DeMar DeRozan and Zach Lavine often smother the highlight reel and box scores, but one Chicago Bull is better than each in the new year. On the season, DeRozan quickly takes the Bulls’ M.V.P. title thus far, but since the calendar has flipped to 2023, a new name has surfaced as being the focal point for Chicago. As a surprise to most, Nikola Vucevic has been the most outstanding and essential player on the Bulls this year. He admittedly took a while to become comfortable in the Windy City. Still, it would seem he’s finally arrived and playing at the all-star level that the Bulls anticipated from him when acquiring him a few seasons ago, right on time for his contract’s expiration date this summer.
“Big Game Vuc”
After dropping the most points in his Bulls’ tenure and tying his career-best with 43 on 18-for-31 from the field last Sunday against the Warriors, teammates and fans coined the term “Big Game Vuc” for the 11-year veteran center. While that performance put the nation on notice, Bulls fans know he’s been playing his best basketball for over a month now. Since the abysmal team performance in Minnesota, Vucevic has seemingly taken it upon himself to raise his play and lead by example.
In November, the first full month of the 2022-23′ campaign, Vucevic averaged a measly 14 points, three assists, and ten rebounds per contest. He also shot only 50% from the field, 33% from deep, and only made 1.4 three-point shots per game, and in the entire month had only eight double-doubles.
Fast forward to January, where the 6’10’ two-time all-star is averaging nearly 22 points, over four assists, and north of 13 rebounds per game. He’s also done a complete turnaround in his efficiency, shooting over 60% from the field and nearly 46% from three-point territory while making 2.1 shots from beyond the arc per game. As for double-doubles, he’s recorded a season-high ten straight, including every game in 2023, and is now fifth in the entire N.B.A. in that category. The turnaround has come as no surprise to head coach Billy Donovan, saying that he’s known what Vucevic is capable of since his arrival.
“Last year was an adjustment period, going through what he went through he had a good understanding of our goals this year,”…”We have to try to establish him as much as we can, he’s a really good facilitator and doesn’t force shots.”Head Coach Billy Donovan via @DarnellMayberry on Twitter
As Vucevic Goes, The Bulls Go
Whether it was triggered by the ’embarrassing effort’ against the Timberwolves, an improvement in ball movement as a team, or the looming free-agency this off-season, Nikola Vucevic turning a page has brought winning back to the Windy City. Before losing DeRozan to injury and dropping three-straight amidst his absence, Chicago had won eight of their last eleven and back-to-back after that skid. Focusing through him offensively has been a difference maker; he’s now fourth on the team in assists per game on the year and a close second to Lavine in the past month. His fourth-quarter shooting is another priceless improvement for Chicago; his clutch shooting is now among the best on the team.
Vucevic now stands top-four in the N.B.A. in three-point percentage and makes per game among centers and is top six in the league in rebounding. He’s confidently returned as one of the game’s best stretch big men, a title he held in Orlando for several years but had yet to prove for the Bulls. With his key outside shooting, facilitating from the paint, rebounding tenacity, and aggressive scoring Vucevic has been the most crucial Bull since the holiday season. Hopefully, he will carry that into the second half of the season.
Chicago’s ‘Big Three’ are finally all bursting on the scene simultaneously, learning cohesion to each other’s games and becoming a dangerous threat in the Eastern Conference. With their impressive record against the top seeds in the conference, recently boasting their first win where DeRozan, Lavine, and Vucevic all score 20 or more points, and the drastic improvements from Lavine and Vucevic in the past month, the Bulls have become a force to be reckoned with. If he continues this pace of play, does he deserve an extension this offseason, or should Chicago let him walk?