Marko Simonović looks to impress during Summer League with added muscle, experience

He’s 6-11 and growing stronger, some 25 pounds of muscle added in the last year. He has a smooth shooting stroke and is adept in pick and roll, especially passing with movement and lately finishing through contact.

So where exactly can the Bulls find a big man like that?

Lately, it’s been in their Advocate Center gym where 2020 second-round draft pick Marko Simonović is trying to open some eyes and raise some eyebrows in a good way.

“Everyone said I am looking better than I was before, so I am happy to hear that and just keep working,” Simonović told media after Tuesday’s Summer League team practice. “Last year I was a rookie and it was a little bit difficult for me because it was my first year in the NBA and I am learning every day on the court and out of the court, how to live here and understand everything. I am so happy for the last year how I played in the G-League, but I am ready to work and working every day to be better and get some minutes in the NBA.

“Now I am 240,” the recently slender Simonović revealed. “Last year I was 215 or something. How (did I do it)? Every day keep working; that’s it. I don’t know what to say. This is a process and I know it’s not like in one year. I need the time to understand and learn everything. Everybody is trying to help me. I think I’ve grown a lot, but I have a lot of space to improve.”

Marko Simonović finishes a layup during Bulls Summer League practice

Which makes Simonović if not the story of Summer League starting for the Bulls Friday in Las Vegas, that being rookie first-round draft pick Dalen Terry, but perhaps an X-factor for the future. Especially with Nikola Vučević entering the last season of his Bulls contract and reports the Bulls could acquire a veteran NBA center like Andre Drummond as a short term backup for this season.

That the Bulls are rumored pursuing a backup to Vučević suggests they aren’t ready to hand the keys—or even the training wheels—to Simonović yet. But it’s both potentially encouraging and appealing that the long shot big man is taking the physical part of the game seriously.

So this year’s Summer League becomes something of the next audition for how the Bulls might proceed at center after this season. Simonović with some perimeter shooting ability also projects as a possible stretch power forward the way the game has evolved. Lately some contending teams have returned to using two big men. Like the Celtics in the Finals and Minnesota making a huge deal for Rudy Gobert to team with Karl-Anthony Towns.

“He's obviously met us halfway with his body,” said Bulls Summer League coach John Bryant. “It’s consistent play with Marko. I think he just needs more reps and playing basketball against high-level players. I don't make those decisions (about the Bulls regular season rotation), but I think if he continues to play like he does in the G-League against our guys here with the Bulls (and in Summer League), we’ve gotta make some tough decisions. It's up to him to keep producing at that same level for us to say, 'Hey you're gonna play over whomever,'

“His body looks great and I'm excited to see how he improves from last year (Summer League averaging 12 points and 4.4 rebounds without making a three),” said Bryant. “I think everyone will be excited to see Marko’s ability. His hands have gotten better along with his body. He’s able to finish through contact because of the body. He was paired a lot (in practices this week) with Ayo (Dosunmu). It was roll after roll after roll, and his decision making after those rolls either finishing or passing it out to weak side was much improved. We didn’t see him a lot when he came back from the G-league (last season). He’s very much improved, particularly in pick and roll play, him rolling and decision making after rolls.”

Marko Simonović dunks during Bulls Summer League practice.

But will he have a role for the Bulls this season? And how much can he roll with the punches if he doesn’t? 

“I think I can get more minutes than last season for sure,” Simonović said. “We’ll see. I’m here every day to improve myself and learn.”

The Bulls were serious about competing last season, though it still was curious late in the season as injuries mounted and there were some games with experimentation that Simonović never played. The 22-year-old from Montenegro didn’t play in a game for the Bulls after Jan. 17, which was just after his NBA career high eight points in a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors a few days earlier.

Although he was a second-round draft pick, Simonović was signed to a three-year contract, albeit modest by NBA standards, that goes through the end of the 2023-24 season. He remained in the Serbian league after being drafted and signed with the Bulls last summer.

He played primarily for the Windy City Bulls last season and produced overall impressive statistics, averaging 17 points and 9.8 rebounds with 13 double-doubles in 28 games. He shot 27 percent from three, but showed good form shooting 82 percent on free throws.

But his impact was minimal as he had difficulty with the physical aspects of the play even by G-league standards. He wasn’t adept at the rim defensively, averaging barely a half block per game. But his almost three assists per game was good for a big man.

So it was no surprise the Bulls explored free agency this summer for interior defensive support.

Can a Simonović with more weight be that weightier option for the Bulls future? Especially since he possesses potential offensive abilities that escape many big men. No one is suggesting he’s the next Nikola Jokić. But Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas was a senior Denver Nuggets executive when the team selected Jokic at No. 41 in the 2014 draft. Simonovic was selected at No. 44. Jokić, however, was immediately a rotation regular those Nuggets.

Though the Nuggets really didn’t know what they had as Jokić averaged eight points in his first Summer League and then split time as a rookie with fellow big man Jusuf Nurkić.

Simonović is not nearly as skilled as Jokić, now a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

But skilled enough to crack the Bulls rotation?

The first true returns should begin coming in this summer. And for the Bulls to hope there’s no need for a product return.

“I was talking after the season with everybody. They said they were happy with how I played there (Windy City),” said Simonović. “I am happy for this and I will improve my body and improve my game on the court to be better and to get some minutes next season in the NBA.

“Last year was the first Summer League for me. This year it’s got to be better, for sure,” said Simonović, whose English is impressively improved. "Now I feel more comfortable and I understand how to play here and I think it’s going to be better. Do my job, screen roll, get some rebounds, shoot from three if I am open.

“I played like (28) games for the G-league team and I think I had some good games, some good performances; that was good for me,” said Simonović. "The passing is one of my best things in the game. I like to pass the ball. For us, it is going to be a most important thing, be a team and be good for the other guys on the court, be unselfish. The guys are happy because we are practicing hard and I think we are going to be ready for the first game in Las Vegas.”

Jackpot for the Bulls? They rolled the dice. Ace in the hole or no dice?

OK, I’m anxious to get to Vegas. So’s Marko. We’ll start to see what’s he’s got and what the Bulls have. And if him being the next big man is in the cards. I know, what’s the deal?