Nikola Mirotic’s unique style rewarding Bulls for waiting on him

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BOSTON – Nikola Mirotic rarely watched the NBA while growing up in Europe. Even as a promising professional player drawing American scouts, he still had only passing interest in the league.

But that changed the instant the Bulls traded up to get him with the No. 23 pick in the 2011 draft.

Mirotic, who signed a five-year contract with Real Madrid earlier that year, began watching nearly every Chicago game.

“I had to see maybe my future team,” Mirotic said. “So, I started following, and I really loved how they were playing.

“I was thinking, How can I adapt on this team? It was really important for me to imagine me on this team, and I really loved how Chicago was playing. They were a little bit playing like European, too. Team, they are sharing a lot of balls, playing plays.”

Mirotic didn’t learn his biggest lesson about the Bulls by watching them on televison, though. He ascertained it by simply waiting.

“I really saw how Chicago loved me in this time, because it was not easy to draft me,” Mirotic said, “because I signed for five years, and it was a long time that they need to wait for me.”

He’s proving he was worth the wait.

Mirotic is averaging 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.0 minutes per game, modest numbers that don’t fully reveal his efficiency. He leads rookies with a 16.8 PER and 3.0 win shares.

In fact, Mirotic has more than double the win shares of any other rookie despite ranking just ninth in minutes among his class.

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Just 11 rookies have doubled their class’s closest competitor in win shares:

  • 1990: David Robinson (SAS), 15.1 win shares
  • 1972: Clifford Ray (CHI), 8.7 win shares
  • 1970: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (MIL), 13.8 win shares
  • 1966: Rick Barry (SFW), 10.4 win shares
  • 1964: Jerry Lucas (CIN), 12.7 win shares
  • 1962: Walt Bellamy (CHP), 16.3 win shares
  • 1961: Oscar Robertson (CIN), 13.2 win shares
  • 1960: Wilt Chamberlain (PHW), 17 win shares
  • 1959: Elgin Baylor (MNL), 9.8 win shares
  • 1955: Bob Pettit (MLH), 10.7 win shares
  • 1951: Paul Arizin (PHW), 13.7 win shares

Nine of those 11 won Rookie of the Year. Ray and his 8.7 win shares lost to Sidney Wicks, who had 2.3 win shares. Arizin played before the award existed, but he claimed an unofficial unofficial retroactive version of the honor.

Yet Mirotic gets minimal Rookie of the Year support.

Andrew Wiggins is the clear front-runner (and my choice for mid-season Rookie of the Year). He fills a larger role for the Timberwolves and has fewer veterans around him, mostly excusing his volume-over-efficiency tradeoff.

But don’t dismiss how well Mirotic is handling what the Bulls ask of him .

He’s doing it in a historically unique way.

Mirotic has taken half his shots from beyond the arc, and he has attempted a free throw for every two field goals. No player has ever finished a season with a 3-point-attempt rate (3PA/FGA) and free-throw-attempt rate (FTA/FGA) both over 50 percent while playing as many as Mirotic already has.

Heck, just a few players – James Harden (2011 and 2012), Chauncey Billups (2011), Danilo Gallinari (2011), Jon Barry (1999) and Terry Dehere (1996) – have ever joined the 45%/45% club while playing regularly.

For context, here’s how Mirotic’s 3-point-attempt free-throw-attempt rates (Bulls logo) compares with everyone else who has played at least 150 minutes this season:

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Nobody else lands near Mirotic – for good reason. Logically, it’s difficult for players to draw fouls while they’re hanging near the 3-point arc. It takes a special blend to balance both skills.

Mirotic, who shoots 36 percent on 3-pointers, does it a few ways.

One, he’s the floor-stretching big Chicago needs to complement Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson – especially because Noah has struggled spread the floor as a passing hub this season (perhaps due to injury). Even on the perimeter, Mirotic has a nifty shot fake that helps him draw fouls, including on 3-point tries.

Two, he plays hard. Mirotic, who credits playing professionally at age 17, is comfortable amid contact.

A perception exists that rookies and European players get unfavorable whistles, but Mirotic has overcome that double whammy.

“I don’t think about it when I’m playing,” Mirotic said. “I try to play smart, and sometimes you need to try to get contact to go to the free-throw line.”

The 6-foot-10 forward is also skilled at putting the ball on the floor and driving, though it’s not quite clear yet what form that will take. It’s easy to see him slashing and kicking as a fundamental part of an offense, but he’s averaging just 1.1 assists per game. He’s also shooting just 37.5 percent on drives. This just reveals his untapped potential more than anything.

Mirotic is already finding plenty of ways to help the Bulls. They outscore opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, better than they do with any other player. At 23, Mirotic should only get progress from here.

Because he waited more than three years after being drafted to sign in the NBA, Mirotic was eligible to receive a larger salary. He’s earning more money this season than any rookie besides Wiggins and will become a free agent a year sooner than the top 2014 first rounders. But he also had to pay a hefty buyout to leave Real Madrid.

For Mirotic, it wasn’t just about the money. It was about the league he once shunned.

“The NBA, it’s the best league in the world,” Mirotic said. “So, I really think it was important for me to give this step right now and not wait. And I’m really happy to be here.”

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.

Mike Brown reportedly on list of Indiana coach interviews

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The buzz for a while has been the Indiana coaching job is Mike D’Antoni’s to lose — the Pacers want to update their offense, and no one is more qualified to do it.

But other names are circulating and people being interviewed: Dave Joerger, the Spurs’ Becky Hammon, Miami’s Dan Craig, Dallas’ Stephen Silas, Milwaukee’s Darvin Ham, Minnesota’s David Vanterpool, Philadelphia’s Ime Udoka, Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn, Portland’s Nate Tibbetts, and don’t forget Chauncey Billups.

Now add veteran coach Mike Brown to the list, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Brown was the head coach of both the Cavaliers and Lakers, leading the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007 and being named Coach of the Year two years later. Brown has been the lead assistant under Steve Kerr for a few years now and has undoubtedly soaked up knowledge on setting up a modern NBA offense.

Whoever fills Nate McMillan’s shoes in Indiana has a tough job. Expectations may be high from ownership, but McMillan’s Pacers’ teams played hard and defended, making them difficult to play against. Their offense also was old school, which is why McMillan was fired after the Heat swept the Pacers in the first round, but it wasn’t terrible. How big a leap this team makes may rely less on the style of play and more on if Victor Oladipo has returned to his All-NBA form.