Nikola Vučević is all about the team.
You can see it in his willingness to pass out of double teams, his desire to make the right play. And you could hear it in his postgame comments Monday night after he posted a season-high 30 points in the Chicago Bulls’ victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
“Obviously when you go through struggles it’s never easy, especially because you feel like you’re not helping the team. And that was the biggest thing for me because it’s a new team and we’re trying to establish something,” Vučević said. “And when you feel like you’re not helping as much as you should, it just bothers and annoys you.”
Vučević added 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in his most complete game of the season. He scored on the game’s first possession. He scored out of a timeout in the fourth quarter when the Hornets trimmed a 23-point deficit to four. He knocked down all six of his 3-pointers, pushing his percentage from 26.3 percent pregame to 33.3 percent postgame.
If the Bulls are going to become the team they want to be, they need Vučević to not necessarily score 30 points. But he can’t be in the shooting slump that dominated his first 14 games, which included a break and seven-game absence following a positive COVID-19 test.
“Vooch is a big part of this team. He’s a great shooter,” Lonzo Ball said. “I think he’s going to have a lot more nights like this.”
The career averages support this theory. But there are numbers and there is nuance.
Vučević has been transparent about the challenge of playing a new offensive role, one in which he doesn’t touch the ball as much — particularly in the post — and with high-usage offensive talents like DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. He’s not complaining about this; remember, he’s a team-first guy.
But it’s different from his two-time All-Star days with the Magic.
Vučević's usage rate sits at 22.1 percent this season. That’s down from last season’s stint with the Bulls, which produced a usage rate of 28.2. And it’s well below three of four seasons in the Magic where it landed at 28 or higher.
“I was the main guy in Orlando for years and the ball was always with me. I knew I was going to get my shots regardless of how the game was going. Now it’s a little different,” Vučević said. “We have more talent and more guys on the ball. Just have to find my spots and make sure I don’t get in their way and also for them to get used to playing with a big man like me.”
This process was just starting to form when Vučević tested positive. Then it not only got delayed, but Vučević had to find his own game conditioning and rhythm again.
It’s why coach Billy Donovan said following Saturday’s loss to the Heat that he needed to find ways to involve Vucevic more.
“Because we’ve tried to play fast and run more, a lot of times he’s trailing into plays,” Donovan said. “If there’s one area where he hasn’t had as much as last year, it’s post-ups. They’re way down. And I have to find ways to generate more of those for him because he’s a good offensive player.”
Donovan has praised Vučević's unselfishness and ability to sacrifice his own statistics. But there comes a time when this can become detrimental to the player and team.
If Vučević and the Bulls hadn’t reached that point, they were close.
“I have confidence in my game,” Vučević said. “And obviously I have been playing at a high level for a long time. So I knew it was going to come.”
Now it needs to stay.