The Nikola Vucevic Roller Coaster Continues, This Time in the Right Direction

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The Nikola Vucevic Roller Coaster Continues, This Time in the Right Direction

Chicago Bulls

When the Orlando Magic beat the Chicago Bulls on January 23, Nikola Vucevic chucked up 19 shots, making just four en route to easily one of his – and the team’s – worst games of the season. The big man looked as frustrated as we have ever seen him in a Bulls uniform, dejectedly running up down the court as he struggled to gain his composure on the sideline.

Everything about that performance was uncharacteristic for the normally-calm two-time All-Star, and he knew it. Vucevic sat in front of reporters after the game and owned up to his lackluster performance. To re-live the frustration (what are you, some kind of masochist?), check out the post below.

Who knows whether or not that loss – to his former team, no less – will prove to be the bottom for Vucevic this year, but it sure looks like it right now. And that’s a good thing.

Four games later, Vucevic has strung together one of his better stretches of the season, averaging 21.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.0 block per game (all while the Bulls have gone 3-1). Vucevic has also shot an efficient 63.8 percent from the field to go along with a 43.8 percent clip from downtown.

While a simple eye test will tell you the big man is playing a more confident and assertive brand of basketball, it’s his bump in field goal percentage down low that’s most encouraging. Throughout this four-game stretch, Vucevic has shot 18-23 (78.3%) on looks within 8ft of the basket, compared to a rough 57.1% success rate in this area of the floor for the season, which also happens to be his lowest mark since the 2016-17 campaign.

The sample size may not be the largest, but it’s encouraging to see him finishing shots he seemed to continuously botch this season. We’ve watched him finally finish layups through contact and finally avoid clanking the front of the rim on some floating jump shots out of the pick-and-roll. He’s attacked the basket stronger over the past few games than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, and it’s only opened up the floor that much more for this Bulls team that has averaged the 6th-most points in the league since that disappointing loss to Orlando (averaged 10th-most on the season).

To be sure, none of these Vucevic performances over the last handful of games were particularly dominant. To be even more sure, none have also come against what we’d consider “elite” opponents. But Vucevic has still looked much more like the consistent and opportunistic player many of us had expected coming into this season. He’s filled his role to a T around the dynamic duo of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, taking full advantage of a distracted defense on the offensive end.

Speaking of which, the complicated presence of LaVine and DeRozan is something I think we too often fail to consider when evaluating Vucevic’s roller-coaster play this season. If anyone was going to see a complicated adjustment to life on a roster with multiple gifted scorers, it was going to be Vucevic. Naturally, a big man is going to rely more on his teammates to get him the ball in positions to succeed. And not only do his playmakers need to learn his tendencies, but he needs to learn how to best complement those playmakers.

“It’s just figuring all those parts out,” Vucevic said after Sunday’s win. “I think as the season has gone on, I’ve done a much better job of finding my spots. Lately, especially, I’ve been able to get more touches close to the basket, whether it’s post-ups, or on roll, things like that. Just trying to find my spot and find my ways along our offense.

It’s just me trying to figure it out, understanding that I have to be patient with it, I have to try to work through it. Like I said, at times, you want it to happen and it’s not going your way. You lose the game, and you get a little bit frustrated, and that’s just human nature. You’re a competitor, you want to play well, that’s all part of it.”

The question we have to ask ourselves now is whether or not this ride has any more gut-wrenching drops. Like I said, while Vucevic’s recent efficient performance has been comforting, it has also come over a stretch against what many would consider “lighter” competition. But, hey, these kinds of things also have to start somewhere, right? I’d say it’s certainly possible this is a stretch where something has finally clicked for the big man, and he can try to prove that tonight with a make-right game against his pesky former team.

Watch Vucevic’s most recent postgame press conference below: 


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Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.