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.
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:
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.”