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Background: One of the brightest talents to make the jump from Europe to the NBA, 6-foot-11 Toni Kukoc has a surprising array of skills for a big man. A talented passer and a good shooter, he can help his team on offense in a number of ways.
A native of Split, Croatia, Kukoc came to the NBA after an outstanding career in Europe. A three-time European Player of the Year, he led Jugoplastika Split to a European Championship in 1990. He spent the 1991-92 and 1992-93 campaigns with Benetton Treviso of the Italian League, averaging 19.9 points over the two seasons. He was also a member of the Yugoslavian Olympic team that won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympics, and he earned a second silver medal with the Croatian team in 1992.
Kukoc was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with a second-round pick in 1990 but didn't join the team until July 1993. The Bulls had just won their third consecutive title, and many thought the arrival of Kukoc would ensure success for years to come. But the Bulls' hopes of a fourth crown dimmed considerably when Michael Jordan retired unexpectedly in October. (Jordan returned toward the end of the 1994-95 campaign.)
Kukoc put together a good rookie season, averaging 10.9 points and earning a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. There were times, however, when it appeared that the switch from European basketball to the NBA style of play was taking its toll, particularly on the defensive end. He showed significant improvement in 1994-95, upping his numbers across the board. And even though his scoring average dipped a bit in 1995-96, he played a significant role in the Bulls' run to their fourth championship of the `90s, earning the NBA Sixth Man Award for his outstanding play in a reserve role.
Transactions: Selected by the Chicago Bulls in the second round (29th pick overall) of the 1990 NBA Draft. Played in Yugoslavia in 1989-90 and 1990-91. Played in Italy in 1991-92 and 1992-93. Signed by the Bulls on 7/19/93.
1995-96: With the arrival of Dennis Rodman and with Michael Jordan back for a full season, Kukoc was asked to come off the bench and fill in at both forward positions as well as shooting guard. And despite his stated preference to be a starter, he played extremely well off the bench and was a valuable contributor for Chicago, averaging 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 26.0 minutes per game. He ranked third on the team in scoring and assists and fifth in rebounding and was a significant outside shooting threat, hitting 87-for-216 for .403 from three-point range.
Kukoc played off the bench in 61 games and made 20 starts, missing one game on Feb. 2 at the Lakers due to a sprained left ankle. As a starter he boosted his averages to 17.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 32.8 minutes per game, and the Bulls were 17-3 in games which he started.
Kukoc scored in double figures 48 times, getting 20 ore more on a dozen occasions including a career-high 34 points against Miami on April 4.
Kukoc appeared in 15 playoff games, five as a starter and 10 as a reserve, missing three games due to a sprained back. He averaged 10.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 29.3 minutes per game overall but broke out of a shooting slump to contribute 13.0 points per game in the NBA Finals against Seattle.
1994-95: Used as both a sixth man and a starter, Kukoc played a big role in the Chicago Bulls' surprising 47-35 season, contributing in a variety of ways. The team's leading scorer in 14 games, he also paced the club in assists in 31 contests and was high man on the boards in 11 outings. He topped 20 points 20 times during the season and hit for 30 or more twice, including a career-high 33-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons on February 17. On March 30 he recorded the first triple-double of his NBA career with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and a career-high 11 assists against the Boston Celtics. His pairing with Scottie Pippen in the frontcourt gave Chicago two versatile forwards.
For the season, Kukoc appeared in 81 games and started 55, including the season's final 36 contests. He averaged 15.7 points, a jump of nearly 5 points over his rookie numbers. He also showed improvement on the boards, hauling down 5.4 rebounds per game (up from 4.0 in his first season), and as a passer, handing out 4.6 assists per contest (compared with 3.6 in 1993-94).
When Kukoc first joined the Bulls in 1993, he did so partly for the opportunity to play alongside Michael Jordan. He was disappointed when Jordan retired prior to Kukoc's rookie season but was elated when "His Airness" returned late in 1994-95. Although Kukoc had some trouble adjusting to Jordan's presence on the court, when he, Jordan, and Pippen were clicking together, the Bulls were a formidable team.
Bolstered by Jordan's return, Chicago finished third in the Central Division and got past the Charlotte Hornets in four games in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls' championship aspirations ended in the conference semifinals, however, as they lost to the Orlando Magic in six games. Kukoc started all 10 playoff contests for the Bulls. He scored a career-playoff-high 22 points in Game 3 against the Hornets, then came back in the next game to record a career-playoff-high 11 rebounds. For the series, he averaged 17.3 points. He cooled off a bit in the second round against Orlando, contributing 11.5 points per outing.
1993-94: Word of Toni Kukoc and his legendary accomplishments in Europe began filtering in not long after Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause made him the 29th overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Three years earlier Krause had traded for an unknown rookie named Scottie Pippen; in Kukoc he had another relatively obscure player with multidimensional skills. In fact, Kukoc was compared to Magic Johnson for his ability to dribble, pass, and shoot despite his 6-foot-11 size.
A member of three European championship teams and a three-time European Player of the Year, Kukoc had teamed with Dino Radja and the late Drazen Petrovic to lead Yugoslavia to a silver medal in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The group came together again in 1992 as Croatia and earned another Olympic silver in Barcelona.
Part of the difficulty in getting Kukoc to play in the NBA was that the NBA's salary cap restricted teams from free spending, while the Italian League had no such constraints. Kukoc's team, Benetton Treviso, could give the Croatian star anything he wanted-and did-during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons. But by the summer of 1993 Kukoc was able to get out of his five-year contract with Benetton and try to make a name for himself in the NBA. After a three-year wait the Bulls signed him to a contract on July 19, 1993.
The Bulls had planned to bring Kukoc along slowly, but after Michael Jordan began his temporary retirement in October, Kukoc suddenly became vital to Chicago's continued success. He appeared in 75 games for the year, starting 8, and averaged 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. He was named to participate in the inaugural NBA Rookie Game during the All-Star Weekend, and at season's end he earned a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
In his NBA debut against the Charlotte Hornets on November 5, Kukoc scored 10 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and had 1 assist in 24 minutes. On November 26 against the Dallas Mavericks, he scored a season-high 24 points. He scored in double figures in 50 games and led the Bulls in assists on 11 occasions.
The highlight of his season occurred during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when he nailed a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer for a 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks.