Nikola Vučević always has been and always will be a team-first player.
But after a season of sacrifice as the third option last season, there’s a bit more bravado to the skilled center this season.
This subtle difference began on the eve of training camp, when Vučević made clear he’d like to spend less time on the perimeter and more time at the center of the Chicago Bulls’ philosophy to have the ball touch the paint.
It has continued through seven games where, in part because Zach LaVine is on a knee management plan, Vučević’s 95 field goal attempts rank second only to DeMar DeRozan.
“I know how good I am. I know what I bring to the table. I’m a two-time All-Star so I didn’t get to where I am by chance. I know the work I put in, the time I put in,” Vučević said. “It’s just different sometimes for me still playing as a third option. Before, when I was the main option, even if the ball didn’t go in right away, you know I’ll get my shots. Last year I was pressing a little bit on it. This year, I’m just able to settle my role more.”
That’s because the Bulls are looking to spread the wealth offensively, mindful how the stretch run bogged down last season when injuries hit and the offense stagnated in consistent isolations for DeRozan and LaVine.
It’s a growth process, to be sure. Vučević and LaVine admitted as much following the Bulls’ 114-109 loss to the 76ers, which featured LaVine missing a decent look from 20 feet with the game tied and 37.8 seconds left.
The only problem was Vučević was wide open to LaVine’s right in the corner, with nary a defender near him.
“I don’t think he saw me. It was a solid shot by him. It just didn’t go in. I didn’t want to yell or anything because he was going into the shot and I didn’t want to disturb him,” Vučević said. “It happened fast. I know he didn’t miss me on purpose. He was focused on trying to make a play. I thought it was still a pretty good shot. It just didn’t go down for us.”
Vučević had made his first five 3-pointers too.
“After looking at it, I should've thrown it to Vooch. He's wide open. It was a bad read on my part,” LaVine said. “I'm more confident than anybody to be able to make that shot. Just if you're gonna take it, make it. If not, I gotta find Vooch. I wish I was able to re-do it.”
Coach Billy Donovan said he didn’t have a good vantage point to see if LaVine should’ve passed, although like both Vučević and LaVine, he agreed that LaVine had a good look on the attempt.
Regardless, the fact that Vučević shot 5-for-7 from 3-point range when he entered shooting just 26.9 percent from that distance is notable. Even if it’s clear the Bulls don’t want him working solely on the perimeter.
“I had some good looks. I was able to take my time and knock them down,” Vučević said. “I feel like the ones I’ve been missing, looking back I feel like I’ve rushed them a little bit. I have a lot of time and space to take them. So I want to make sure I shoot them properly. They went in and I feel like it helped us get back in the game. I’ll continue to shoot them. I work on them every day.”
Vučević finished with 23 points, 19 rebounds and three assists. He became the first player in franchise history to make five 3-pointers with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds.
This performance came on a night the Bulls played without an injured Andre Drummond, who Donovan used to close over Vučević in Friday’s loss in San Antonio. And it came against Joel Embiid, who had a night himself with 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Vučević logged 36 minutes.
“I’d like be on the court as much as I can,” Vučević said. “Obviously, we miss 'Dre. He’s a big part of what we do. But I’ve played Embiid a lot over the years. We’ve had some good battles when I was in Orlando. It’s always fun to play against him, one of the best bigs in the NBA. I enjoy the competition.”
Even in defeat, it showed on Saturday.