Bulls

Nikola Vučević battling shooting slump amid role adjustment

Bulls

Through eight regular-season appearances, Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vučević is averaging 13.8 points on 38.9 percent field-goal shooting, 28.1 percent from 3-point range.

Those figures pale in comparison to the gaudy track record Vučević has established since ascending to All-Star status. In 212 games between the beginning of the 2018-19 season, when he made his first All-Star team, and the end of 2020-21, Vučević averaged 21.3 points on 49.2 percent shooting — 37.3 percent from deep — and hit even another level last season, averaging a career-high 23.4 points while shooting a career-best 40 percent from behind the arc.

So, what gives? Is Vučević the forgotten man in the Bulls’ revamped offense? Could dark, Wilson-brand magic be at play?

When asked about Vučević’s slow-shooting start, Bulls head Billy Donovan struck to the root of the issue directly: Vučević’s teammates need to do a better job of finding the two-time All-Star.

“These are just my thoughts, and I don't want to speak for him (Vučević) on this. I think we all have to do a better job helping him,” Donovan said. “I think there's times where he's in position where maybe the ball's getting there sometimes too early and he hasn't quite got a chance to get set, or we're finding him too late and maybe he's not expecting it.

“I think he's talked a lot with Lonzo (Ball) and DeMar (DeRozan) and Zach (LaVine) about how they're working together in two-man games, and I think some of those combinations of players, Vooch is gonna have to work with. Because it's different playing with Lonzo, it's different playing with Alex (Caruso), it's different playing with DeMar. Like, they're all different kinds of players and they'll get better the more time they spend with each other doing that.”

 

Vučević, for his part, acknowledges he is still adjusting to new offensive usage. Unlike during his days with the Orlando Magic, the lion’s share of the Bulls’ offense isn’t being run through him. He’s posting up less than at any point in his 11-year career, and operating as a screener, roller and popper more — and working those two-man combinations with brand new teammates.

“When I was in Orlando, everything was going through me. When Zach was out (with COVID-19 last season), it was a lot through me. So it's now different that we have Zach, we have DeMar, Lonzo, a lot of different guys,” Vučević said. “My usage is different, so you have to do a lot of different things, which is fine. It’s what you want as a player. You want to have as much talent (as possible).”

“A lot of it should come easier for me. I feel like before I had to work more to get certain shots. Now it should come easier for me — out of the two-man game action, out of drive-and-kick, different things. So it’s just me just getting a little bit of an adjustment when you don’t have the ball as much as I was.

“I always knew before (earlier in my career) I was getting my shots, regardless. Now I just have to find my way a little bit and learn to play with these guys. And also this is part of it, me learning how to play with DeMar in two-man game and how to play with Lonzo and how to play [Caruso], with Zach. We have the chemistry, but I think that it just takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are games when it was better, some games it wasn't as good. It's just part of the process.”

There’s also an element of shots simply not falling. While Vučević’s 14.1 field-goal attempts per game and 21.2 percent usage rate (down from 29.2 percent last season) are both a distant third on the team to DeRozan and LaVine, and scoring 4 points on seven shot attempts in Wednesday’s loss to the 76ers was undeniably alarming, 3.4 of his four 3-point attempts per game are considered “wide open” by NBA.com (he’s shooting 33.3 percent on those looks), and he’s converting just 39.3 percent of his chances in the restricted area. 

Those figures are ripe for self-correction, and perhaps if a handful more of those looks had fallen, this topic isn’t as hotly discussed. Besides, Vučević is averaging a double-double (with 10.8 rebounds) and tied with Ball for the team lead in assists per game (4.5), having handed out 6 dimes against Philadelphia and 9 in a near-triple-double effort against the Boston Celtics. The Bulls under Donovan have often leaned on their bigs’ facilitating ability from the high post and short roll, and Vučević thrives in that context.

 

“I’ve always been, I think, a good passer. It’s something I really enjoy doing, finding my teammates,” Vučević said. “I think the offense we're running gives me an opportunity to find a lot of guys in their spots. We just have so much talent offensively. There is so much stuff that opens up. We want to play through me at the top of the key, in different areas, and so with guys cutting, in two-man game action, I get a lot of [chances] to find guys. It’s something I enjoy doing and something I want to take advantage of because I think it helps us offensively a lot.

“Obviously my role is a little different offensively than what I had last year, when I came here, or with Orlando. There’s more talent and more guys who can score, so it’s a little different offensively for me. I just try to do different things to impact the game — passing, defensive rebounding, there is many ways you can impact the game. Screening. Doing all the things that I can to just help the team.”

But the Bulls also need Vučević to score his best for the team to be their best. Donovan repeated it multiple times after Friday’s practice: DeRozan (37 points) and LaVine (27) combined for 64 points in the 76ers loss, but the Bulls failed to reach 100 for the third time in eight contests.

With 74 games to go, all parties emphasize that the learning process is just beginning.

“I think for some of the guys, I think it may be an adjustment to play with a big man that can pop and shoot and space the floor as much as I do,” Vučević added. “I think it’s learning to play together and building that chemistry.”

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