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Hard work pays off for Bulls big man Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic promised a commitment to hard work after his rock-bottom performance against the Heat this month, but some advice from coach Billy Donovan went a long way in his turnaround, too.

“Talent is part of it, but I worked my way to the level that I am, and now that I’m going through a tough time the only way I know is to work myself out of it,” the Bulls Nikola Vucevic said.
“Talent is part of it, but I worked my way to the level that I am, and now that I’m going through a tough time the only way I know is to work myself out of it,” the Bulls Nikola Vucevic said.
Paul Beaty/AP

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic was a man of his word.

After hitting rock bottom in a 3-for-15 shooting effort this month against the Heat in Miami, a frustrated Vucevic sat at the interview table and promised to work even harder on his game.

That’s not to say he wasn’t working hard up to that point; that just always has been his mindset. That’s all Vucevic knows.

‘‘I got here by working my way up to it,’’ Vucevic said that night. ‘‘Talent is part of it, but I worked my way to the level that I am. And now that I’m going through a tough time, the only way I know is to work myself out of it.’’

In his four games since that dismal performance in the Bulls’ blowout loss to the Heat, Vucevic has shot 50% from the field (32-for-64), including 44% from three-point range, and averaged 19.3 points and 12.8 rebounds. He also has 15 assists and nine blocks during that span.

Yes, getting in extra work while the Bulls were battling COVID-19 and game postponements was huge, but give an assist to coach Billy Donovan, too.

Vucevic sure did.

‘‘I took advantage of the time that we didn’t have games to put the work in, extra work on my game all around,’’ Vucevic said of his turnaround. ‘‘I also took time to look at a lot of game tape, see things that I was doing well and if there were things I could improve on.

‘‘One thing when I spoke to Billy that has stuck out and helped me is he knew I was frustrated with shooting the ball. Obviously, as a player, you want to shoot the ball well, but his main thing was I shouldn’t let that affect the rest of my game.’’

That was apparent in the loss to the Heat. Not only did Vucevic carry his offensive frustrations to the defensive end, but he seemed uninterested in rebounding that night.

‘‘When I looked at that [Heat] game, I really felt that was the biggest thing,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘Obviously, I didn’t shoot the ball well, but I wasn’t doing whatever else I had to do as a player on the court. I let that affect the rest of my game, and I’m too good of a player to do that. I’ve been in this league too long to let a bad shooting night . . . affect my whole game in general.

‘‘I think I was able to regroup and come back and focus on playing well, doing the things that I could control and letting the rest follow through.’’

In the first half of the Bulls’ victory Monday against the Hawks in Atlanta, Vucevic had five points on 2-for-6 shooting but also had six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Then with the Hawks making a run, Vucevic scored 13 points, made three three-pointers and grabbed five rebounds in the fourth quarter to help the Bulls hold on.

‘‘I didn’t get going much until the second half, but I was able to do other things that kept me in the game, kept me in a rhythm,’’ Vucevic said.

His teammates weren’t the least bit surprised.

‘‘I know how hard [Vucevic] works,’’ forward DeMar DeRozan said. ‘‘I would never let a period of time of him struggling depict who he is as a player. He’s a dominant force at his position, one of the most skilled big men inside and out that we have in this league. His career speaks for it. It was only a matter of time.’’