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Has Nikola Vucevic rediscovered his shooting touch this season?

Timmy Samuelsson Avatar
January 16, 2023

Nikola Vucevic is having the most efficient scoring season of his career and no one is talking about it.

I’m not blaming you for overlooking niche individual player statistics.

There have far bigger issues to ponder, given the state of the franchise, its maddening trend of losing games to sub .500 opponents, and the looming questions surrounding the team’s construct beyond the trade deadline.

And whilst these holistic issues remain, for a moment, at least, can we ignorantly pretend that everything is fine?

That’s the mood right now, one which has set in after watching the Bulls dismantle the Golden State Warriors in an impressive 132-118 win on Sunday afternoon.

In arguably the best game of his career, Vucevic dominated the reigning champions, scoring 43 points on 18-of-31 shooting.

Matching up against an undersized opponent, Vucevic feasted inside, finishing 11 of his 15 attempts in the paint.

Nikola Vučević shot chart versus the Golden State Warriors

This level of efficiency around the rim is music to the ears of proponents who have longed for Vucevic to ply his trade closer to the basket. Such a strategy made sense against Kevon Looney and Draymond Green, who, on their best day, stand 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-6, respectively.

Vucevic should pummel these puny frontcourts. On this occasion, he did.

Despite owning the Warriors at the basket, this is the part where I alert all the old heads that the majority of Vucevic’s shot attempts were catch-and-shoot jumpers from mid-range and 3-point shooting zones. And though he wasn’t on fire from the elbows, he was from three, making 5-of-10 of his attempts.

The ability to shoot with precision from distance is what makes Vucevic such a tantalizing offensive weapon. Sure, an occasional post-up is fine. Hell, despite my general aversion to back-to-the-basket play, even I can get behind the idea of an increasing volume of post touches against favorable matchups.

Even so, Vooch needs to shoot jumpers. A lot of them.

And he has.

As a percentage of his total field goal attempts, Vucevic is shooting more threes this season than ever before. And though more 3-point attempts is nice, ultimately, made shots is all that matters.

Fortunately, Vucevic has done that, too.

Despite only connecting on 31.4 percent of his threes last season, Vucevic has lifted his conversion rate to 38.3 percent this season.

Perhaps we should’ve seen this bounceback coming.

Since Vucevic added distance shooting to his shot profile, his 3-point percentage has been wildly inconsistent compared to league-average figures. Weirdly, an unwritten rule formed, one which indicated a good shooting season was only possible if it was followed by a poor one. Fortunately, this is happens to be a good year.

In addition to rediscovering his touch from distance, Vucevic is setting a career-high in 3-point attempt rate (a ratio of shooting attempts from three over total field goal attempts).

Few centers are capable of shooting with both volume and efficiency. In fact, only 12 bigs are currently shooting above league-average from three (35.7 percent) while having a 3-point rate north of 30 percent. Of these players, Vucevic ranks fifth in 3-point percentage.

Figures courtesy of Basketball Reference

Vucevic has been a marksman from three. However, this only tells part of the story.

In addition to his improved 3-point shooting, Vucevic has set career highs in field goal percentage in short and long mid-range shooting zones.

Figures courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

As result, it should come as no surprise that his true-shooting percentage is also on track to be a career highpoint.

The most encouraging aspect of Vucevic’s hot shooting season? His shot profile has largely remained as its always been — a steady mix of shots at the rim, from three, and everything in between.

Figures courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

This post contains a lot of numbers and tables, but the message should be clear: Vucevic is having the best, most-rounded shooting season of his 12-year career. The question now is, can this level of output sustain for the remainder of the season?

It’s a fair question to ask.

A 44-game sample isn’t small. It’s also not an entire season’s worth of work. Nonetheless, let’s be optimistic and assume Vucevic continues to hit threes at the same rate. Similarly, his finishing at-rim is in line with career numbers. This will likely hold, too.

The lone boost in efficiency which seems unsustainable is his finishing from mid-range. Vucevic has historically been a solid shooter on elbow-level jumpers. Still, he has never been this good — his mid-range finishing currently ranks in the 89th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. It would be prudent to account for some regression. Should this occur, Vucevic can continuing being an efficient scoring hub so long as his rim and 3-point finishing remain as is.

Whilst it’s reasonable to assume Vucevic can maintain his current scoring efficiency for the remainder of the season, should we be confident this continues thereafter?

As noted above, Vucevic’s effectiveness from three is a season-to-season proposition. Though his percentages currently sit above league-average rates, will it remains so next season? Is there any reason to believe the trend of alternating between good and bad shooting seasons will differ moving forward? If not, history suggests a regression is probable.

Given how potent the Bulls’ offense can be when Vucevic is a reliable shooting threat, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas has to question if his current form can be replicated. Conversely, he must also be wondering if this is merely a well-timed outlier.

After all, Vucevic is auditioning for a new contract.

It’s a relative point to consider. Vucevic is in the final season of a 4-year, $100 million contract. Vucevic, his representatives, and the Bulls can agree to a new deal, though have only until Jun. 30 to do so.

Should that not occur, the two-time All-Star will enter the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Vucevic testing the market appears to be the most likely outcome, according to Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic. The Bulls also seem poised to remain “relatively quiet” at the trade deadline.

Based on this reporting, the Bulls will not trade Vucevic at deadline and, instead, allow him to become a free agent. Both parties can reconvene and come to terms on a new deal in the offseason. But will they? More importantly, should they?

As good as Vucevic has been this season, he will be 33 in October. The Bulls are currently four games under .500 and languishing on the precipice of the play-in.

At the crossroads of contention and rebuilding, should the franchise seriously consider offering a new, lucrative contract to an aging center? Will Vucevic seriously consider playing out his remaining peak years on a team that has little scope for postseason success?

All valid questions, some of which will be dictated by current and future production. We’ll know the answer soon enough.

In the mean time, though, let’s appreciate what the big man is doing on the court.

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