Nikola Vucevic’s Breakout Performance Should Terrify the Rest of the Eastern Conference

The Chicago Bulls made quite the statement through the first quarter of the season. With DeMar DeRozan playing at a high level and Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso complementing Zach LaVine in the backcourt, Chicago’s small-ball lineups helped them rise to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Yet the early-season success still brought about questions, namely the play of Nikola Vucevic.

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan’s tendency to play smaller made sense given Vucevic’s stretch-5 prototype. But Vucevic hardly resembled the All-Star of old through his first handful of games, and opponents exposed the Bulls for their lack of size.

However, the former Orlando Magic star had a monster performance on Monday that shows the full extent of Chicago’s upside. It also makes the Bulls look that much scarier for the rest of the NBA going forward.

Nikola Vucevic struggled to live up to the All-Star billing for the Bulls early

When the Bulls acquired Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic prior to last season’s deadline, they envisioned him being a true second star alongside Zach LaVine. After all, they gave up two first-round picks for the veteran big man.

While Vooch played well in 26 games to conclude the 2020-21 campaign, he looked like a shell of himself early in the new season. Through his first 14 games, he averaged around 13.4 points on an underwhelming 40% shooting from the field. That included a woeful 26.3% from beyond the arc.

Additionally, opposing teams typically tried to get Vucevic in pick-and-roll and attack him on switches. He had the good fortune of usually playing with Chicago’s best defensive lineups, but still got exposed in ball-screen situations.

Then there’s the health component. Vucevic tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in November, which set him back even further. The Bulls kept the ball rolling in his absence, but Tony Bradley’s ineptitude on the offensive end showed just important a healthy and good Vooch is to Chicago.

Indeed, the 31-year-old’s breakout performance Monday against the Charlotte Hornets highlighted a marquee team win.

Vucevic dominated the Hornets in a telling performance

Vucevic more closely resembled the guy the Bulls thought they were getting from the Magic this past February during Monday’s rout of the Charlotte Hornets.

The two-time All-Star poured in a season-high 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting from the field, including a perfect 6-of-6 from beyond the arc. He showed less hesitancy in shooting from distance and ducked into the painted area for short midrange twos.

Vucevic also made the right basketball play. He spotted cutters when the Hornets sent help in the post. He hit Caruso multiple times slashing through the middle of the lane for easy layups. Vucevic finished with five assists and chipped in 14 rebounds to go along with the scoring total.

But the defensive adjustments may have been more impressive. The Hornets attacked him in pick-and-roll early and created confusion with switches. However, the Swiss native showed better positioning on hedges as the game rolled along. He constantly contested shots at or around the rim, making his defensive presence felt.

Vucevic finished the contest a game-high +31 in terms of plus-minus, which showcases his two-way impact. His breakout performance makes the Bulls look even more like a truly imposing threat in the East.

The Bulls are a legitimate contender with an involved and efficient Vucevic

Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic defends Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges
Miles Bridges #0 of the Charlotte Hornets is tied up by Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Chicago Bulls at United Center on November 29, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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When he’s scoring the ball and shooting it from deep, Nikola Vucevic has a tangible impact on his teammates.

The Bulls scored a season-high 133 points against the Hornets. They shot nearly 60% from the field and 46.7% from beyond the arc, tallying a whopping 35 assists. Is it any coincidence these numbers came in Vucevic’s biggest game of the season?

Vooch’s perimeter shooting forces opponents to make tough decisions when he screens for DeRozan or Zach LaVine, a duo that has already made franchise history with their scoring exploits. He can score or find the open man out of the post. The playmaking, especially with a transition-heavy guy like Lonzo Ball, really helps Chicago in the half court and makes everyone on the floor more dangerous.

The Bulls need to find ways to keep Vucevic even more involved. Donovan said that includes more post touches.

“Because we’ve tried to play fast and run more, a lot of times he’s trailing into plays,” Donovan said, via NBC Sports Chicago. “If there’s one area where he hasn’t had as much as last year, it’s post-ups. They’re way down. And I have to find ways to generate more of those for him because he’s a good offensive player.”

Establishing Vucevic on the block could be a boon to Chicago’s offense. It wouldn’t preclude others from touching the ball either, since Vooch finds cutters and can kick when the help defense arrives. That makes the Bulls more well-rounded on the whole.

Chicago already looked like an intriguing playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. But Vucevic’s breakout game and the effect it had on the Bulls’ scoring efficiency and variety shows the team’s ceiling as a real threat in the East.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.