By Cody Westerlund-
(CBS) If those in the basketball circles hadn’t taken notice of Bulls guard D.J. Augustin already, he sent his strongest message yet of the season Sunday night, when he scored a career-high 33 points in Chicago’s 107-102 win at Boston.
It was the continuation of likely the best — and certainly most important — stretch of basketball of Augustin’s career. Since being scooped up by Chicago after Toronto waived him in December, Augustin has averaged 14.3 points on nearly 42 percent shooting, including 41 percent from 3-point range, in 30.4 minutes per game, usually off the bench.
Augustin has continually improved under Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, registering his best month in March with averages of 16.8 points and 4.2 assists while shooting nearly 46 percent.
Lingering beside his breakout play, naturally, is what lies ahead for Augustin’s future. He will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and everything that’s happening now and will happen in the playoffs will matter in July.
The 26-year-old Augustin rightfully insists he’s not worried about next year, but the fact remains that his play over the last three months has changed the narrative. It’s no longer about whether he’s wanted in the NBA. It’s about how much someone who wants him will pay him.
“I’m not really focused on it,” Augustin said after his team’s home win Monday night against the Celtics. “I’m just trying to play every game.
“When it comes to that kind of stuff, you never know what’s going to happen. It can all change anyway. I’m not really concerned.”
How much money Augustin may command on the open market is unclear. Anonymous executives don’t talk much of backup guards three months before they hit free agency, and Augustin hasn’t addressed specific numbers. Anything else is just speculation.
What is more certain is that Augustin wants to remain in Chicago — though it comes with a catch. His stellar play could price the Bulls out of his range, as they have around $40 million committed to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson next season, to say nothing of the $16.8 million Carlos Boozer is signed on for if the amnesty provision isn’t used on him.
It wouldn’t seem prudent or feasible for the Bulls — who hold out faint hopes of attracting another superstar and hold the rights to bring over European star Nikola Mirotic — to pay Augustin anything near the four-year, $25-million contract Jarrett Jack got last summer to sign in Cleveland, where he’s spent time starting and coming off the bench after playing a similar reserve role in Golden State in 2012-’13 that Augustin is playing for Chicago now.
And to be fair, while Augustin can create offensively and is an adept outside shooter, he’s been inconsistent outside his stint in Chicago and also can be a liability on defense. Augustin’s PER is 16.7, but his opponent counterpart’s PER is also 16.7, according to 82games.com, and advanced statistics show Kirk Hinrich is a much superior defender. Hinrich will also be a free agent at season’s end, and the Bulls will have to decide how hard to pursue him.
So for now, all Augustin can do is wait and play, which is the way he likes it.
“I would love to be back here,” Augustin reiterated Monday. “This organization, this team is great, and I think it’s great for me. (Thibodeau) has given me the opportunity to play and get better. It’s been great for me.
“When the time comes, I’ll let my agent handle it and just kind of relax.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.