Bulls guard Richard Hamilton, who has missed the last 12 games with a sprained shoulder, went through a contact drill with teammate Brian Scalabrine on Wednesday prior to the Bulls' shootaround at Philips Arena in Atlanta and could play against the Hawks tonight.
It's more likely Hamilton will return Friday against the Detroit Pistons at the United Center. But his return appears imminent for the first time since he suffered the injury on March 5 against the Pacers.
''We'll see how it goes today,'' Hamilton said. ''Today was actually the first time I did a little bumpin'. That's what me and Scal were doing -- him chasing me and bumping and having a little contacts. It was good. Because that's the biggest thing with me getting hit, the contact. I'm happy with my progress.''
Hamilton, 34, has played in only 16 of the Bulls' 51 games this season because of injuries. The leg injuries that sidelined him earlier this season have healed completely, but he's going to have to gut it out to a degree with the shoulder when he returns.
''I know that it's not going to be pain free,'' he said with a chuckle. ''We just want to prevent me from aggravating it. [There's] going to be pain. But as long as I can get my hand over my shoulder and be able to shoot the ball, I'll be fine.''
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau would not say whether Hamilton would start when he returns or whether he would have to limit Hamilton's minutes.
''I'm not sure about that,'' Thibodeau said. ''His legs are great ... he's over all those injuries. We want to make sure the strength is there in the shoulder. We're very encouraged. He's doing great right now.''
Even if he jumps right back in, Hamilton said there will be an adjustment factor after missing so many games. After missing two games with a sore groin early in the season, Hamilton played 32 minutes against the Pistons and scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting with five assists. But he aggravated the injury and missed the next eight games.
''The games are always different than practice,'' he said. ''I train myself to be the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA. But I think the biggest thing is rhythm, timing ... and catching your second wind when you're out there for the first time.''
The Bulls (40-11) are 28-7 without Hamilton this season. But coming off three subpar efforts, including a 108-91 loss to the Nuggets at home on Monday, the Bulls could use the help.
''He gives us a catch and shoot game,'' Thibodeau said. ''His moving without the ball and his playmaking. Most teams trap him off catch-and-shoot and he's a good playmaker. So it adds a lot to our offense.''