In 2011 the Chicago Bulls traded up in the draft to land the draft rights to Nikola Mirotic, a draft-and-stash European player, rather than make a play for a shooting guard. Almost instantly the entire city of Chicago let out a synchronized groan. That groan has long since disappeared as Mirotic has begun to emerge as the Bulls' best asset not named Derrick Rose.
Mirotic has done nothing short but amaze since he was drafted, albeit in Europe rather than in the NBA. In fact in the interim he became the first player in the history of Euroleague basketball to win their Rising Star Award twice. Now he's a contender for the third straight year—and has even been brought up as a MVP candidate.
In fact expectations have risen to such a point for Mirotic that Nick Gibson of Sheridan Hoops, who covers the Euroleague quite extensively, scoffed at the idea of trading Mirotic in a package that would net the Bulls the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol!
Without getting into the semantics of that particular debate, the very fact that a person who has probably seen Mirotic play more than most people in North America would have that opinion is fairly meaningful and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.
So what makes Mirotic so special anyway? To listen to some he's a stretch forward, which he is. Just be careful to remember that he's not just a stretch forward.
When you typically think of the stretch forward, particularly from Europe, you think of a player like Andrea Bargnani, the seven-footer for the Toronto Raptors, who is about as soft as a warm bowl of ice cream. He doesn't get to the line and he doesn't box out to get rebounds. He plays defense like absolutely nothing depends on it.
Mirotic is nothing like that. He's a bona fide scrapper. CBS Sports Dave-Te' Thomas says Mirotic's a "fiery competitor who can throw the elbow when he feels he is getting out-muscled." Te' Thomas also says he "will scramble for loose balls with little regard for his own safety."
In the video below you can see he is not afraid of contact.
He is his team's third-leading rebounder and second-leading offensive rebounder. He gets to the line frequently, averaging one free-throw attempt for every 1.7 field-goal attempts, a better rate than Kevin Durant, who averages one for every 2.1 field-goal attempts.
Mirotic is anything but soft. He's a hard-nosed player. He seeks out contact rather than shrinks from it. Don't think soft euro here.
We also look at stretch forwards as being somewhat clumsy when it comes to handling the ball. They're great spot-up shooters—just don't ask them to put the ball on the floor—but Mioritc's skills are such that he could play the small forward as well as the power forward.
Mirotic might not be Derrick Rose with the ball, but he does have skills.
He runs the floor exceptionally well in transition. He can also take the ball from the three-point line to cutting through traffic. He has an exceptionally pretty leaning jumper that he hits with regularity.
He also moves well without the ball. In fact The Painted Area of ESPN's True Hoops network had this to say about him.
Maybe his most impressive skill is his cutting ability. Impeccable feel of when and where to make cuts. Terrific ability to read his teammates and defense to sneak to the open spot at the perfect time.
When you factor in how much the Bulls like to run those types of plays with Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng, Mirotic would fit right in.
Mirotic might stretch the court but do not believe for a moment that he's a one-dimensional scorer. He can move without the ball and he can move with the ball. He can score in a half-court offense, and he can torch you in transition. He can post up smaller players, and he can get bigger players to leave their feet early, and score with what Thomas calls a "scoop shot."
And oh, yeah, he's not afraid of the big shot either.
Lest you think that this is just an issue of playing against European competition, it's worth mentioning that this preseason, Mirotic played two games against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors and averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 boards in those two games.
When you think of European stretch forwards, you think of defensively challenged players but Mirotic is not only not challenged defensively, he's actually a pretty solid defensive player. While he can occasionally get backed down defensively, he does a decent job. Again, according to The Painted Area:
For a guy in serious need of some lbs., he guarded the post very well. Stays with his man thanks to nice footwork and anticipation. Also, like how he uses his chest to guard in the post (very similar to what we noticed in Omer Asik last year). On defensive post possessions, Nikola was able to hold his opponent to 28% shooting. There were a few instances where he did get backed down easily, which is to be expected. But for the most part, he was able to hold his ground thanks to a wide, balanced base.
Guarding in iso situations, he was equally impressive--held his opponent to 28% shooting and forced a TO on 20% of the iso possessions. Like his post defense, he makes up for a lack of natural agility with good footwork and outstanding anticipation skills (very similar to Motiejunas). Does a good job beating the ball-handler to spots and forcing him to change direction.
Certainly this sounds like the kind of tool that Tom Thibodeau loves to use. Mirotic is an extremely bright player with an instinctive understanding of the game and defense. He also brings real effort on that end of the ball. He knows how to compensate for a slight lack of speed defending the small forward and his lack of size defending the power forward.
He's drawn comparisons to everyone from Dirk Nowitzki (shooting), to Andrei Kirilenko (defense) and to Toni Kukoc (ball-handling). Exactly what he'll end up being is impossible to say, but that's some pretty good company.