Chicago Bulls

Unheralded Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio is adept at seizing opportunities

Rajon Rondo admitted he knew little to nothing about Cristiano Felicio when Rondo signed with the Bulls.

“But what I loved about him from day one of summer league is he works,” Rondo said. “He’s always in the weight room when I’m in the weight room. And I’m in there a lot.”

It’s there, Jimmy Butler claims, that Felicio does 1,000-pound squats.

“During the season, I don’t understand it,” Butler said, a nod to the typical practice of building strength in the offseason and merely maintaining it during the season. “But I guess that’s how you elevate the way he does.”

That elevation was on full display during Thursday’s victory over the Spurs — and in highlight packages afterward — when the 6-foot-9 Felicio’s head pulled even with the rim on a putback dunk off a missed Doug McDermott 3-pointer.

Those represented two of Felicio’s season-high nine points, along with seven rebounds, in just 18 minutes in his second game back in the rotation.

“I think moving forward you’re going to find that guy out there on the floor,” Butler said.

In many ways, Felicio, 24, represents what the Bulls need from their reserve big men — an athletic rim runner offensively who can disrupt pick-and-rolls defensively.

Felicio held that role coming out of training camp, playing ahead of Bobby Portis in the rotation before the “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” designations began piling up. Felicio even logged an appearance with the Windy City Bulls in the Development League.

“A lot of young guys get complacent or get discouraged when they don’t play, but Cris is always working,” Rondo said. “He doesn’t say much. He just comes in and does his job.”

Rondo wasn’t alone in his unawareness of Felicio. Coach Fred Hoiberg admitted last season he had to ask assistant general manager Brian Hagen who the athletic big man was who kept sprinting the floor during a 2015 summer league practice shortly after Hoiberg took the job.

Back then, Felicio was no lock to make the Bulls as an undrafted free agent. But he did, finishing his rookie campaign with a solid April that included a career-high 16-point night on 7-for-7 shooting in a nationally televised victory over the Cavaliers.

The Bulls can thank in part a growth spurt and a Brazilian youth soccer coach for Felicio. Like most of his countrymen, Felicio played the national sport until a coach asked him to play goalie because of his height. Given that most teenagers dreamed more of scoring than saving goals, Felicio started drifting to his newfound sport of basketball.

Felicio’s family eventually moved to a bigger city as his basketball dreams grew. He played professionally in Brazil from 2013 to ’15 before signing a non-guaranteed deal with the Bulls.

“He can change the pace of the game,” Hoiberg said.

Of course, the downside to Felicio’s upside is that Portis, a first-round pick on a guaranteed deal, now is sitting.

Felicio admitted to some frustration when he lost his rotational role to Portis. Now he hopes not to let it go.

“I’m just trying to do what is best for the team,” Felicio said. “I know I am not going to score a lot, so I am just trying to play defense, get the putbacks I can and get the guys in good position on pick-and-roll (defense).”

Last summer, Felicio opted to play for the Bulls summer league team instead of the national team as Brazil hosted the Olympics. Then Anderson Varejao got hurt and Felicio ended up doing both.

“It was amazing to play in my home country and go against the best players in the world,” Felicio said. “It gave me so much experience.”

It’s showing.

kcjohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcjhoop

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