Cristiano Felicio first earned minutes two seasons ago as an unheralded big man with a soft voice, quick feet and soft hands that spoke volumes more than a low-toned voice.
Now he carries the same low-toned voice and is still low-key but has become enough of a commodity for the Bulls to reward him with a four-year contract worth $32 million, a deal reached in the opening hours of free agency.
As painful as this new direction the Bulls are traveling in expects to be, a decision on bringing back Felicio was as much a no-brainer for the Bulls as Felicio’s answer to what he’ll do with a pay increase that rises to $8 million annually from roughly $875,000 last season.
“I'm planning on getting my mom a house, and after that I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the money,” Felicio said on a conference call with media Thursday afternoon.
“It feels great. Since I got here, I thought the Bulls had a great organization and they've worked with me since Day 1 and they wanted me to continue to be here and working and putting the Bulls jersey on. So for me it was great to sign with them again because I'm very happy here and I'm glad that I'm coming back.”
Assuming the Bulls don’t unload starting center Robin Lopez, Felicio will continue his progression as a dependable rebounder and finisher around the rim, as he averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. With the raw numbers, Felicio averaged nearly 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes as a roller to the rim on pick and rolls.
Now he says he hopes to improve on his midrange game as the Bulls hope to employ Fred Hoiberg’s wide-open system next season. Wins and losses won’t matter as much as player development and with Felicio turning 25 on Friday, he believes he’ll progress as quickly in the seasons to come as he has in the first two years in Chicago.
“For sure I was surprised. Because like I said when I got here, nobody knew me,” Felicio said. “And for the first six, seven months I was just working, staying on the court trying to improve my game. So to be able to end the first season the way I did, for sure, was eye-opening to me for what I could do in the future.”
He had his best games of the year when the 2015-16 season wound down and the road was cleared with Joakim Noah out with injury and Pau Gasol headed for free agency.
Considering he came from Pouso Alegre, Brazil, not exactly a basketball hotbed for NBA prospects, the positive reinforcement was necessary.
“Everyone who's been with me since the beginning knows how hard I worked, how many "nos" I got in the beginning of my career, how hard it was for me to get to this point,” Felicio said. “Even when people doubted me, I tried not to listen to it and just keep working, keep improving.
“Now I've been here for a year or two, and to get this contract now is a blessing because I have been working since I was like 13. I've had really bad moments and moments when I thought I wasn't going to be able to go anywhere in the back of my head. My mom helped me throughout everything. My family was with me. And to be here now, coming from a city where sports is not even a big thing, it's unreal.”
Now he’s one of Hoiberg’s dependables, as the Bulls will have only a few holdovers from last season and still are engaged in contract negotiations with Nikola Mirotic, a fellow restricted free agent with whom Felicio shares an agent.
“Yeah, for sure they're going in a new direction,” Felicio said. “We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that are hard workers and I know a few of them from my last two years here. I'm sure it's going in a great direction. Not a lot of people are putting faith in us, but if we keep working, when the season starts I'm sure we'll have pretty good season.”