Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Nikola Vučević looked forward to his scheduled Wednesday night dinner with Nikola Jokić, the first in-person connection between the close friends since the Chicago Bulls defeated the Denver Nuggets in March.
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Of course, Jokić’s Nuggets won an NBA championship since then, so that detail may switch up their natural order of things.
“It is my turn (to buy dinner),” Vučević said. “When I’m at home, I do it. When I’m in Denver, he does. Although he did win a championship, so . . . “
Vučević finished with 25 points, 15 rebounds and three assists on that March night in one of the Bulls’ best all-around games of the season.
Thursday night’s home preseason opener at the United Center isn’t the time for Jokić’s revenge or Vučević to try to send another message. The preseason is for limited minutes, working out new wrinkles and getting into game shape.
But the matchup remains one of pride for Vučević.
“It’s very special for us because we come from the same region,” the Montenegrin-raised Vučević said, referencing Jokić’s Serbian heritage. “We grew up watching a lot of the same players, idolizing a lot of the same people, wanted to be like them. And we have a chance to do it at the highest level. The NBA is your dream when you’re little there, but you don’t know how realistic. Especially back then when you don’t have access to the Internet and you could only watch once a week or twice a week on TV.”
In fact, Vučević said over 100 children from a local Serbian church group are scheduled to attend Thursday’s game.
“Hopefully, it also motivates kids back home to do it,” Vučević said. “For us on a personal level, we’re really close so it’s fun to compete. And we’re both really good players so that makes it fun as well.”
Vučević said it’s easy to forget about the friendship once the ball is tipped.
“Once we get on the court, we compete. We really enjoy competing against each other. We don’t take it easy on each other. We want to play the best for our team, try to win the game,” he said. “Once the game is over, we can chat again.”
Coach Billy Donovan said he planned to meet with his staff later Wednesday to decide how much the Bulls’ starters will play. With five preseason games, Thursday night might not be the time to extend them into the second half yet.
However long Vučević plays, he’s focused on making an impact in some of the Bulls’ new offensive sets, which feature him initiating offense as a passer in the mid-post.
“It’s still early and we’re still trying to figure out the reads,” Vučević said.