Can Nikola Vucevic Find His 3-Point Shooting Stroke Before Next Season?

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Can Nikola Vucevic Find His 3-Point Shooting Stroke Before Next Season?

Chicago Bulls

When Nikola Vucevic flies back to Orlando this summer, he should begin his search. Flip the couch cushions. Open every drawer. Look under the bed. Check the closet. Give the mailbox a peek. Heck, dump out the Pringles cans. No matter how long it takes, Vucevic must find his shooting stroke.

During his first full season in Chicago, the big man shot like … well … a big man. And all Vucevic has done in recent years is the exact opposite, which is, presumably, a big reason why the Bulls gave up the assets they did at the 2021 trade deadline to acquire the 2x All-Star.

Indeed, out of the players who stood six-foot-ten or taller and took at least 3.0 shot attempts from downtown per game, Vucevic shot the 6th-best mark during the 2020-21 season (40.0 percent), per NBA Stats. Among the five players ahead of him, only Kevin Durant averaged more assists and no one averaged more rebounds. He was a truly rare center – one who climbed up the positional leaderboards thanks to a dedication to expanding his game in an era of pace and space basketball. And, don’t forget, he was also a player who provided the frame and post skills that every top center needs to possess.

Adding Vucevic’s dynamic offensive skills alongside Zach LaVine felt like a loving marriage. Doubling as one of the best screen-setters in the league, it wasn’t hard to envision Vucevic grooming a lethal two-man game with his new teammate. The same could be said when DeMar DeRozan joined the fold during the offseason. Vucevic now had two bucket-getting perimeter ball-handler to play off of. Sure, it might have meant fewer overall opportunities for the frontcourt anchor himself, but it also meant (in theory) that his life would get a whole lot easier.

Instead, we watched Vucevic struggle from the opening tip of the opening game. He shot just 39.5 percent from the field over his first 11 games of the season before ending up in Health and Safety Protocols. Vucevic’s performance behind the arc was one of the biggest reasons for that wildly inefficient mark, as his 3-point percentage sat at an ugly 26.7 percent.

Things would finally start to turn around for the Bulls’ third star at the beginning of December, but it was short-lived. After shooting 37.0 percent from downtown over the next 13 games, he would shoot 28.6 percent from the 3-point line for the remainder of the season.

“I never really got to a point where I was consistently shooting the ball the way I can,” Vucevic told reporters in his end-of-season press conference. “But maybe it was that type of season. I think at times maybe I was overthinking it at times when I didn’t start shooting it the way I wanted to. You kind of want things to happen right away, and you want to get going right away, and it didn’t, Maybe you start overthinking things and the shots that sometimes you’re taking aren’t the ones you’re used to, things like that.

It was just mainly finding my way within the team, finding my rhythm within the team. I get a good mix of playing inside and outside. I think sometimes I was trying to space too much and not thinking about the other things I could do … I know I can shoot the ball really well. I know how effective I can be from there. It’s just about finding a good mix of both.”

Vucevic is right, he can be extremely effective as a jump shooter, and he’s proven it over the past several seasons. Not only did he shoot 46.0 percent or better on his midrange looks over his final three seasons in Orlando, per Cleaning the Glass, but he averaged a 37.3 percent mark from 3 in his previous three seasons before this year.

He basically continued to show improvement from long distance, and it culminated in his 40.0 percent clip on a career-high 6.3 attempts in 2020-21. Vucevic had 30 games where he sank at least three 3-pointers. Jump ahead to this season, though, and Vucevic’s 31.4 percent success rate behind the arc marks his lowest since the 2017-18 season. He had just 12 games where he sank three 3s.

“New teammates. New style of play,” Vucevic said. “I had players around me that are, obviously, really great players. So just finding my way of playing with my new teammates and my new style. When I was in Orlando everything was built around me and the way we played was all based around me, so it’s just that adjustment. Nothing crazy. Nothing that I didn’t expect. It’s just, as a player you hope that things happen right away, but sometimes it takes time.”

A change of scenery can be hard to adapt to, especially when you used to possess the gravitational pull that everything else revolved around. The Orlando Magic specifically played to Vucevic’s strengths. And while the Chicago Bulls didn’t throw that philosophy completely out the window, they also had to cater to the other two All-Stars on their roster.

In other words, I see where Vucevic is coming from. Adjusting to this new role can be extremely difficult, particularly while playing the position that relies most heavily on other players to get you involved. I’m not blaming everyone else for Vucevic’s problems, to be clear, but I understand where the general discomfort may have stemmed from.

Still, it’s not like anyone forced Vucevic to massively adjust his shot selection. He still saw most of his 3-point shot attempts come at the top of the key in catch-and-shoot situations. The strong majority of his downtown attempts were also considered “wide open,” per NBA Stats, but he shot just 32.6 percent on those looks this season compared to 41.3 percent last season. Yuck.

The truth of the matter is that Vucevic just missed shots, and that proved to be extremely problematic for a team that built itself around an offensive-minded backbone. So while there is no question additions will have to be made to put this roster in a better position to succeed next season, few changes could be more impactful than Vucevic re-locating his shooting stroke.

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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.