The Chicago Bulls Know They Can Rely on Center Nikola Vucevic After the Way He Responded to Adversity

ORLANDO, Fla. — Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic is about as mild-mannered a player as there is in the NBA. Heck, in his spare time, the soft-spoken 7-footer collects Star Wars memorabilia, and builds Battleship Enterprise replicas from Lego blocks.

So, when Vucevic recently came to the bench and angrily punched a chair, you knew he was steaming. Vucevic hated how he performed in Orlando — the city where he played previously — and vowed to be better going forward.

As it turns out, Vucevic’s reaction to that poor performance said plenty about his character, toughness, and unbreakable will. Maybe for the first time since the Bulls acquired him in a 2021 trade, they got to see the Montenegrin big man’s intense pride, determination, and potential as a dominant force.

Back in Orlando, Bulls center Nikola Vucevic wanted to play well in front of Magic fans 

Chicago Bulls standout center Nikola Vucevic blocks a shot by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during a game at United Center on January 14, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Nikola Vucevic was Orlando’s only NBA All-Star from 2012-21, and the versatile big man received that designation twice. However, many of his historic performances — such as when he grabbed a franchise-record 29 rebounds — came in losses. Ultimately, the lack of team success led to many of his accomplishments being overlooked.

Vucevic did help the Magic end a seven-year playoff drought during the 2018-19 season. He considered that year the best of his life as his first child was born, he made the NBA All-Star Game, and he guided the Magic to the playoffs.

Two playoff berths resulted in just two Magic postseason victories, and the franchise decided to rebuild last spring. The first move was trading Vucevic to Chicago for Wendell Carter Jr. and the draft pick that became Franz Wagner.

Vucevic recently blamed himself for letting down the injury-ravaged Bulls in a loss

In November, Nikola Vucevic and the Bulls throttled the rebuilding Magic by 35 points in his first trip back to Orlando. However, this past week’s return trip was dramatically different, especially with the Bulls without Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Derrick Jones Jr. because of injuries. Vucevic spoke up on behalf of Caruso, the victim of a ‘dirty play,’ who fractured his right wrist because of a Flagrant 2 foul by Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen. 

The Chicago center uncharacteristically had one of his poorest games recently while playing before a mostly pro-Bulls crowd and a few Magic fans that cheered Vucevic on previously. He made just four of 19 shots and was whistled for offensive fouls on two straight possessions. He finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, but those numbers masked his lackluster energy and poor execution before mercifully fouling out late in the loss.

Afterward, Vucevic was particularly hard on himself for not playing better on a night when the Bulls desperately needed his leadership and usually stellar play.

“Shooting is part of the game, but I was more disappointed in my focus,” Vucevic said following Chicago’s 114-95 loss to the nine-win Magic. “With my defense, some of the things that I’ve been pretty good at doing, I didn’t do. Not going for pump fakes, getting back, and being in the right position on pick-and-rolls, I didn’t do. Those are things that I can control, and they are different than shooting. There are so many ways for me to impact the game, and I didn’t bring the energy and focus needed for us to win the game.”

After all but flogging himself for the performance, Vucevic vowed solemnly: “I will be better going forward.”

In adversity, Vucevic responded and showed the Chicago Bulls a lot about his resiliency

True to his words, Vucevic was significantly better going forward. After his poor play in Orlando, Vucevic battered Oklahoma City for 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four made 3-pointers, and three blocked shots. After Vucevic carried them throughout, the Bulls rallied to win late in the night.

On Wednesday, Vucevic was at his do-it-all best when he had 17 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists. The 111-105 victory over the Toronto Raptors wasn’t secure until Vucevic buried a 3-pointer with 14.5 seconds remaining off a feed from teammate DeMar DeRozan.

Adversity doesn’t build character; it often reveals it. Vucevic displayed plenty of character following his poor performance in Orlando, and the Bulls had to be proud to see it. Vucevic is a prideful player, and after feeling the sting of letting his injury-ravaged team down, he vowed a response. 

“Doing the things you’re supposed to do is a big part of being a leader,” said Vucevic, who has 25 double-doubles. “Being consistent with those things is important. For the most part, I’ve been doing those things — even at times when I wasn’t shooting the ball necessarily well.”

Chicago has many bigger tests ahead, especially when it figures to end its four-year playoff drought in the spring. The Bulls will need to ride the greatness of Zach LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic for a deep playoff run. 

Chicago knows while Vucevic is mild-mannered, he also is a player whose passion burns hot and his pride runs deep. And when Vucevic says he’ll be better going forward, he means it and backs it up with some substance. That’s real and substantive leadership, and the Bulls know they can count on Vucevic to lead them in good times and bad. Senior NBA Writer John Denton obtained all quotes in this article firsthand.

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