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Marko Simonović bulks up, hopes to increase role

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The first thing that stands out about Marko Simonović is his increased size. The Chicago Bulls’ second-year big man said he’s at 240 pounds, up from 215.

The next thing may be more subtle but perhaps just as revealing: His English is much improved, as is his ease in media sessions.

The native of Montenegro, who turns 23 in October, lived a largely overlooked rookie season, filled with some dominant moments in the G League and some overwhelmed mop-up minutes at the NBA level. But for a team lacking in rim protection and shooting, there could be an opportunity for “Marko minutes.”

Which may not be a thing or a nickname yet. But given his increased confidence and bulk, who knows?

“I’m working every day to be ready and get some minutes in the NBA,” Simonović said this week at the Advocate Center in the practice buildup to NBA Summer League.

A second-round pick in Artūras Karnišovas’ first draft as executive vice president of basketball operations, Simonović always was considered a project. Unlike the second-round pick the Bulls walked into in 2021 in Ayo Dosunmu, Simonović lacked physical strength on the court and never had lived in the United States off it.

He credited management, the coaching staff and his teammates for helping his transition. He perhaps formed his closest bond with Nikola Vučević, another with Montenegrin ties, who he trained with in Serbia this summer.

“Vooch is my mentor. He’s like my big brother here. I’m so happy to have him here in Chicago,” Simonović said. “He helped me for sure on the court and off the court.”

Assistant coach John Bryant, who is serving as head coach for the summer league, noted not only Simonović’s increased size and strength but improved decision-making. He has had Simonović work with Dosunmu in screen-and-roll situations and lauded the big man’s improved decision-making.

“His hands have gotten better, along with his body. He probably hasn’t gotten the calls that he would want. But he’s able to finish through contact because of the body,” Bradley said. “And then I’m pairing him up a lot with Ayo. So there was one day in practice where he was just getting roll after roll after roll. His decision-making on those rolls, either finishing or passing it out to wingside, was much improved.”

Simonović averaged 17 points and 9.9 rebounds in 28 G League games with the Windy City Bulls. He shot 53 percent overall but just 26.9 percent from 3-point range. That number needs to improve if Simonović is to become a reliable pick-and-pop option, which was touted as a strength upon his drafting. But at 6 feet, 11 inches and on a team lacking in forwards, he also could contribute with rebounding, screening, passing and rim protection.

The good news for Bulls fans is Simonović admitted that this season will pose less of an adjustment to off-the-court matters.

“It was a little bit difficult for me because it was my first year in the USA. And I was running every day---on the court, out of the court, how to live here and how to understand everything,” Simonović said. “It’s a process. I know it’s not all in one year.  I need time to understand everything and to learn everything. I think I improved a lot, but I have a lot of space to improve myself.”

The commitment is there. His physique is proof of that. He said plenty of teammates and coaches have commented on his bulk.

“I’m so happy to hear that because I’m really working. Every day I try to improve my body and put some muscles on. The last two months, I did it,” he said. “And when I came back here, everybody said I’m looking better than I was before. Just keep working.”

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