BROOKLYN — In light of the recent play of second-year Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler, it seems appropriate to check in on the organization’s other selection in the 2011 NBA Draft, Nikola Mirotic.
The 21-year-old forward, who fared well in his Real Madrid team’s preseason exhibition games against the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, is regarded as one of the Bulls’ biggest assets — along with the protected draft pick from Charlotte acquired in the Tyrus Thomas trade — both as an actual contributor in the future or as a trade chip.
A versatile and skilled stretch power forward who can run the floor, Mirotic is the two-time winner of the Euroleague’s Rising Star award, given to the top young prospect in Europe.
Playing in the Spanish ACB, considered by many observers to be the world’s top league outside of the NBA, he’s one of the few young players who sees meaningful minutes, let alone for a perennial powerhouse team.
The 6-foot-10 forward is the top scorer for Real Madrid, currently first in the league, in ACB play at 13 points per game — on 56.4 percent shooting from the floor and 44.8 percent from three-point range — and the squad’s second-leading rebounder at 5.2 a contest.
In Euroleague games, Mirotic is averaging slightly lower numbers: 11.5 points per game, albeit on 59.3 percent shooting, as well as 29.3 from behind the arc, to go along with 4.8 rebounds per game.
For those unfamiliar with overseas basketball, it should be noted that the ACB is essentially the Spanish national league, while the Euroleague features the top teams from across the continent.
Real Madrid, which also features the likes of former NBA player Rudy Fernandez, once rumored to be a Bulls shooting guard target, is undefeated in Euroleague competition thus far.
Mirotic’s statistics might not seem overwhelming, but it’s important to know that games in Europe are 40 minutes in length, just like American college basketball, the pace is slower than the NBA, teams’ rotations are typically deeper, there is less isolation basketball and again, young players usually struggle to receive significant playing time.
At the same time, before Bulls fans get too worked up for Mirotic’s potential arrival as early as the 2014-15 campaign — as been previously reported by various outlets, due to being a first-round pick, that would be the soonest that it would be financially beneficial for Mirotic to cross the water due to his buyout situation with Real Madrid, as well as the rules of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement — let’s not mythologize him into a Dirk Nowitzki-Pau Gasol-Toni Kukoc hybrid just yet.
The forward has excellent ball skills and shooting range for his size, not to mention the ability to run the floor and an increased willingness to mix it up inside, but while he drew praise from the likes of Memphis All-Star power forward Zach Randolph for his preseason play, he’ll still need to add considerable bulk in order to deal with the physical pounding endured on the NBA level.
That adjustment is something many European prospects struggle with upon entering the NBA and while many overcome it, playing for a defensive-oriented team like the Bulls, if and when — some European draft picks do opt to remain overseas, whether it’s due to feeling more comfortable or a greater financial reward — Mirotic arrives in Chicago, he’ll need to do it sooner than later to start delivering on his promise.
In the middle of a season that has seen the under-the-radar Bulls propel themselves to near the top of the Eastern Conference standings without the services of superstar Derrick Rose up to this point, focusing on Mirotic may seem a bit too forward-thinking, as Rose’s eventual return to the lineup is enough of a look into the future for many.
But in the landscape of the new NBA, which saw the Grizzlies, viewed as at least a viable Western Conference contender, break up their roster — first by dealing away half of a productive second unit in what was labeled a salary dump, then the recent blockbuster trade that sent leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto — before realizing its potential, some stark realities have to be pondered.
It seems unlikely that the Bulls will make a deadline deal, unless a too-good-to-be-true swap is presented, as the singular focus, besides winning of course, is Rose’s ongoing recovery and his transition back into playing at a high level again.
But with Carlos Boozer, who missed Wednesday’s win in Milwaukee with a hamstring injury, having a dominant January, enough that he was on the list of NBA All-Star Game snubs, the much-maligned power forward’s stock is high and although his contract still wouldn’t be palatable to many teams in the league, perception is reality and Boozer’s performance has been enough to potentially intrigue a rival organization in need of the traits he possesses on the court.
The word “amnesty” isn’t being thrown around as recklessly anymore when it comes to Boozer and the two years of his contract remaining after this season, but coupled with Taj Gibson’s long-term contract extension at the outset of the campaign and, to a lesser extent, but only because he plays a different position, the looming end of All-Star Luol Deng’s deal at the conclusion of 2013-14, one couldn’t blame the Bulls for thinking ahead.
As well as the Bulls have played this season, showing the capability of beating any opponent on any given night, the hopes of bringing a championship back to Chicago are pinned on a healthy Rose returning to an elite level of play, something that nobody can truly evaluate until, at minimum, next summer, but more realistically, the offseason of 2014.
Unfortunately, while the organization is free to move at its own pace, sometimes the timing of deals isn’t as convenient, meaning that if an opportunity presents itself beforehand, a decision has to be made.
Whether the front office is now seen as prescient in allowing the majority of the beloved “Bench Mob” to depart last summer or Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau should be given the lion’s share of the credit for the squad exceeding its preseason’s tread-water expectations, the franchise’s ability to adjust should be lauded, as the team has remained competitive through major turnover, while not spending frivolously, as evidenced by not only the structure of Gibson’s deal, but the one-year contracts doled out to most of the team’s newcomers.
Although the Bulls are likely to pay the NBA’s luxury tax for the first time in franchise history—it appears increasingly unlikely that they’ll make a trade-deadline move to shed cap space—unlike some teams that broke the bank in the offseason, their cautiousness, even if at least partially motivated by Rose’s devastating injury, has paid off in the short term.
The culture of selflessness, hard work, defense and a balance of youth and experience has remained intact, and kudos, for now, should be spread around, from the players and coaching staff, to management and ownership.
But based on how the nature of the league is changing—Miami’s three-star format, which was all the rage seemingly just a minute ago, is starting to give way to teams acknowledging that only having two bonafide superstars is feasible, as evidenced by the aforementioned Memphis situation, not to mention Oklahoma City being forced to trade James Harden to Houston at the beginning of the season—the Bulls could be facing some tough choices in the near future, which brings us back to Mirotic.
As weak as the East looks, it appears that outside of the Heat, the Bulls — even now, without Rose, but certainly after he returns — as presently constructed, have as good of a chance of any team to challenge for a Finals appearance, if they’re willing to be patient, play out the next few years of their championship window and then, bite the bullet financially in the final year of Boozer’s deal, as well as extending Deng, who won’t necessarily be a bargain after he’s solidified his status as a multiple All-Star.
The alternative, which makes some sense on paper, especially if that Finals trip hasn’t yet materialized, is to sever ties with those players owning unwieldy contracts, bank on Rose’s prime years attracting an upper-echelon free agent and hope that Mirotic, who could require a year or two of seasoning as an offensive substitute behind Gibson, reaches his potential.
As stated previously, however, this is all jumping the gun, as we’re still at least weeks away from Rose’s season debut, the postseason possibilities of the present Bulls team have yet to be explored and for all we know, the next aspect of Mirotic’s game to emerge will be a formidable defensive presence, rounding out his prodigious offensive talent.
But while we’re all living in the moment, enjoying this scrappy bunch grind out wins, breathlessly waiting on Rose updates and even monitoring Mirotic’s progress from afar, it’s something to think about.