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Down five players, Bulls need center Nikola Vucevic to step up

Derrick Jones Jr. became the fifth Bull to be put in the league’s health and safety protocols in the last week, and Alex Caruso is dealing with a bad hamstring. The last thing the team needs is Vucevic going through a shooting rut, but the big man has history on his side.

With five players in the NBA’s coronavirus protocols, the Bulls need more from Nikola Vucevic.
With five players in the NBA’s coronavirus protocols, the Bulls need more from Nikola Vucevic.
Tony Dejak/AP

CLEVELAND — The Bulls need Nikola Vucevic more than ever right now.

The team confirmed Thursday that Derrick Jones Jr. was the fifth Bull to enter the NBA’s health and safety protocols in the last week, joining Coby White, Javonte Green, DeMar DeRozan and Matt Thomas.

White and Green were confirmed as having contracted the coronavirus; the other three are only listed as being in the protocols because of the league’s privacy rules.

And guard Alex Caruso still is sidelined with a hamstring injury that has cost him the last few games.

The roster isn’t short-handed; it’s decimated.

So the Bulls really can’t afford to have their All-Star center missing shots he previously could make while falling out of bed. There’s frustration around Vucevic, but he’s his toughest critic, especially after his performance Wednesday in the Bulls’ 115-92 loss to the Cavaliers.

An 8-for-23 effort from the field, including 1-for-7 from three-point range, was not what Vucevic envisioned, especially because a lot of the shots were good looks.

Vucevic’s misfiring led to a question about his shooting fundamentals.

He quickly shot that down. Vucevic watches film of all his shots and said nothing was broken.

“I look at all my games after we play, and my shot feels normal, feels the way it always has,’’ Vucevic said. “For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to be consistent offensively as far as my shot-making. [Wednesday] was frustrating because I felt like I was getting good looks.’’

He was, especially on his seven three-point shots.

But that sums up the season for Vucevic. He has had some solid games lately, especially coming off his bout with the coronavirus last month, but there have been too many inconsistent nights for someone who’s a 49.4% career shooter. His shooting percentage has dropped to 41.4% this season.

Coach Billy Donovan has noticed a bunch of new teammates still trying to figure out how to play with Vucevic, specifically when to get him the ball out of screens or pick-and-pops where he can stay in a shooting rhythm.

It’s about timing because, like Vucevic, Donovan hasn’t seen any mechanical breakdowns in his shot.

“We’ve got to help him with his rhythm,’’ Donovan said. “I don’t see anything with him or have heard anything from him where he has said, ‘Hey, my shot is funky’ or ‘I just don’t feel right shooting.’ I think he feels good. I think he’ll work his way through it. He has had nights where he didn’t have a good shooting performance, and he has come back and responded.’’

The Bulls need that response soon, even when they get back to full strength.

They were allowed to add Stanley Johnson on a 10-day contract as a hardship exemption, and if Jones tested positive for the virus and is out for that 10-day window, the Bulls said they can add a second player.

Beyond needing Vucevic to step up now, they’ll need his presence to make a run in the postseason, when the game slows down and post/stretch big men become even more valuable.

So while Vucevic is frustrated, he’s also confident because of his track record.

“I’ve been in this league for 11 years now, and you’ve got to have a short memory, whether it’s good or bad,’’ Vucevic said. “At the same time, use it to fuel me and motivate me. I use it for the next game to try to come out and play better.

“Overall, other than my shot-making, I’ve been doing a lot of good things for my team. I’m just trying to get more consistent with [the shooting].’’