There was a general consensus throughout the first four days of Chicago Bulls summer league — Marko Simonović bulked up in the offseason.
Simonović’s growth earned him immediate praise from summer league coach John Bryant and the Bulls staff in the first days of training.
“I’m so happy to hear that because I’m really working on it,” Simonović said Tuesday. “Every day I try to improve my body and put some muscles on.”
Simonović weighed 215 pounds when he arrived in Chicago as a newly drafted rookie out of Serbia. The center said he bulked up to 240 pounds in the last year, a 25-pound increase that’s most visible across the expanse of his shoulders and chest. The Bulls media guide, for the record, still lists Simonović at 220 pounds.
After debuting for the Bulls in November, Simonović played most of his rookie ball with the Windy City Bulls in the G League. Although he rotated into Bulls practices throughout the season, Simonović spent most of the final months of the season away from the first team.
So his newfound size and strength came as a surprise to some of the coaching staff when he walked into the gym this month.
“He’s eating at least,” Bryant joked Tuesday after Simonović’s first practice with the summer league roster.
But the center says he didn’t have to adjust his diet.
Bryant — who works with the Bulls’ big men during the season — said Simonović’s size was a promising sign for the young center. Rim protection and paint production are two points of emphasis for the Bulls, who operate with a smaller lineup that often allows opponents to play bully ball down low.
Bryant feels the second-year center still needs to work on his ability to finish through contact, a skill that will only be helped with increased size and muscle mass.
Simonović noted his pick-and-pop skills improved throughout his rookie season, which could allow him to slot in as a like-for-like backup for starting center Nikola Vučević.
“His hands have gotten better along with his body,” Bryant said. “He’s very much improved, particularly in pick-and-roll play.”
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Simonović traveled home to Europe for part of the summer but kept his sights set on the summer league. While abroad, he trained with Vučević, who speaks Serbian and offered advice about transitioning to the NBA.
The Balkan connection has been strong for the Bulls all summer — the pair linked up with fellow Serbian Nikola Jovanović to train during the offseason, and Vučević helped recruit shooting guard Goran Dragić to Chicago during free agency.
Simonović said the relationship with Vučević has been vital to his growth in Chicago.
“He’s like my big brother here,” Simonović said. “He helped me on the court and off of the court.”
Despite Simonović’s growth over the last year, Bryant said he still wasn’t sure if Simonović will be ready to become a full-time member of the Bulls rotation next season. The Bulls acquired center Andre Drummond in one of only two free-agency acquisitions outside of re-signing Zach LaVine.
But Simonović feels he has grown enough to be a consistent feature of the Bulls rotation, even if those minutes come as a role player.
“This is a process,” Simonović said. “I know that it’s not all in one year. This is is a process and I need the time to understand everything and to learn everything. … I’m ready to work. I’ve been working every day to be better and to get some minutes in the NBA.”