After Nikola Vučević’s first full year in Chicago, the Bulls know they need to get the veteran center into his comfort zone this season.
The Bulls struggled to attack the paint consistently last season, ranking 29th in the league with 18.2 touches in the paint per game. The lack of penetration severely limited Vučević, who often was expected to create more of his offense with long-range shooting than with more sure-fire chances around the rim.
The Bulls are emphasizing a more balanced approach this season — both for Vučević and for the offense at large.
“It’s less stagnant than it was last year,” Vučević said. “It gives us ways to use everyone, different looks, be a little more versatile so we’re not easy to guard.
“That was the issue for us last year. It was repetitive. This way it gives us different actions, different ways of attacking. You put guys in different positions to give the defense different looks.”
The March 2021 trade from the Orlando Magic to the Bulls required Vučević to revamp his style of play after being the centerpiece of an offense built around him for nine seasons. In Chicago, he has had to play off DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, whose emphasis on slashing and midrange shots often has left Vučević stranded outside the paint.
The preseason saw a return of post-up opportunities for Vučević with his back to the basket. His length and efficiency in the midrange allow him to create diverse shots — backing down smaller defenders off a switch, swiveling to drop a fadeaway over a larger center, drawing a double team to dish off to a teammate.
“Obviously my main strength is playing close to the basket, back to the basket,” Vučević said. “That’s where I’m at my best, but I can also play from the elbows and different areas where I can be effective, where my playmaking can come in.”
Improving his long-range shooting is another key focus for Vučević this season, but that doesn’t mean Bulls fans should expect the big man to spend more time outside the arc. Vučević shot only 31.4% on 3-pointers last season, a dramatic drop from his 40.6% shooting in his last season in Orlando before the trade.
But Vučević didn’t try to change his shot during the offseason. Instead he feels confident that his efficiency will return this season — not by adjusting his shooting technique but by varying the ways he approaches the basket.
The Bulls are highlighting a faster-paced offensive approach this season that emphasizes more versatility at every position, which coach Billy Donovan hopes will open up all three of the team’s All-Stars. This offense won’t place Vučević in the corner as often, instead creating his 3-point opportunities through off-ball screens and pick-and-pop combinations in two-man setups with LaVine and Ayo Dosunmu.
“It’s not that I don’t want to shoot it. I’ll shoot it if I’m open,” Vučević said. “It’s more just me not hanging around, just waiting around there. It’s not just me standing in the corner.”
Vučević hopes this season will be something of a redemption after the frustration of 2021-22.
It wasn’t only that his shot wasn’t falling — Vučević couldn’t find his role in the Bulls offense, an issue exacerbated by the constant rotation of guards due to injuries and COVID-19 absences. He said he feels more certain this season of how he’s expected to contribute.
“Sometimes it takes time and you want something to happen right away, but you know you just have to work it and work it,” Vučević said. “It helps that I’ve been playing with most of these guys for a year now. We know each other. We have familiarity.
“So that helps us even though it’s a new offense. We’ve figured it out pretty fast, so I’m just staying patient.”