It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago, Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He was every bit as impressive as the Chicago front office hoped he would be when they paid to bring him over from Spain in the summer of 2014. Scoring 10.2 points per game in just over 20 minutes a night, Mirotic looked well on his way to being the franchise cornerstone he was drafted to be.
His sophomore season was at times disappointing, but he still saw some growth – playing a little more, scoring a little more and knocking down a higher percentage of his three-point shots. However, something about the 2016-17 NBA season so far has been frustrating for Mirotic. His scoring has dropped from 11.8 PPG to 8.5 PPG this season, his three-point shooting has dropped all the way to 28.1 percent and his timidity offensively has been frustrating to watch as he’s moved beyond excessive pump fakes to weird double-clutch shots and reticent dishes when he’s anywhere near the bucket.
In short, the shots just aren’t falling for Mirotic this year, and he knows it.
“I am very frustrated,” Mirotic told Basketball Insiders. “Shooting 1-for-13 the last two games is bad. I shot 0-for-11 from three the last few games. I know that I could at least be 5-for-11 or 6-for-11. It’s frustrating, but I can do it. I’ll spend more hours on the court trying to feel better and feel more comfortable, but I know I’m not making shots and not feeling great offensively.”
There have been some truly atrocious offensive games for Mirotic this year, including three where he didn’t hit a single shot. When asked if his shots feel as bad as they look sometimes, he laughed without directly answering.
“I think I just need to hit a few in a row and to make a couple of threes,” Mirotic explained. “Some of these shots during games, I felt great. I felt the ball would go in, but just that there was no way I could score. The thing is I just need to keep working, keep shooting during practice and during the game because my teammates want me to soot. I know I still have the confidence of my teammates and my coaching staff.”
Especially in the absence of Doug McDermott, who has missed the last nine games with concussion symptoms, Mirotic was supposed to have separated himself a little as a key member of the team’s bench. Instead, Mirotic and the rest of Chicago’s reserves have been getting outscored by dozens and dozens of points every night. Despite all of this, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the state of the team’s second unit.
“We can score a lot, but there’s some games when the ball is not going in,” Mirotic said. “We are fine. We have a very good bench, very good chemistry playing together, and hopefully Doug will get back soon because we need him. We need points from the bench, especially because we are not making shots right now.”
In the meantime, Mirotic is trying to do the things he can control, like defending and rebounding. He is seeing a reasonable measure of success there, averaging a career-high 5.6 rebounds per game this season. He also had a key block at the end of Friday’s game against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and in that regard he feels as though he’s making improvements.
“My goal this year is defense,” Mirotic said. “A lot of people look at me as just offense and if I’m going to score shots, but I don’t want to be just a shooter. I want to do some different things because I believe in myself and I know I can rebound the ball. I know I can improve a lot on defense, so that’s one of my goals.”
Mirotic was one of Spain’s biggest stars before coming to the NBA, but he continues to struggle to make the transition to this version of the game. He is trying, though, and while it’s frustrating at times to bear witness to the growing pains, he really is maturing as a player.
“It’s very different in international games,” Mirotic said. “Playing in Europe is easier because there’s not that many games, the physicality is completely different. I’m just trying to put some weight on my body. I spend a lot of hours in the weight room, and when I’m on the court and my opponents defend my shots, I want to try and make some different impact even if the ball is not going into the rim.”
And the team is winning. Chicago remains one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, only 2.5 games back of the conference lead, so the team does have the ability to weather some storms while Mirotic finds his shot.
“The key for me is that the team is winning,” he said. “That’s the key. Of course I want myself to make those shots and play better, but for now I’m going to help the rest of my teammates try to make the simple plays and rebound the ball.”
Luckily, Chicago hasn’t needed big offensive contributions out of Mirotic so far, but to maintain their current level of success, he’s going to have to start chipping in sooner or later. As someone who looked like one of the league’s brightest young stars just two short seasons ago, Mirotic is coming to a point where his game will have to take another step forward.
For now, he’s going backward, and even he says that’s frustrating. The best way to change that, though, is to play better. For the sake of Chicago’s dismal bench, let’s hope he’s got it in him.
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