MANILA, Philippines — During Friday’s second-round matchup at the FIBA World Cup, if there’s one member of Montenegro’s national team who should be unfazed against undefeated Team USA, it’s starting center Nikola Vučević. Not only has he posted 20.7 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks through three games at Mall of Asia Arena, Vučević has shared a pair of talent-laden locker rooms at the NBA’s All-Star weekend — talent quite superior to even that of head coach Steve Kerr’s mighty American lineup.
Across the globe from the United Center, nearly two years removed from his Chicago Bulls’ scorching 6-1 start to the 2021-22 regular season, Vučević quickly recalls his experience from that roster once loaded with healthy, all-world players. Back when the Bulls recaptured a palpable electricity throughout the Windy City. Back when the Magic merely selected promising German wing Franz Wagner with the No. 8 pick in 2021 draft, which Orlando received as part of its massive haul for Vučević at the previous trade deadline.
Back when Lonzo Ball, the connective point guard Chicago’s front office pinpointed to glue Vučević with All-Star guards Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, was on the floor pinging go-ahead passes and stretching opposing schemes with a refined jumper.
“There was a lot of excitement, and we felt that. We fed off of it. We really started going. And once you get in that rhythm, everything clicks,” Vučević told Yahoo Sports. “Lonzo was a big piece. The way the team was built, he was a pass-first point guard who was willing to involve everyone and getting everyone in the right spots helped a lot. And his defense, his shooting ability, we were playing much faster with him.”
Ball’s ongoing rehabilitation from three knee surgeries since his last game in January 2022 became a noisy topic this summer. While Vučević has feasted for his native Montenegro, Ball posted an emphatic video to counter ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith’s claim the 25-year-old has struggled to get up from a sitting position. Instead, Ball’s short film broadcast him quite easily lifting from a chair, by only the strength of that ailing left leg.
Ball shouted to the camera he’s on track for an eventual return to the court. And his pick-and-roll partner of yesteryear agreed the greater clarity now surrounding Ball’s comeback has him and the rest of Chicago’s roster in a much better position after last season’s trying uncertainty. In June, Bulls executive vice president Arturas Karnišovas revealed Chicago was not planning for Ball to play this entire upcoming 2023-24 season.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, when he comes back, it’s going to be fixed.’ Early on, it was, ‘Oh, six weeks,’ then, ‘Now it’s eight weeks,’ and then, ‘January’ and ‘Maybe playoffs.’ For us, it was tricky, because we kept waiting for him,” Vučević said of the Bulls’ disappointing 2022-23 campaign. “And now, at least we know he’s not there. We’ve got some new teammates, some good signings that will help us. And so now it’s on us as players to figure it out and find a way to have a better year.”
The sweet-shooting center strongly approved of Chicago’s offseason. He feels veteran forward Torrey Craig will bring a needed tenacity to the Bulls’ frontcourt. Jevon Carter, who, like Craig, played a part of Milwaukee’s recent championship contention, will also provide a particular toughness Chicago can benefit from at the point guard position. “Just guys that like to do the dirty work that doesn’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet, but is very important to the team,” Vučević said. “We need those things badly.” And yet Ball’s absence still weighs on the 32-year-old veteran big.
“You feel for the guy. He’s such a good player. And to have to deal with all that, it’s very difficult,” Vučević said. “I mean, he’s been very positive about it. He keeps trying to find ways to get back on the floor. There’s a lot of stuff people can’t see. You can’t see him do rehab. You can’t see all the stuff that he does to get back on the court,” Vučević continued. “I mean, injuries are the worst part of being a player. You want to play. You want to be out there. Our careers, they’re longer now, but they’re still short. And for him to use two years, two-and-a-half, it’s a big deal.”
Vučević sees the twilight of his own playing days, wearing a red Montenegro T-shirt, black shorts and flip-flops, reclined in a plush chair inside the national team’s hotel player lounge. There’s a designated stretch of the lobby floor where most countries’ clubs are staying, down the street from Mall of Asia Arena, which holds conference rooms decked with pool tables and foosball and video game stations. But there are few All-Stars in attendance at this tournament, let alone All-Stars with a freshly signed, three-year, $60 million contract. Let alone All-Stars who will stop an interview before it begins, only to offer the visiting reporter a water bottle from Montenegro’s loaded fridge.
He has no support staff with him in the Philippines, where some NBA players have brought trainers and other aides. If there was one consistent theme throughout this conversation, Vučević spoke often about the value of growing through the obstacles of different dynamics, on the court and off, adapting without having his hand held in the process.
“When you get out of your comfort zone, you have to adjust, and that makes you grow and figure things out. It’s not always easy. But that’s how life is,” Vučević said. “Things always happen, things come with you, and you have to figure it out and learn to deal with it. You can get complacent, you can get too happy where you’re at.”
He admits the trade to Chicago after eight-plus years with Orlando brought a turbulent tide. Vučević had grown accustomed to the Magic’s offense built around his balletic low-post arsenal. Orlando was where he met his wife and his three sons were born, where he carved his career from prospect to professional. “I got there as a 21-, 22-year-old kid. I turned out to be a two-time All-Star and one of the best big men in the league,” Vučević said. “My life completely changed while I was there. The journey was pretty special.”
The 2021 trade deadline, though, brought an opportune moment to shift from the franchise. He was at a doctor’s appointment for one of his sons, the clock ticking down toward the 3 p.m. ET buzzer, when then-Magic general manager John Hammond dialed his cell and delivered the news.
“But even then, when I got the call, it was a big shock for me,” Vučević said. Getting traded midseason, uprooting his family, finding new schools for his boys, it all pervaded his acclimation to the Bulls. He missed longtime neighbors as much as longtime Magic staffers. Even today, Vučević looks toward Central Florida as the likely landing spot for his family upon retirement. “But I think as time went on, it made the most sense for both sides. I know in Chicago people have different opinions of how it’s been for me. But it’s not the same situation I had in Orlando. I’m not used the same way. I’m not playing the same way. Although I felt this year was one of my best ever. Scoring-wise, no. But I’m taking five, six shots less than I did in Orlando. It’s different strengths. It’s made me a better overall player for sure, and helped me mature, be able to adapt better, playing with different types of players in a different system.”
His new contract with the Bulls also precludes Vučević from enduring the persistent chatter he could be dealt away from Chicago — at least until Dec. 27, in accordance with league rules. For any impending free agent, the February trade deadline presents a potential set of sliding doors. And before last season, the final year of his previous deal, Vučević’s name was thrust into the summer rumor mill while the Utah Jazz gauged rivals’ interest in defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert.
At the same time, he had just purchased a new home in Chicago, and the news of Vučević’s investment somehow leaked to the public, drawing antagonistic messages that he should instead have searched through real estate in Salt Lake City. “The Rudy thing was everyday. Rudy for me,” Vučević said. “It’s not like the good old days of newspapers, or when you had to watch SportsCenter for two hours. It can be one call and it’s on social media. Everybody has a voice now. Everybody has access to say whatever they want to say, and they have no repercussions.”
Vučević did manage the last laugh. When news broke of Gobert’s eventual blockbuster trade to Minnesota, he quote-tweeted that post, teasing he was glad the offer for the house he found in Utah had been rejected. Recalling the stunt now, Vučević offers a wry smile. “That was kind of my response.”
And yet, the staying power of this current Bulls iteration remains curious, despite the starting center’s newfound security. Chicago checked the temperature on LaVine’s market throughout this offseason, league sources told Yahoo Sports. DeMar DeRozan is entering the final season of a three-year, $82 million deal. Patrick Williams, the bouncy forward the Bulls selected No. 4 in 2020, is entering the last year of his rookie contract. Although Chicago’s front office, and Vučević as well, remain bullish the versatile 22-year-old can flourish this upcoming season.
“We know we can do better, and we have to do better,” Vučević said. “And we know it’s kind of our last chance as this core of guys to do something.”