New Season...New Vuc?

The Bulls are looking for Vucevic to use more of his all-around skill set and play closer to the basket. Let's take an early look at what's changed for the Bulls big man so far this season.


Word By Eugene McIntosh


 

Bulls starting center Nikola Vucevic looked like he was just trying to get in where he fit in last season. After coming to Chicago via trade from the Orlando Magic during the 2020-21 season and only playing in 26 games for Chicago, "Vuc" had a full season to look forward to and prepare for. With the additions of 5x All-Star DeMar DeRozan, 2020 NBA champion Alex Caruso and 2017 2nd overall pick Lonzo Ball, the 2021-22 campaign was gonna be a work in progress as head coach Billy Donovan tried to get his squad on one accord. Not to mention Zach Lavine was in a contract year and prepping for a max deal. A lot of egos would have to put aside for this to reach it's full potential.

For Vucevic, he finished the season with 18 points/11 rebounds in his back pocket. Those are all-star caliber numbers but for a guy that averaged 24 & 12 in his last 2 seasons as the #1 option in Orlando, it was a down year for him. He shot a career low 31% (with minimum 5 attempts per game) from distance after shooting a career high 41% 2 years prior. With Lavine and DeRozan initiating most of the offense (with or without Lonzo Ball in the lineup) Vuc was easily the third option and found himself hanging out around the arc and settling for the three point shot (entirely) too much. (He attempted 4.5 per game...his lowest since 2018-19) For a versatile big that can do a little bit of everything, Vucevic admitted that he was out of his rhythm and sometimes he just didn't know where he fit into the offense.

Coming back this season after finishing 46-36 and getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs 4-1 by the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls are looking for Vucevic to use more of his all-around skill set and play closer to the basket. "I'm gonna try and play a little closer to the basket and be more involved in the offense where it's just not outside of the 3 point line," he said.


Head Coach Billy Donovan told The Bigs how he and his staff planned on Vucevic using more of his all-around skill set to help this team get to the next level and how much of his struggles last season were on "Vuc" versus the overall offensive system in general.

"I do think for Vuc in terms of shot generation, he's gonna need back court players to help him do that. I do think that trying to get him into different areas and spots on the floor will help. Generally I thought most of the time last year he was in that middle third tunnel...I think that's where a lot of his shots came from. I also think the combination of him working with Zach, working with DeMar, working with Ayo (Dosunmu), working with Coby (White) etc., there's a lot of two man games that happen. It's not only Vuc...it's the guard and Vuc. There's gotta be a pairing there that's really good because I think that when you look at the shot quality for Vuc in relationship to his career, the shots he got last year were great. What was different for him I think was the fact that it's a little bit different when you're a player in Orlando and predominantly most of the time coming down the floor it's going to him. Now he goes 5-6 possessions without a shot now all of a sudden he gets one and...Vuc is a very conscientious team guy and he takes a lot of pride in being a productive, efficient and effective offensive player. You miss one shot, two shots and now you start to press and I think for him the more the ball is moving it will find him in different areas of the floor and he can get to use some of his skill set in there. There's gotta be some randomness to that with the way we're trying to play."


If things don't go as planned by the trade deadline, will Vucevic be on the block? He will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023 and its easy to understand if Arturas Karnisovas & Co. would much rather get something than lose him and get nothing.

Through 8 games this season, the Bulls are 4-4 and Vucevic is averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds (with a career high 3.5 offensive boards per game). He's shooting a career low 43% from the field (small sample size) and 35% from distance while attempting a career high 3.5 free throws per game (which is EXTREMELY LOW for a scoring big but says A LOT) making 93% of those. He's been a bit more selective on when and where he takes his three point shots but he will remind you once or twice per game of the 2021-22 Vuc. It would be conducive to the Bulls identity if they would start the game playing through him on the low post opening the floor for shooters and slashers. That starts with a legit lead guard which the Bulls just don't have right now with Lonzo Ball out until who knows when. So, ultimately it's up to DeMar DeRozan and Zach Lavine (who do a LOT of the ball handling) to initiate that offense.