson was telling the story of his recruitment.

“It worked out well for you,’’ Thompson said. “It worked out for both of us. Everything comes around in full circle.’’

It has — almost 13 years later.

Thompson will make his Bulls debut Thursday. The organization is hoping he can back up center Nikola Vucevic and provide another physical presence in the frontcourt for rim protection and rebounding.

The Bulls signed Thompson off the buyout market after he was waived by the Pacers last week. They had the big picture in mind, surveying the playoff landscape and taking into account the uncertainty with Patrick Williams and his recovery from wrist surgery.

The Cavaliers start three 7-footers, the Bucks added Serge Ibaka to go along with superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 76ers have Joel Embiid, the Heat have a physical frontcourt with Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker and the Nets are expected to get Kevin Durant (knee) back soon.

Going into the postseason short-handed and small up front would’ve been a dangerous gamble for the Bulls, who will start their second-half push tied with the Heat on top of the Eastern Conference.

That’s why Zach LaVine reached out and called Thompson to welcome him during the weekend before the signing was even official.

“I think he’s going to bring another championship-level guy; he’s been in these games before,’’ LaVine said. “He can help us in these situations. With [executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas] and [general manager] Marc [Eversley], obviously, they’re going for it. They trust in me, they trust in DeMar [DeRozan], they trust in this group, and it just means a lot going into the last year of my contract that they’re putting a team around us that can compete.’’

Especially if they can continue to get healthy.

Donovan gave updates on his injured players, including LaVine (left knee). There will be an open line of communication between LaVine and the medical staff, and his status will be a game-by-game decision.

“How does he respond coming off a game the next day?’’ Donovan said. “Does he feel back-to-backs are something he can do? I think in his meetings with the doctors, they’re all comfortable with him playing. It’s all really about how he’s doing once he gets back to playing on a consistent basis. Right now, he feels good.’’

Lonzo Ball (knee surgery) continued to ramp up his running this week, and the hope is still a mid- to late-March return. Alex Caruso (wrist surgery) still hadn’t been cleared for basketball activity with the right hand but was working with his left hand and on his conditioning. And Williams is progressing but still hasn’t been cleared for practice.

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