Nikola Mirotic and Real Madrid just spent two games playing in the USA against real NBA talent, giving many Bulls fans their first look at their draft-and-stash Euro. After two games this much can be said: Be excited Bulls fans, be very excited.
According to Sam Smith of Bulls.com his game against Madrid left an impression on Zach Randolph:
“I was just asking Marc (Gasol) about him,” Randolph was saying after the game when I caught up with him in the Grizzlies locker room in a sort of a Butch and Sundance “Who was that guy?” tone.
“I like him,” Randolph said. “I told Marc he can shoot the ball. I was asking how old he was. He’s just 21. The kid’s got a real upside. He can play in the NBA.”
Madrid's game against Toronto was nationally televised, giving him a chance to showcase his talents to the nation. It took him exactly 24 seconds to start impressing Bulls fans when he made an athletic break down the court to catch the ball in transition and finish at the rim.
Many Chicago fans were expecting to see a player who could spot up and shoot. Perhaps more surprising was an impressive array of skills, which included an ability to put the ball on the floor, as exhibited by the 51-second mark of the video below. (You can also see that shooting ability at the 1:31 mark).
When all was said and done, Mirotic had posted 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
In the two total games, he averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 boards. That's not at all bad for a 21 year-old playing his first two games against real NBA teams.
It wasn't about the stats though. It was about the way he played. There was a fluidity and athleticism that promised he wasn't just another player who could post big numbers in Europe and then flop in the NBA. This, perhaps more than anything, is what surprised Bulls fans.
He has the speed and skills of a small forward and the size of a power forward. It was one thing to hear about it and read about it, but it was another thing to actually see it. He's shockingly smooth for a man his size; there's a gracefulness to him which catches you off guard.
Suddenly, the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons don't sound quite so insane. He has a pure shot. He has the ability to get to the rim and to stretch the court with his three. He has the ability to draw fouls. He even has the ability to make free throws after drawing the foul, a real weakness for the Bulls the last two years.
He also shows things that Nowitzki never did, primarily a defensive aptitude that the greatest European player only started to develop late in his career.
Mirotic, though, works hard on defense, shows a high basketball IQ and defends multiple positions. He effectively guarded both Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan at different times, and showed the quickness to stay in front of DeRozan and the length to stay with Bargnanni.
He also showed an awareness of where and when to be on each side of the court. His awareness of the game was more mature than you'd expect from a 21-year-old.
He wasn't without weaknesses, however.
He got pushed off the block by Amir Johnson, particularly on the offensive glass, which shows he needs to work on his strength. When he tried to guard Jose Calderon, his ankles were shattered. He failed to record an assist and was whistled for nine fouls in the two total games, fouling out of the second.
Certainly there are things Mirotic needs to work on. The kid is still 21, and his instincts and basketball IQ are impressive for a player so young. The weaknesses are things which can be worked on over the next two seasons, or at the very least, when he comes to the Bulls.
Sadly that won't be for a number couple of years. Smith explains why,
Under NBA rules, since he was a low first round draft pick, Mirotic would be limited to that salary slot, which is far below his Real Madrid salary, for three years. After that, the Bulls could pay Mirotic if they are under the salary cap or with an exception. Since Mirotic is under contract with Real Madrid, there is a substantial penalty if he leaves early. But once a European club realizes a player wants to come to the NBA, they tend to negotiate. Once Mirotic is free of the three-year NBA salary slot, he theoretically could pay for a substantial buyout and still make money. Before three years he could not as NBA teams can only pay a limited amount of a potential buyout.
In other words, Mirotic has no way of actually making more money for the Bulls next year, so the soonest we'll see him in red is the 2014-15 season unless Real Madrid is generous in their buyout.
When he arrives, he'll still be only 23 year old at most. He has the potential to be that second star playing alongside Derrick Rose if his game continues to develop as it as.
Perhaps the most exciting thing, the thing which should really have Bulls fans salivating though, is the way his abilities will mesh with Rose's. His ability to stretch the floor will open up the lane for the Bulls' star point guard, and Rose's ability to penetrate and break down defenses will create open threes for Mirotic.
Additionally, Miriotic has the speed and athleticism to run the court with Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng far more than Carlos Boozer does. The Bulls' transition offense promises to be much more exciting once he arrives.
For now, we'll just have to wait before the "Niii-cole-ah" chants to ring out at the United Center. Know that there is a star in the wings though.