Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic tackles Joel Embiid in an aggressive performance

Nikola Vucevic has always been and always will be a first place player in the team.

But after a season of casualties as a third option last season, there’s a bit more bravado for the skilled center this season.

That subtle difference began on the eve of training camp, when Vucevic made it clear that he would like to spend less time on the perimeter and more time in the center of the Chicago Bulls’ philosophy of getting the ball into the paint.

It continues through seven games in which, in part because Zach LaVine is on a knee management plan, Vucevic’s 95 field goal attempts rank second only to DeMar DeRozan.

“I know how good I am. I know what I bring to the table. I’m a two-time All-Star, so I didn’t get to where I am by accident. I know the work I put in, the time I put in,” Vucevic said. “Sometimes it’s different for me that I’m still playing as a third option. Before, when I was the primary option, even if the ball didn’t go in right away, you knew I was going to get my shots. Last year I pushed it a little bit. This year I can just settle my role more.”

That’s because the Bulls are looking to spread the wealth offensively, given how the stretch bogged down last season when injuries hit and the offense stagnated in constant isolations on DeRozan and LaVine.

It’s a growth process, of course. Vucevic and LaVine acknowledged as much after the Bulls’ 114-109 loss to the 76ers, which featured LaVine missing a decent 20-footer with the game tied and 37.8 seconds left.

The only problem was that Vucevic was wide open to LaVine on the right in the corner with no defender near him.

“I don’t think he saw me. Solid shot from him. It just didn’t go in. I didn’t want to yell or anything because he was going into the shot and I didn’t want to bother him,” Vucevic said. “It happened quickly. I know he didn’t miss me on purpose. He was focused on trying to make a play. I thought it was still a pretty good shot. It just didn’t work out for us.”

Vucevic also made his first five 3-pointers.

“After looking at it, I had to throw it at Vooch. It is wide open. That was a bad read on my part,” LaVine said. “I’m more confident than anybody that I can make that shot. Just if you’re going to take it, do it. If not, I need to find Vooch. I wish I could do it again.

Coach Billy Donovan said he was not in a good position to see if LaVine should have passed, though both Vucevic and LaVine agreed that LaVine had a good look at the attempt.

Regardless, the fact that Vucevic shot 5-for-7 from 3-point range when he came in to shoot just 26.9 percent from that distance is remarkable. Even if it’s clear, the Bulls don’t want him to work only on the perimeter.

“I looked good. I was able to take my time and knock them down,” Vucevic said. “I feel like the ones I missed, looking back, I feel like I rushed them a little bit. I have plenty of time and space to get them. So I want to make sure I photograph them correctly. They came in and I feel like that helped us get back into the game. I will continue to photograph them. I work on them every day.”

Vucevic finished with 23 points, 19 rebounds and three assists. He became the first player in franchise history to hit five triples with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds.

That performance came on a night the Bulls played without the injured Andre Drummond, who Donovan used to shut down Vucevic in Friday’s loss at San Antonio. And it came against Joel Embiid, who himself had a 25-point, seven-rebound, four-assist night.

Vucevic recorded 36 minutes.

“I’d like to be on the court as much as I can,” Vucevic said. “Obviously we miss ‘Dre. He is a big part of what we do. But I’ve played Embiid a lot over the years. We had some good fights when I was in Orlando. It’s always fun to play against him, one of the best players in the NBA. I enjoy the competition.”

Even in defeat, it showed on Saturday.

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