Ayo Dosunmu takes key role while biding time as rookie with Bulls

Ayo Dosunmu (Wikimedia Commons)

By Jonathan Fernandez
Medill Reports

Ayo Dosunmu is like many 22-year-olds.

If you overlook the fact he’s making millions of dollars a year to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls, the comparison makes a lot more sense.

That’s hard to overlook, of course, even though Dosunmu lives with his older brother Kube and spends most of his days playing basketball, gathering with family and playing video games. His favorite game is NBA2K.

“I want to say I beat him in 2K, but he’ll probably say something different,” said Nick Irvin,

Dosunmu’s high school coach at Morgan Park. “He loved 2K. He thinks he’s the greatest ever.”

If Dosunmu sounds more like a typical 22-year-old, maybe that’s because he doesn’t carry himself like the star that he is – an NBA player projected as having a blinding bright future.

Young stars in many professions often ditch their parents’ counsel for friend groups and late nights partying in the city. But Dosunmu has gone in the opposite direction.

“We love enjoying each other’s company,” Dosunmu said of his family in a sit-down interview with NBC Chicago.  “(They understand) at the end of the day I’m here to play basketball, and they support me doing that. They make sure my head is straight.”

According to an article written by former Chicago Tribune sports reporter Shannon Ryan, Dosunmu’s family has played a huge part in big decisions he’s made throughout his career, including the decision in 2017 to stay in his home state and play for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a program that had not made the NCAA tournament since 2013. Ryan wrote that the Dosunmus typically gather to discuss the pros and cons of each option when a big decision needs to be made. They offer each other advice while still allowing the decision maker to  choose their own path.

When Ayo would start a new school year, the family would gather to discuss goals for the youngest sibling to achieve. They’d display the big white board in the pantry for the whole family  to see.

What Ryan observed in her time covering the family is that they operate as a team, and they celebrate each other’s successes. 

Most stars might bristle at their parents trying to have a say in their life past a certain age, but Ayo has thrived in the structure that his family has provided for him in college and now playing for the Bulls.

Irvin took it a step further, saying Dosunmu needed his family close throughout his career to have the success he’s had.

“He definitely needed it because of the family atmosphere, the family peace for him,” Irvin said. “He’s a family guy. … In the NBA you go through hard times. Sometimes you hit a wall and you need somebody to pick you up, and he (has) that over here.”

The connection between  Dosunmu and his family is unique, even to those who have covered professional athletes for years.

“I think Ayo was more family-oriented than the typical person his age regardless of what they do,” Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Steve Greenberg said. “Definitely in my view, less friend-oriented and more family-oriented than most in his position.”

The Irvin brothers, Nick and Mike, both run Mac Irvin Fire, one of the most successful Amateur Athletic Union programs in the country. Dosunmu caught their attention at a young age.

Nick Irvin first saw Dosunmu when he was coaching a sixth grade team against a third grade Ayo.

Even at that age, with Dosunmu playing against players three years older than him, Nick Irvin knew Dosunmu was going to be a really good player. He continued watching Dosunmu from afar as he got older, hoping to have an opportunity to coach him one day.

He would have to wait a while.

Mike Irvin started recruiting Dosunmu to his team in eighth grade.

Mike Irvin has coached many players who have gone pro, including Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Talen Horton-Tucker and Jordan Poole, just to name a few. Dosunmu is only the latest of his star pupils to make the leap.

Mike Irvin coached Dosunmu for two years for Mac Irvin Fire U17 and saw similarities between him and his former players who went on to the NBA. Primarily, Dosunmu demonstrated a knack for making big plays in crucial moments.

Dosunmu played his freshman year at George Westinghouse College Prep, a high school in the Chicago Public League’s White division, which wasn’t even the top division. Dosunmu led Westinghouse to a conference championship that season and got them promoted to the Red division.

After Dosunmu’s first high school season with Westinghouse, Nick Irvin got his wish when Dosunmu transferred to Morgan Park.

“I think the connection was there,” Nick Irvin said. “I coached some of the top point guards, so (his family saw) what I did, the body of work I’ve put together. They wanted to be part of something that hold Ayo accountable and help Ayo reach his full potential. And they knew they were going to get that (from) me.”

In his first year at Morgan Park, Dosunmu was teammates with senior Charlie Moore, who was “the guy” for Morgan Park. Dosunmu understood Moore was going for all the awards and wanted to be the one to lead the team to a championship.

Nick Irvin talked to Dosunmu about being more aggressive as a scorer, but Dosunmu, out of respect for Moore playing in his final season, just wanted to continue in his role as a primary defender and playmaker. He knew his time to be “the guy” would come.

“Right then and there I said this guy is unbelievable,” Nick Irvin said.  “He’s going to be an unbelievable professional basketball player because, where he came from, he was averaging 32 points, and the sacrifice he made (was) for the betterment of the team.”

Nick Irvin later called Dosunmu’s mom, Jamarraa, to ask if she could talk to her son about it. Her response? “‘Nick, that’s your job,’” Irvin recalled her saying.

If watching Dosunmu’s first few weeks in the NBA was your first time seeing him play, you’d probably say he looked reserved on the court, not very comfortable or confident. On offense he’d primarily served as a floor spacer. He was often waiting in the corner for the defense to collapse around his All-Star teammates Zach Lavine and DeMar Derozan.

You wouldn’t know it from watching those early months of the season, but Dosunmu possesses an unrelenting belief in his ability. That belief was sculpted by the city of Chicago.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Mike Irvin said. “Being from Chicago, you always (have) a chip on your shoulder. He had that confidence factor.”

On a trip the Mac Irvin Fire took to Las Vegas, the Fire players were slated to compete against an East Coast Nike Elite Youth Basketball League team that boasted a stacked roster. They had one of the top point guards in the country and players who went on to play for LSU and Villanova, among other schools.

“We challenged Ayo saying this is what we’ve been waiting on and he said, ‘Man,  I’m about to give them 40,’” Mike Irvin recalled with a laugh. “Me and my brother laughing. Forty? He said, ‘Yeah, I’m about to give them 40, and we’re going to win and I’m going to drop 10 assists.’”

Irvin had his doubts. Dosunmu was good, but the team they were playing was no slouch.

“At the end of the day he ended up with 40-plus and 10 assists, so that was one thing he spoke into existence,” Mike Irvin said.

Ayo Dosunmu announced his college commitment at the Jordan Store on 32 S. State St. It has since been changed to a Foot Locker. (Jonathan Fernandez/Medill Reports)

Dosunmu and his family narrowed down his college choices to two: Illinois and Wake Forest.

The word that kept coming up when discussing this decision was legacy. Dosunmu wanted to go somewhere he could leave a lasting impact. Dosunmu made his commitment to play for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign at the Jordan store on South State Street with Kanye West’s “Homecoming” blaring on the store speakers.

At the time, Illinois had consistently failed to lure top in-state recruits and was struggling to bring any real success to the court. Dosunmu’s commitment had the potential to change all of that.

“If he didn’t have that confidence, he would’ve been like some of these other kids. … I’ll just fit in and then get drafted,” Mike Irvin said. “He thought, ‘I’m from Chicago, it’s my home school. I can turn it around.’”

Ryan covered his decision announcement when it took place in 2017. “It felt like the bar (was) being raised for Illinois,” Ryan said. “(Illinois head coach Brad) Underwood had had previous success in getting all his teams to the tournament. (Dosunmu) coming there was like, OK, now they’ve got this big recruit, and then they start winning. So I mean, I think it was a sea change for a couple reasons.”

Mike Irvin’s initial reaction to Dosunnmu’s commitment was simple. “Underwood (is) about to get an extension, and he’s going to be there for a long time because Ayo’s going to change the landscape.”

Ayo Dosunmu was the first top recruit in years to choose to play for Illinois. (MGoBlog/Flickr)

Dosunmu was immediately viewed as the savior of the program, and he embraced it.

In his first season with the Illini, the team lost a program-record 21 games. The team struggled mainly because the roster was still young. Dosunmu averaged 14 points on 43% shooting, four rebounds and three assists in his freshman campaign.

After the season ended, that’s when the real work began for Dosunmu. His favorite player growing up was Kobe Bryant, and like Bryant, Dosunmu became famous for his work ethic and reputation for being in the gym.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ayo talk about anything but basketball,” said Jeremy Werner, Illini beat reporter for 247 Sports. “You never heard about Ayo going out and living up the town. You heard about him in the gym.”

Dosunmu was singularly focused on his goal to make it to the NBA.

“He wanted to be in the NBA,” Greenberg said. “He wanted to be great. That’s what he wanted more than anything else, and he wasn’t very distracted.”

Dosunmu and the rest of the team came into their own the next season. A huge part of their success was because they added another program cornerstone in Kofi Cockburn, who previously played at Oak Hill Academy. Cockburn made an immediate impact both offensively and defensively. Senior Trent Frazier became an elite defender for them as well.

Dosunmu came back a much better midrange shooter following his freshman season.

Although Dosunmu struggled to open the season, he broke out in the second half.  He came back with a vastly improved midrange game. His two-point percentage jumped from 48% to 54%.

All of these factors contributed to an Illini team that was able to completely flip the script, going from a 12-21 record in 2019 to 21-10 in 2020. That season marked the first time the Illini had been ranked since 2015. Illinois finished second in the Big Ten and were on their way to making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years before the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament were canceled due to COVID-19.

In his sophomore season Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points on 48% shooting while grabbing four rebounds and three assists.

In Dosunmu’s junior season, he put all the pieces of his game together and became one of the most complete players in college basketball. He’d added another wrinkle to his game in the offseason, this time a drastically improved three-point shot.

His long-range jumper had always been a questionable aspect of his game, but he had regressed from 35% his freshman year to 29% his sophomore year from beyond the arc. By the end of his junior year,  he’d improved on his sophomore season mark by 10 percentage points.

Dosunmu had become an efficient three-level scorer who had upped his free throw attempts by two more attempts per game. He was also doing a better job seeing the floor and keeping teammates involved.

Ayo Dosunmu scores a contested midrange jumper for the win over Michigan. (MGoBlog/Flickr)

One impressive aspect of his game throughout his college career was his ability to make clutch plays. The most memorable shot came against Michigan on Jan. 25, 2020. With the score tied at 62, Dosunmu had the ball at the top of the arc with five seconds left on the clock. He dribbled the ball through his left leg twice with rapid speed and took a pace forward before dribbling it through the same leg for the third time and taking an explosive first step. He took one dribble toward the left elbow, pump faked with nowhere to go. His defender was still in a good position in front of him and only 2.7 seconds remained on the clock. Dosunmu calmly pivoted, drove his left shoulder through his defender to create space and went up for a midrange jumper that swished through the net to put the Illini ahead 64-62 with 0.7 seconds left.

“I’ve never seen a more clutch college basketball player,” Werner said. “He’s the most clutch player in Illinois history.”

In his final season, Dosunmu became the first NCAA player in over a decade to average more than 20 points, six rebounds and five assists. And he did it while leading the Illini to their first NCAA Tournament in eight years. By the time Dosunmu declared for the NBA Draft, he had transformed Illinois from a program failing to bring in top in-state recruits, failing to make the tournament year after year, to a certified powerhouse.

“He really kind of led the environment there and the seismic shift in the culture among the players,” Greenberg said of Dosunmu’s time with the Illini.

A tribute to the major impact Dosunmu had on the program, the University of Illinois retired Dosunmo’s jersey on Jan. 25, not even a full year after he’d left the program.

Ayo Dosunmu drives the ball during a game against Michigan. (MGoBlog/Flickr)

Dosunmu grew up watching Derrick Rose.

Before Dosunmu, Rose was the most recent Chicago native to be drafted by the Bulls. Rose became the youngest player to win a Most Valued Player award in 2011 while playing for the Bulls, solidifying his place early as a Chicago legend.

PA announcers usually introduce NBA players before games by naming their high school or college team. In Chicago, Rose made the “from Chicago …” intro that always got Bulls fans out of their seats famous.

Now Dosunmu is the one being introduced in front of a packed United Center crowd as “from Chicago …” Now, he’s become the inspiration to younger generations of Chicago basketball players.

“It’s good to let the city see someone that’s their very own get out and make it,” Nick Irvin said. “He’s an unbelievable role model to kids because … if one thing is shown to the youth of Chicago, it’s if Ayo can make it, you can make it.”

Dosunmu is more than just someone from his hometown who made it. He’s visible. He’s present. He’s accessible, which is so important for the city youth to see.

The Irvins witness all of that in Dosunmu’s mentoring. Since he’s been drafted, he’s gone to games coached by both Irvin brothers at Western Illinois, where Nick coaches, and Kenwood high school, where Mike coaches.

He hasn’t returned yet to Morgan Park, though. Current Morgan Park head coach Chris Gardner still plans to retire his jersey and is hopeful this star alum will come back.

“I truly believe like the moment Ayo does come back and speak to the program, it will have an immediate resonance of like, whoa, this kid came from here,” Gardner said.

The Chicago Bulls celebrate a win over the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 26. (Jonathan Fernandez/Medill Reports)

Second-round draft picks typically aren’t as good as Dosunmu proved to be this early in his NBA career. Most second rounders spend time in the G-League their first few years, fighting to make it into the rotation.

Not Dosunmu.

“I thought he should’ve been a first-round pick, I did not think he would be All-Rookie his first year,” Wener admitted with a laugh.

Greenberg echoed the same sentiment and said he did not expect Dosunmu’s three-point shooting to translate to the deeper NBA three as quickly as it has.

Dosunmu’s role with the Bulls has been significantly more limited than it was during his time with Illinois, and that’s to be expected of most first-year players, especially those on playoff teams.

But Dosunmu has starred in his role.

He’s played a majority of the season out of his natural position. Because of the Bulls depth at the point guard position, Dosunmu was used primarily as a wing. He has been one of the Bulls’ more reliable shooters, and every time he shoots the ball from the corner it feels like it’s going in. He’s knocking down the three at a 39% clip.

When point guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso both went off the play roster due to injuries, Dosunmu was playing well enough in his limited role that Bulls head coach Billy Donovan inserted him into the starting lineup to play point.

While many fans and journalists expressed surprise at Dosunmu’s success and contributions to the Bulls’ success, the Irvin brothers saw it coming.

“When they put him at that point guard spot, I knew he was (going to) flourish because he had a lot of Gary Payton in him,” Mike Irvin said.

Dosunmu has played a core part of revitalizing his hometown team. He’s not “the guy.” That title goes to Derozan or Lavine depending on whose night it is.

For now Dosunmu sits on the outskirts of playcalls, standing in the corner for spacing, content to just play his role. He’s been here before after all – watching teammates gun for awards and wanting to be the one to bring a championship to Chicago.

Dosunmu is just waiting his turn.

And it won’t do to bet against him when he gets his opportunity.

Jonathan Fernandez is a graduate student specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JFERN31.