LAS VEGAS -- Cristiano Felicio really hates it when he misses shots. He laughed when I asked him that question, but there's no other explanation for the Chicago big man shooting a ridiculous 33-of-44 (75 percent) in six games during Las Vegas Summer League, a run that culminated in a Bulls' championship on Monday.
Felicio was the best player at Summer League that you probably hadn't heard of. He didn't make the first or second All-NBA Summer League teams, missing out on a top spot to teammate Bobby Portis, but those lists were littered with first-round selections with easily recognizable names. Instead, the 24-year-old Felicio fell short largely due to his purposefully limited minutes, averaging just under 23 per game. That, more than anything, shows how highly Chicago thinks of him.
When Felicio joined the Bulls' Summer League team a year ago as an undrafted rookie, there was no guarantee that he would make Chicago's roster. In fact, the expectation must have been that he wouldn't. Felicio told me that while other teams scouted him, the Bulls were the only ones to express serious interest. But after a solid Summer League showing, the Bulls offered him a contract.
"That was one of the happiest days of my life," Felicio said.
The Brazilian big man played sparingly until mid-March, where Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg finally started using him in the rotation, even letting him finish a game over Pau Gasol at one point. In April, Felicio averaged 19.4 minutes, notching about eight points and five rebounds per game.
"For me, it shows how much I improved from when I first got here last year," Felicio said.
The chance for Felicio to factor into Chicago's rotation next year has increased greatly after this offseason. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are both gone, helping reduce the frontcourt logjam of last year. It's still busy up front with Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic, but only Lopez and Felicio are true centers with the size to take on every matchup. In fact, it's reasonable to ask if Felicio will be better than Lopez already next year.
That's how good Felicio has been in every situation we've seen him in since joining the Bulls. Even with his low minutes in Summer league, Felicio averaged 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game with just under two assists. A dominant performance against the Mavericks summed it up: 18 minutes, 15 points, 6-of-6 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists, and one huge weak side block in the final minute that unfortunately didn't get correctly recorded as such.
In an earlier game against the 76ers, Felicio went 8-of-8 from the field, and in a win against the Cavaliers last April, he was 7-of-7. These games where he doesn't miss a single shot from the field are becoming a trend for him. Clearly, it stems partly from his great finishing around the basket, where he often only has to rise and dunk. But Felicio is clever around the rim, as well, able to finish on both sides with layups.
Felicio has a 6'10, 275-pound frame, and looked every bit of it when I sat next to him in UNLV's Mendenhall Center last week. The broad shoulders still leave room for athleticism, as Felicio's finishes above the rim come easily and he runs the floor well. There's a nimble quality to him, too, as you can see when he slides past Kevin Love on this play just far enough to avoid the charge.
There's skill to Felicio's game, too. He nailed a few pick-and-pop shots from the top of the key throughout his limited playing time with a jumper that has excellent form. Clearly, Felicio's game is at its best around the basket, but threatening the defenses from outside occasionally is very valuable. Felicio's passing is exceptional, too. Watch the four assists he picks up against Philadelphia during Summer League (the one where he went 8-of-8) and just marvel at how natural this looks for him.
Felicio's defense clearly lags behind his offense, but a nimble 6'10 center is a coach's dream. It's hard to play NBA-level defense consistently, after all. Knowing when to sag off and when to sprint back in recovery is taxing mental work, especially for a somewhat shy foreigner who's still adapting to the United States as much as he is the highest level of basketball. These things take time.
There are possessions where Felicio's tools all come together for 24 seconds, and then there's moments where his still raw defense shows up instead. Regardless, there's no reason for Felicio not to improve on that end in due time, even if it never catches his offense.
If you never heard about Felicio last season, or didn't catch his summer exploits, now's your chance to get onboard. Felicio knows his role will be increasing next year after the departure of two veterans. Felicio told me he hopes he can pick up right where he left off last April. Ultimately, every time he steps onto the court, there's one goal for the budding Bulls star.
"I try to make every shot I take," Felicio said. And damn, does he do a good job at it.