When Should We Start Worrying About Nikola Vucevic?

Getty Nikola Vucevic

Last night, the Chicago Bulls and their starting center Nikola Vucevic went up against the Orlando Magic, the team from whom they acquired him last season. After eight and a half seasons with the Magic, this was Vucevic’s first return to Orlando since the trade, perhaps adding extra individual motivation, which ideally would mean extra individual performance.

In addition to that, Vucevic’s importance to his team is only enhanced by their current shortcomings. Absent each of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, Derrick Jones Jr and Patrick Williams, the Bulls are missing three starters and five of their top nine scorers – the onus therefore falls onto veteran All-Stars Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan to pick up the slack. Relying on Tyler Cook and Malcolm Hill types will not cut it.

DeRozan did this with an excellent performance, scoring 41 points on 21 shots to continue his excellent renaissance season, but Vucevic certainly did not. Instead, his performance was a damp squib. In a disappointing 115-94 loss to a Magic team that ranks bottom of the Eastern Conference with a lowly 9-39 record, Vucevic scored 13 points, but took 19 shots to do it.

Scoring Inefficiencies Continue to Pose Problems

In fairness, Vucevic did also collect 13 rebounds and pass for 3 assists in the Magic loss. Those are not nothing. But those areas of the game have never been the problem. What has proven highly problematic all season is his apparent decline offensively, as evidenced once more not just in the 4-19 shooting, but also in the five turnovers he posted.

Inefficient offensive play has been an issue for Vucevic in the entire first half. For the season, he is shooting 43.8% from the field and only a .503 true shooting percentage, marks both far below the league averages for his position, let alone above them.

Being a finesse-based seven-footer has never made Vooch the most efficient of scorers, as evidenced by his career .538 true shooting percentage, itself significantly below average for one of his size. A seven-footer who takes so many outside jumpers from both mid- and long-ranges, who rarely gets to the free throw line and who has not the burst to finish much above the rim, is always going to struggle here no matter their skill level. But he was at least reliable down low and in the pick-and-pop/roll game.

Now, though, the reliability has gone. Despite having almost exactly the same shot profile this season as he did last year, Vucevic’s touch from all areas has seemingly left him. He is missing layups and jumpers with regularity, and he is struggling in every major area.

Per Synergy Sports, Vucevic ranks in the 18th percentile in the pick-and-roll, 18th in post-up possessions, 27th percentile in spot-up plays and 29th percentile on the cut. Combined, those four areas make up nearly 80% of his total usage.

Hook shots, jumpers, floaters and lay-ups are all clanking off the rim with an unerring regularity. Put more concisely, there is no one area of the scoring game that he is performing adequately in right now.

The Defensive End is Not Any Better

This would be of less importance were Vucevic changing the game at the other end. But if he is, it is not in a good way either.

Never the fleetest of foot to get out to the perimeter, nor the most athletic to add rim protection in the back line, Vucevic’s defense relies upon working hard to make up for the lack of lateral speed and contesting at the rim wherever he can. Beyond that, his role is to clear the defensive rebounding glass at a high rate, that way at least winning possessions if not disrupting them.

The latter of these, he is doing. But the former is proving spotty, and perimeter-based bigs such as Orlando’s Wagner brothers are having their way with him all too often.

More than anything, Vucevic’s defense relies upon his offense. He needs to be a productive, reliable and versatile hub who can score in the flow of the offense, make incisive passes and also have plays called for him. But this is not who he has been, and although there has been a slight improvement since the lowly 38.9% he shot from the field in November, there has also been a plateauing since then.

It has not come back to him, and, age 31 now, there is no guarantee that it will. He looks the same, but indisputably, the results do not.

While the Bulls are still the fifth most likely to win the Eastern Conference, according to FanDuel, they are faltering and have been for some time. They have lost six of their last eight games, sometimes by massive margins, and have fallen to the provisional third seed. At a time that they are so short-handed, they need the talents they have to contribute more, not less. Vucevic now needs to step up.

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