There’s a reason that the Chicago Bulls have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of rookie big man Nikola Mirotić, and it has everything to do with his decorated career in Spain over the course of the last five years. During that time, he won a Spanish League MVP award, two Spanish King’s Cup championships and two Spanish Supercup championships.
He’s a unique big man in that he has a nose for rebounding but can also score the ball from all over the floor. He’s been an exciting prospect to follow since being drafted in the first round back in 2011. He was the 23rd overall pick despite the fact that every team knew it would be at least three seasons before he made his way to the NBA, which just shows how talented he is and how excited Chicago must have been to get him over to the U.S. this summer.
Despite all that, European basketball is a very different game from what is played in the NBA. Mirotić has spent his preseason adjusting to the changes, as he himself admitted that the players here are faster and stronger than those he played against as a member of Real Madrid.
“I’ve never really had to work out this hard before,” Mirotić told Basketball Insiders. “You spend a lot of time lifting. European basketball is very different. Maybe you work out with the team for an hour and half here and there, but I really like it here and I think that I’m learning a lot and I’m improving in a lot of areas.”
However, physicality and a new weight-lifting regimen aren’t the only differences Mirotić has experienced early in his NBA career.
“I also like how the coaches here work with players,” he said. “They work with you so you know what exactly the best things are that you can do for you and the team.”
The coaching staff had plenty of time to figure out how they wanted to work with him since he was drafted three years ago, but Mirotić admitted that he, too, has been working toward this opportunity since the moment the Bulls traded for his rights on draft night in 2011.
“When Chicago drafted me, I started watching a lot of their games,” Mirotić said. “I started to look towards the NBA, but before then I didn’t really watch too many NBA games. I was always thinking I had plenty of time to come over, but the last two years is when I started working really hard, and I was feeling better every year.
“I started preparing myself to come to Chicago. I started having meetings with people from Chicago, and after the season I had the decision to go. I thought I was ready and it was the best thing for me and for my future. I think it’s a great step for me to be here and I’m very happy with my decision.”
When he was first drafted, though, he wasn’t quite as sure that he’d made the right decision to sign a new five-year contract with Real Madrid only a couple of months before the June draft.
“I was practicing with the Spanish national team (the night of the 2011 draft), and I remember that summer I had just signed a professional contract with Madrid for five years,” Mirotić said. “It was really difficult for me to be picked in the first round since I had just signed for five years. I didn’t know what team was going to draft me, and I was expecting something, but when they called me and told me it was Chicago that drafted me I was really happy… This is a perfect situation for me.”
Now, as a rookie, he has to find a way to get some minutes in arguably the deepest frontcourt rotation in the NBA. How does one find meaningful minutes behind Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson?
“I’m not really worried about all of that,” Mirotić admitted. “It’s always good to have great players around you because we practice every day, and it’s good for you because it makes you a better player.
“I don’t know right now what’s going to be my role. This is the preseason and I have my minutes now, but I know that’s going to change when the season starts. The most important thing is to continue to work hard every day, and I think Coach knows what the best thing for the team is. If that’s me playing 10 minutes then every minute I’m given to be on the court I will try to do my best and I think that is the only thing I can do. This is my first year, so I have patience. I know that I’m ready, and I know I can help the team, so we will see what happens when the season starts.”
Head coach Tom Thibodeau, for his part, doesn’t know how he’ll use his rookies either.
“I like the way Doug (McDermott) and Nikola come in every day,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t know when (they will play), but I do believe it’s going to happen. They’re both great workers, they have a great approach to what we’re doing, but it’s a big jump. They have to show that they’re capable of doing their job out there and they’re helping their team. And it’s not just how they’re playing individually, it’s how they’re playing with the group. The group has to function well when they’re on the floor.”
He’s not known for giving rookies a ton of burn, but at 23 years old, Mirotić isn’t a typical rookie. He also isn’t some guy the team got a hold of a couple of months ago; they’ve had his rights for years and have spent the last few seasons gearing up for his arrival.
It’s a different game for Mirotić, but great European players have made the transition in the past. This one hopes he can make it too and he’s certainly waited long enough to find out.
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