In The First Year of his New Deal, Cristiano Felicio Knows He Still Has Things to Prove

Maybe look at these last few weeks of what we hope will be a Bulls season unlike any other — ever — as sort of an archeological dig. There’s not much to look at and then suddenly, surprisingly, a fossil gets dusted off and you have something and all this activity is worth something.

Hello, Cristiano Felicio. Maybe not such a bad investment after all.

“I was hearing,” Felicio admitted about the chorus of community disdain burying him before finally being dropped from the rotation for almost two months. “I know a lot of people talk whatever they want to. I am not focusing on them. I am just focusing on myself and trying to get better. I know I wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the season and then I sat for 30 some games because Niko (Mirotic) was back. Now they are giving me an opportunity again, and I am trying to show, go out and show them I can play.”

And what do you know, he is showing some stuff.

Perhaps in the last week more than anyone on the team. The 6-10 center from Brazil has led the Bulls in scoring the last two games, a light in the darkness in a pair of desultory losses. Felicio has been the one hustling, diving for loose balls, innovative on offense when we didn’t even know if he had any, averaging 14.3 points and seven rebounds on 73 percent shooting (19 for 26) the last three games in the best stretch of his career.

Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls makes a dunk

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after Wednesday’s horrible loss to the Denver Nuggets sharply noted how much this is an opportunity for players with the regulars all outvto show they should be part of the Bulls rebuild. Felicio has run with the message, rebounded and shot with it, too, perhaps the best.

“I think I can grow a lot from here,” said Felicio. “I am putting in my head to be more aggressive because right from these three games I am able to score. Not just play defense and just try to pass the ball and play pick and roll and see what will happen. I am sure this will open my mind a lot to what I have to do in the offseason to come back next season better.”

The Bulls Friday host the Milwaukee Bucks, who likely will play without Giannis Antetokounmpo with a sprained ankle. Zach LaVine is out at least another week and perhaps the rest of the season with knee tendinitis. Kris Dunn remains in a walking boot and is out with a toe injury. Antonio Blakeney was declared out for the season with a wrist injury. Lauri Markkanen, who has missed the last five games with a back injury, said at Thursday’s practice he might play Friday depending on further practice results. Robin Lopez likely will remain out in the team goal of examining other players.

Which has made Felicio a starter, and it’s been almost a revelation in these last three games.

A player who rarely even looked at the basket or attempted a shot of more than one foot, Felicio has been a forceful offensive contributor. His offensive strength generally has been rolling to the basket on pick and roll plays. But he’s driven the ball, made hook shots, a post up bank shot, short jumpers and finally began to make defenses pay attention. He’s made his free throws, five of five in the three games. And in the loss Monday in New York, it was his 11 consecutive points to open the third quarter that gave the Bulls their last hope.

Felicio had a double/double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the narrow loss to Cleveland. Then he was eight of 10 for 17 points against the Knicks and seven of nine for 16 points against the Nuggets.

Which was both something of a shock and a relief for the Bulls given how badly it seemed that Felicio had regressed after signing a four-year, $32 million contract last summer. Felicio isn’t a big time rim protector, but he’s adept in pick and roll defense. And now, it looks like the Bulls have at least a big man who they can bring off the bench and who can produce.

“Now when I get those balls more close to the basket, I am trying to be more aggressive, trying to look at the basket first,” said Felicio. “In the past (few games) I am trying to pass the ball as well as trying to score the ball. My teammates are finding me in pick and rolls and they are passing me the ball, too. They are trusting me more."

“They used to tell me, my teammates, yell at me, ‘Look at the basket more, look at the basket more,’” Felicio acknowledged. “Because sometimes I would be by myself and I would pass the ball and I put it in my mind just trying to look at the basket more and trying to be more aggressive.”

Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls shoots free-throws

There generally are some extenuating circumstances, too, and not so easy for someone like Felicio, a Brazilian who was a surprise to even be in the NBA. Felicio, 25, couldn’t get into a U.S. college with NCAA issues over professionalism. He tried a prep academy in California which was corrupt and then played professionally in Brazil. He barely averaged five points. But he showed up at NBA Summer League in 2015 and was impressive. The Bulls gave him a minimum deal and he spent much of that first season around the then D-league.

Felicio came in late in the season as the Bulls were missing the playoffs and scored 16 points in consecutive games. Well, well, what have we got here?

But then came the Alphas, and Felicio got the message: He’s an omega, or a Zeta. Somewhere toward the end.

Felicio’s not a high flying athlete. He’s rugged and sets good screens. He’s got a gentle personality, always upbeat and with a smile and a greeting, but willing to play inside. He did.

“Last season we had Jimmy, had D-Wade, had Rondo; we had a lot of guys who could score the ball,” Felicio noted. “So my main focus was screen, rebounding, play defense and that stuff.”

It became a bit of a habit.

Lopez started this season at center and Markkanen came into the lineup. With Bobby Portis and Mirotic out after their fight, Felicio got an early look, a combined total of 22 points in the first eight games without Portis in 128 minutes played. What’s the deal? In the first 10 games playing some 160 minutes, Felicio attempted four free throws. After back to back games scoring zero points and then four at the end of the season worst blowout loss in Oakland, the DNPs began. In the next 30 games, Felicio played in five. And this wasn’t a playoff team.

Felicio admits he felt the pressure of the contract, of trying to produce, of determining his role, of what it all meant. Critics weren’t as compassionate.

“It happened to me (pressure) in the beginning because I was trying to show a little bit why I deserved the money,” Felicio admitted. “Then the focus got about just playing and not focus too much on the money side of it. I had to let those things go and just go out there and show what I can do.

Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls drives into the paint

“It was more mentally,” Felicio admitted. “Of course, you get that contract and you come here every day and work your ass off and then trying to go out and do the best you can. The beginning of the season it wasn’t happening. I had to sit down for a few games and then I started to think to myself to not let off the court stuff be on my head, mess up everything I have to do on the court."

It’s obviously not as easy, also, when Brazil is home. So Felicio also needed some home cookin’.

“I talked to my mom a lot,” Felicio admitted about those tough winter months. “She has been helping me. I talked to my coaches, my girlfriend; I talk to the trainers. I talk to everybody pretty much around me and they all help me with this. My mom, she came a few months ago; it was great to have her here. My number one fan. She encouraged me to go out and play hard and do what I can do. She knows what I am capable of and she is just trying to remind me every single time.

“They always have my back no matter what happens,” said Felicio. “I am always grateful for the family I have. I have my dogs, a good group of friends, my teammates and coaches and the people who work for the Bulls. I feel I am never alone. Now I am feeling great and it is showing on the court.”