Vucevic remains a key variable for Bulls

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) shoots as Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Oklahoma City.

    Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) shoots as Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Oklahoma City. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 1/25/2022 8:10 PM

A trend is starting to develop with the Bulls. That is, besides players going down with injuries.

With the Bulls playing short-handed, center Nikola Vucevic has become even more important to the team's success. That was certainly evident over the last few days when Vucevic was awful in a loss to Orlando and excellent in the win at Oklahoma City.

 

This warning was issued here a few weeks ago: There will be nights when it seems like the Bulls would be better off with Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner, the players traded for Vucevic last year. Sunday was one of those days.

But dealing for Vucevic was also the first signal the Bulls were trying to become a serious team again. Vucevic's history with DeMar DeRozan helped convince the high-scoring wing to take a chance in Chicago. Perhaps there will be days during the postseason when the Bulls are very happy with the Vucevic trade.

Vucevic has gone from a No. 1 option in Orlando to a No. 3 option with the Bulls. So it was bound to be an adjustment, and the Montenegro native has said all the right things about focusing on team success.

So let's break down his performance this season. Vucevic is averaging 16.5 points and 11.3 rebounds this season, so let's call 25 points plus rebounds and 45% shooting a good performance for the 31-year-old center.

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Vucevic has hit those levels 16 times, and the Bulls are 13-3 in those games. The Bulls are 12-11 in the 23 games when Vucevic missed those numbers, but they've lost the last five.

When the Bulls host Toronto on Wednesday, they're expecting to have Vucevic, DeRozan and Zach LaVine together for the first time since Jan. 14 against Golden State.

The numbers just confirm what already seemed obvious: Strong performances from Vucevic are what can turn the Bulls into an elite-caliber team.

How to get more consistent shooting from their big man remains a puzzle. One bright spot: Vucevic has hit at least 2 3-pointers in four straight games, which matches his longest run this season.

New look for Rising Stars:

The NBA announced some interesting changes to the Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend. The new plan is to have four teams of seven players each and play a tournament with all games having a target score (50 in the semis, 25 in the title game).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That in itself sounds like an improvement, since it might add some competitiveness to an event that has been a waste of time. The league's assistant coaches will choose 12 rookies and 12 sophomores, along with 4 players from the G-League Ignite team.

Not sure why G-League players need to be involved, but this setup gives Bulls rookie Ayo Dosunmu a chance to get an invite. Keep in mind, though, this is a strong rookie class.

Five players appear to be solid rookie of the year candidates -- Detroit's Cade Cunningham, Cleveland's Evan Mobley, Toronto's Scottie Barnes, Orlando's Franz Wagner and OKC's Josh Giddey. There are other strong rookies like Indiana's Chris Duarte, Houston's Jalen Green and Orlando's Jalen Suggs. New Orleans' Herbert Jones and Sacramento's Davion Mitchell are playing big roles; toss in Houston's Alperen Sengun, Denver's Bones Hyland, OKC's Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Miami's Omer Yurtseven and there's plenty of competition, especially since Dosunmu didn't play a lot early.

Busy days ahead:

The coming week, with games every other day, might feel like a vacation for the Bulls compared to what follows. Starting with the rescheduled game at Toronto next Thursday, they'll have seven games in 10 days, and that doesn't even get them to the all-star break.

DeMar DeRozan got a night of rest Monday. Be prepared for Billy Donovan to pass out multiple nights off to DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic during this stretch.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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