Nikola Vucevic may finally get credit he deserves with new-look Bulls

Nikola Vucevic may finally get credit he deserves with new-look Bulls

Last season, only two NBA players averaged at least 23.0 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. One was Giannis Antetokounmpo, but who was the other? It wasn’t Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns — although all three came close, just barely missing out on the rebounds. 

The second player was Nikola Vucevic, one of the most underrated stars in the NBA today.

Vucevic has shown significant improvement each season over the course of his decade-long NBA career, and he’s developed into the kind of player who can fill the stat sheet on a nightly basis and lead a team to the playoffs as its focal point (as he proved with the Orlando Magic in 2019-20 and 2018-19).

Last season, Vucevic averaged 23.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 threes, 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 47.7% from the field, 40.0% from three and 84.0% from the free-throw line. Also, Vucevic ranked sixth in Value Over Replacement Player (4.2), 13th in Box Plus/Minus (+5.1) and 18th in Player Efficiency Rating (22.9). 

He’s incredibly skilled, which allows him to score inside and out as well as create for others. Not only can he dominate with his post-ups and midrange jumpers, but becoming a legitimate threat from beyond the arc has allowed him to take his game to another level.

“Even though now I can shoot threes, for me, my bread and butter will always be the midrange and post-ups; that’s what I like the most and what I always go to if I really need a bucket or need to get going,” Vucevic told BasketballNews.com in January. “But now that I’ve added that, I think it’s helped me a lot because now it’s harder for teams and other big men to guard me. It’s hard to guard a big man who can shoot and dribble and move — it’s always been difficult for me when I’ve had to guard guys like that, so it’s something that I just really wanted to keep working on and add it to my game. When I take my man out of the paint, it opens up so much.”

When people discuss the best big men in the NBA, Vucevic’s name never seems to come up — not even as an honorable mention. The top tier is obviously Jokic, Embiid, Towns, Anthony Davis, etc. However, in some of these big-men rankings, Vucevic doesn’t even crack the top-10.

Regardless of how productive he is, Vucevic never seems to get the credit or attention that he deserves. Several years ago, head coach Doc Rivers echoed this sentiment.

“He’s probably the best player in the league that nobody knows,” Rivers said. “I don't think you hear anybody talking about him, but when you look at his raw numbers, they are superstar and All-Star worthy! But nobody knows it.''

Some NBA fans have barely gotten a chance to watch Vucevic. After all, the Magic had just one nationally televised game over the last two seasons. During Vucevic's nine seasons in Orlando, the Magic only played in six nationally televised games (not counting NBA TV). Six games in nine seasons! By comparison, the Bulls will have five nationally televised games this year (plus seven NBA TV games), so Vucevic should have more opportunities than ever to showcase his intriguing skill set and win over fans.

***

When Vucevic entered the NBA as the No. 16 pick in the 2011 draft, he was primarily a low-post threat. Despite being raw and lacking athleticism, he intrigued talent-evaluators with his size and potential. He would need to continue developing his midrange game and footwork, but he clearly had immense upside.

As a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Doug Collins wanted to bring Vucevic on slowly — partially because the 76ers were a veteran-laden playoff team, but also because the 2011 NBA lockout robbed the incoming rookie class of a normal offseason and training camp. The 21-year-old played just 15.9 minutes per game, averaging 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.

A few weeks into the offseason, Vucevic was introduced to the business side of the NBA when he was traded to Orlando as part of the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade. The rebuilding Magic took a very different approach to Vucevic’s development, starting him in all 77 games he appeared in and doubling his minutes. Despite being thrown into the deep end and asked to fill Howard’s big shoes, Vucevic made the most of this opportunity — averaging 13.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and a block in 33.2 minutes (while shooting 51.9% from the field). 

While Vucevic was thriving on the court, he was incredibly shy off of it. Throughout his sophomore season, Vucevic rarely spoke up in the locker room. He was so quiet that people sometimes assumed that he didn’t speak English well (when, in reality, Vucevic’s English is excellent and he barely even has an accent). He was just taking everything in, and he wanted to establish himself as a key contributor and earn his teammates’ respect on the court before trying to be a vocal leader. When asked what advice he’d like to give his younger self, Vucevic thinks long and hard before responding.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and say when you don’t know something,” Vucevic told me. “When you get to the NBA at a young age, you have so much pride and you think you know it all — especially when, in college, you were playing great and getting all of this attention. You think you know it all, but just understand that you really don’t. Each year is going to get easier and going to get better, but you just have to be patient and work and wait for your time. I think that’s the main thing I’d say. At such a young age, don’t think that you know it all already — there’s always room for improvement and always things to learn. Even today, I’m 30 and I’ve played 10 years in the NBA, and I’m still learning new things every day. And things change! The NBA changes — so much changes every year — so you can always keep learning. 

“When I first got to the NBA, I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m such a good player, I was drafted and I was averaging 20 and 10 in college and this and that.’ But it really means nothing until you get to this level, so just really understanding that part [is important]. I think I would tell myself to always be open-minded to learning more. I think that’s a normal thing for everybody in life; I think as you get older, you figure that out. But if I had that mindset earlier, maybe it would’ve helped me... If I thought the way that I think now, it would’ve been much easier, for sure.” 

It’s pretty incredible how much Vucevic has improved and expanded his game since his first few years in the NBA. 

“I always look back and think about how when I was 24 or 25 — when I had, like, two great years in a row — I thought I was in the prime of my career,” Vucevic said with a laugh. “But now, I look at it and I’m such a better player. Like, it’s not even close.”

A big reason for that improvement is the three-point shot he added in recent years. During his first five NBA seasons, Vucevic made just seven threes. Determined to evolve with the NBA, Vucevic spent countless hours working on his shot and it paid off. In 70 games last season, he made 176 threes (2.5 per game) at a 40.0% clip. Vucevic easily led the league in catch-and-shoot points per game (10.1), and his 176 threes were 16th-most among all players (and first among centers). In fact, Vucevic made more total threes (176) and averaged more threes per game (2.5) than Kevin Durant (85 total, 2.4 per game), Trae Young (136, 2.2), Bradley Beal (130, 2.2), LeBron James (104, 2.3) and Devin Booker (126, 1.9).

Many NBA players have tried and failed to add a three-point shot to their arsenal, so how was Vucevic able to go from hardly ever shooting threes to legitimate deep threat?

"It's hard to just add a three-pointer if you've never done it before,” Vucevic explained. “For me, it wasn't as huge of an adjustment because one of my best qualities was my midrange; I was always really good at shooting that and it was a big part of my game. For me, it was just about making the adjustment to shoot it from further out. I had a good jumper, but I just had to make that adjustment. Then, [there’s a shift] mentally, and that’s one thing for me that took a little bit. Each year, I shot it more and more, but that was me trying to be more confident taking that shot and [learning] to not go away from it if I miss one, two or three. Also, my teammates had to get used to me shooting those shots — they were so used to me popping into the midrange — which was a huge part of the NBA before and I don’t understand why it’s not anymore, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject — and posting up, so now that I was stepping out [for threes], it was also an adjustment for them. I think it just took a couple of years for all of that to jell. Each year, I just got more and more confident. Every time I’d have a big game shooting the three, like hitting a couple or hitting one in a big moment, that just helped me mentally and helped my confidence. 

“Now, when I shoot it, I don’t think about it as a three-pointer, I just think about it as any other shot. But if you’ve never really been a shooter, it’ll be hard for you to become one out of nowhere because there’s always that mental hurdle that I think is the hardest [part]. If people never really looked at you as a shooter, until you really start making them consistently, they’re always going to treat you as a non-shooter, and that can affect you in a way. Also, [fixing] the mechanics of your shot and stuff, that’s huge. I feel like I had all of that before from my midrange shots and long twos, so it wasn’t really a big deal for me to make that adjustment. But if you’ve never really been a shooter, you can’t just become that. People say, ‘Oh, he needs to shoot it! Just shoot!’ But if he’s never been one in his whole life, he can’t just become one. It’s a very difficult skill and that’s why people look for it so much and it’s hard to find… It’s a luxury. You can’t just work on it for one summer and be like, ‘Oh, I’m a shooter!’ There’s so much more that goes into it.”

Once Vucevic became a three-level scorer, the Magic were able to run their offense through him. He was Orlando’s leading scorer in each of the last three seasons, and he also emerged as a solid facilitator who created opportunities for others. 

“Teams really respected my game a lot and knew about my ability to score in many ways and make plays for others, so I feel like I’ve been the focal point for a while,” Vucevic told me in January. “Early on, it was harder for me to make adjustments when they sent double-teams and crowded me and did different things, but [it got easier with] experience. Over the years, you’re able to figure it out, make reads, see what works and see what doesn’t. Now, I’ve seen a bunch of double-teams in the post and I know where they’re coming from, what I can do and where guys should be, so it’s easier for me to get out of those situations. I just think every year, you learn from all of the experiences that you have. [A double-team] is also a sign of respect and something that I really enjoy, and it’s something that motivates you — going into every game knowing that you’re going to be the focal point and it’s on you to still be able to play [well].”

***

The Bulls have been running their offense through Vucevic during the preseason, involving him in nearly every half-court action. His role should be relatively similar to how he was utilized in Orlando. However, teams will have a harder time double-teaming Vucevic in Chicago since he’ll be surrounded by Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams, Coby White, etc. On paper, this seems like the most talented NBA team that Vucevic has played on. If all goes as planned, he has a realistic shot of advancing out of the first round for the first time in his NBA career. 

If Chicago wants to realize their full potential and become an Eastern Conference contender, they must protect the ball and limit self-inflicted wounds. Fortunately, this is Vooch’s specialty. He rarely turns the ball over, even when the offense is running through him. Last season, Vucevic averaged 1.8 turnovers. The year before, he had 1.4 turnovers per game, becoming just the third player in NBA history to average 19.0 points, 3.0 assists and fewer than 1.5 turnovers (joining Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris). 

“It’s just something that I pride myself on, making the right read and not putting myself in situations where I may turn the ball over — whether it’s attacking off the dribble or trying to make the hero-ball pass,” Vucevic told me. “I just try to make the right play, even if it’s just a simple play. I’ve always tried to play in a simple manner and just make the game easier for myself and my teammates. That’s just something that I enjoy doing. Not many parts of my game are flashy or highlight-reel plays, but I feel like I’m a very efficient player and I just stick to it, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in. Also, it goes back to my experience. Over the years, just reading the game and playing all of these games and having all of that experience has just helped me make those reads better and improve that part of my game a lot. 

“Turnovers are killers for a team. When you have turnovers, they are just empty possessions, especially live turnovers when the other team gets the ball and runs a fastbreak and it’s hard for the defense to get set up and everything. I mean, it’s better to throw the ball out of bounds than give the ball to the other team on a live turnover. It’s something I try to be very careful with. I think my IQ and my ability to read the game, make the right play and play simple helped me.” 

Vucevic and LaVine only played 15 games together last season since Vucevic joined the Bulls in late March and LaVine was sidelined for an 11-game stretch due to COVID-19. Vucevic is excited to form a one-two punch with LaVine going forward.

“Knowing Zach, he’s one of the best players at his position in this league and he had a great year; he was an All-Star, and I think he will be one for many years to come,” Vucevic told me in April. “It’s always great to play alongside a guy like that and it’s going to make my life easier, and hopefully I can make his life easier as well on the court. But I believe in Zach and I, and once we really grow our chemistry and build that two-man game, I think we can be very, very good and help our team in many ways and make it difficult for other teams to defend us…

"I’ve never played with anyone who’s as good of a scorer as Zach is, so I think it’s going to be great for me to have a guy like that on the ball a lot. In some of the games, it’s shown already in some of our two-man game action, although we haven’t played together a lot. It’s going to be hard to defend. I mean, when you’re trying to guard a two-man game that has two very good players, two very good scorers, it’s hard to defend because it’s hard to take away both; one or the other is always going to have a chance to get open or create for themselves or for the other guy or for somebody else on the team… He’s very unselfish; he’s a willing passer, he’s willing to make the right play, and that’s always a huge plus for the team.”

The Bulls are virtually unrecognizable from the team that took the floor six-and-a-half months ago to face the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 24, 2021. Of the 15 players who were active for the Bulls in that game 202 days ago, only three are still on the team: LaVine, Williams and White.

After losing to the Cavs, the Bulls blew up their roster the next day, completing three trades over the course of four hours. Chicago was the most aggressive team leading up to last year’s trade deadline — shipping out five players and adding four new faces — and their deal for Vucevic ended up being the biggest blockbuster of the day.

“I think by making these moves, the Bulls already sent a strong message to the rest of the league that they really want to win now...” Vucevic told me shortly after the trade. “We’re built to be successful for years to come.” 

Anytime a team acquires four new players midseason, there’s going to be an adjustment period. For the Bulls, that adjustment period just ended up being even tougher and longer-lasting than usual since 2020-21 was such an unconventional season.

Thanks to the condensed schedule, teams had way fewer practices and walkthroughs last year (which would’ve been helpful for the new players). And due to the NBA’s health-and-safety protocols, players weren't able to hang out together off the court and get to know each other better. This made it difficult for the Bulls to get everyone on the same page and develop chemistry. Throw in LaVine’s 11-game absence due to COVID-19, and that sums up how Chicago went 12-17 after the trade and missed the playoffs.

“It’s more difficult because you just don’t have as much practice time and you play every other day and you have a lot of back-to-backs, so it’s a little different than what it’d be in a regular season...” Vucevic told me in April. “It’s not easy at any point. And this season, you obviously have all of the COVID protocols and everything is limited, so it is a little more tricky [to get acclimated].”

This offseason, the Bulls doubled down on their aggressive approach, acquiring veterans such as Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Derrick Jones Jr. to put alongside their All-Star duo. There were 22 players who logged minutes for the Bulls last season, and only six of those players are still on Chicago’s roster: Vucevic, LaVine, Williams, White, Troy Brown Jr. and Javonte Green. 

All eyes will be on this new-look Bulls team, which means all eyes will be on Vucevic for the first time since he entered the NBA a decade ago. Now that he’s the focal point of a large-market contender that hopes to continue the Bulls’ rich tradition, maybe he won’t be flying under the radar much longer.

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