In Defense of Nikola Vucevic

Bulls Twitter has been ravaging Nikola Vucevic. Much of this is for good reason; he has struggled mightily to start the season. He came into Saturday’s game against the Sixers with his worst shooting percentages from inside of five feet, five to nine feet, 15-19 feet, and 25-29 feet in the past 6 seasons. The only place he has been remotely effective is in the midrange from 10-14 where he was shooting a tidy 52.4% per NBA Stats. Going a little deeper, he has been the fifth-worst roll man in the NBA among qualified players and tied for worst in the league with Kristaps Porzingis when he posts up. Surprisingly, he has shot 44% when spotting up, which is above average despite all the misses. Given all this, is it time to blow it up and bench Vooch? Not so fast, my friend.

The Case for Optimism

The first reason for optimism is that Vooch is going to have positive regression towards the mean. Vooch has never been an elite post player so while it may not be advisable for coach Donovan to heed Stacey King’s advice and feed him down low, he can punish mismatches and pass out of a double team. His assist numbers (4.5/game) are a career high and he has been a big part of the Bulls' stretches of good ball movement.

The biggest area of improvement for Vooch may be as the roll man in the pick and roll. He has soft hands and great touch around the basket and in the midrange. He can pass out of a short roll and spray out to shooters. This year he has shot a miserable 34% on these plays. Some of these struggles come from the lack of shooting around him. The nominal small forward and forwards on the roster are not great shooters so it is easy for teams to pinch and help on his rolls.

Vooch’s shooting inside of 10 feet has been atrocious as mentioned above. He has been a solid finisher around the rim throughout his career, regularly shooting over 60 percent. He can finish over either shoulder and has great touch. Despite fears that he is washed, there is little reason to believe he should decline with age given that he has relied on touch and consistently played below the rim throughout his career.

The biggest change for Vooch this season has been his role. He is playing outside more than any time in his recent career. He is often spotting up for open triples and has had more shots from beyond 24 feet in the past two season than in any time in his career. There is some legitimate concern that the 37.9% he shot from that distance two seasons ago could be a fluke. Given his career numbers from inside of 24 feet, though, some of his shooting is bad luck. He might not shoot near 40% from three but his current numbers are bound to go up, especially with the openness of his looks.

What to Do

Despite the optimism, Vooch’s issues cannot all be attributed to bad luck. He is defending harder than he ever has, he isn’t getting touches in his favorite spots, and this isn’t Orlando where many teams expected easy wins. Vooch has to make some adjustments and so does the coaching staff.

The first and most obvious thing to do is to change the rotation. Currently, Donovan pulls Vooch early and usually reinserts him with the starters, especially Zach LaVine. In this setup, Vooch often plays a more talented and defensive-oriented center and finds most of his looks on spot-ups. This is helping LaVine’s numbers since Vooch provides theoretical spacing but it clearly has done Vooch a disservice. In addition, LaVine is not a good PNR operator. He deserves credit for learning the basic reads but his playmaking is still the biggest weakness in his offensive game, which has only become clearer as DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball have taken the reins. Switching the rotations so Vooch comes out early would let Vooch be the offensive hub when matched up against backup centers. It would also reduce the defensive workload for him and let Tony Bradley play more alongside DeRozan and cover some of DeRozan's shortcomings on that end.

The knock-on effect of separating DeRozan and Vooch is that it could open up the ability to play Vooch with more traditional playmakers and spacing around them. Vooch needs more consistent touches closer to the basket and more willing passers like Ball, Caruso, and White can let help find his rhythm on the pick and roll or when he has deep post position.

The last point worth noting here is that Vooch’s impact on other players has been understated. Many of his individual numbers have not looked great but the spacing he provides over someone like Wendell Carter, Daniel Gafford, or Tony Bradley, to name a few recent Bulls big men, is dramatic. See all of those open looks for DeRozan in the midrange? See those open threes for LaVine off of the PNR? Many of those are because Vooch screens the guard out of the play and the big man has to account for two shooting threats.


I expect Vooch’s numbers to come back up but he is going to be shooting more jumpers this season so don't be surprised if his efficiency goes down. The last three big men to play with LeBron James all had their volume and efficiency drop. Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis had to adapt to a role where they provide spacing more than being the primary option. That can be the price of success. All three of those teams won championships. This team isn't there yet but contenders need someone to sacrifice and based on the early returns, Vooch will be the one sacrificing a lot of his numbers.

However, Vooch's defensive impact continues to be underrated and he should hit a respectable percentage of his three pointers (let's say 31-38%) by the end of the season. Once Donovan finds him some time against backup bigs, he can help prop up those units offensively and get himself going without taking the ball out of LaVine and Derozan’s hands too much. Beyond that, the Bulls need to find him early in the game and on duck-ins so he can get going early. Many shooting bigs need to see the ball go through the basket to establish their confidence. Finding him easy looks to start games or once he checks back in against a backup center will be huge.

Until then, give Vooch a break. He's out there busting his buns every night on defense and has been forcing turnovers at a career-best rate. On offense, his contributions as an off-ball shooter at the center spot are driving a ton of the good stuff the Bulls have been doing and once his shot starts falling, the Bulls’ offense could start to look like the dominant unit many expected.

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