Realistic Expectations for Nikola Mirotic's Rookie Season with the Chicago Bulls

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Realistic Expectations for Nikola Mirotic's Rookie Season with the Chicago Bulls
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Nikola Mirotic, whose rights the Chicago Bulls obtained from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2011 draft, has finally bought out his contract with Real Madrid and inked with the Windy City. What can the Bovines reasonably expect from their Euroleague superstar?

Mirotic was selected 23rd by the Houston Rockets, then traded to the Timberwolves before ending up with the Bulls for Malcolm Lee and Norris Cole. 

Mirotic comes in with some serious hardware already on his shelf. According to his bio, the awards he’s won include the 2011 and 2012 Rising Star (more or less their equivalent to Rookie of the Year, given to the best player under 22), All-Euroleague Second Team, 2013-14 Euroleague Round 1 MVP and the 2014 Spanish Cup Finals MVP.  

Last season, he led the Euroleague’s regular season in three-point percentage at .643 (that’s not a typo) and Index Rating, 20.5. He was seventh in points and 20th in total rebounds. He also showed up on the other end of court, finishing sixth in blocks.

And he did this on a team that was one of the best in the history of Euroleague, playing against the best competition outside of the NBA. Erildas Budraitis of Real GM wrote back in February:

41-1. This is current Real Madrid’s win-loss record, which almost reads like a misprint. In more than 130 days of action, Real has lost only once and for most of the time reminded you of the Spanish version of the Monstars from Space Jam, which on a bad day would still beat their opponents by a double-digit margin. Last but not least, let me remind you that Real plays in Euroleague and Spanish championship (Liga Endesa), which are the second and the third best club competitions in the world behind just the NBA.

So how much of that success reasonably translates to the NBA? It’s obviously unrealistic for Mirotic to come over and shoot .643, but what can he do? How much will he even play, for that matter? It’s only after addressing these questions that we can establish an estimate of what Mirotic might do in the NBA.


History of Euroleague Rookies Shooting in the NBA

What happens when pure shooters come from Euroleague to the NBA? Do their shots stay true or do they fall off a cliff? To figure that out I looked at the 10 NBA rookies coming over from Euroleague who took the most three-point attempts and compared the results to their last season in Europe.

I used the Play Index to determine the list. Most of the players had their Euroleague stats listed at The one exception was Peja Stojakovic, whose numbers were obtained from CBS Sports.

Here they are in order of how many three-pointers they attempted in their NBA rookie season, along with their Euroleague stats, which include the regular season and postseason combined to broaden the sample size:

Three-Point Comparison, NBA to Euroloeague
Player Season Age Tm 3P 3PA 3P% E Team E3P E3PA E3P% Diff
Juan Carlos Navarro 2007-08 27 MEM 156 432 0.361 Winterthur FC Barcelona (Spain) 109 268 0.407 -0.046
Rudy Fernandez 2008-09 23 POR 159 398 0.399 DKV Joventut (Spain) 34 87 0.391 0.008
Alexey Shved 2012-13 24 MIN 85 288 0.295 CSKA Moscow (Russia) 33 67 0.493 -0.198
Andrea Bargnani 2006-07 21 TOR 100 268 0.373 Benetton Basket (Italy) 22 53 0.415 -0.042
Gordan Giricek 2002-03 25 TOT 85 249 0.341 CSKA Moscow (Russia) 51 115 0.443 -0.102
Sarunas Jasikevicius 2005-06 29 IND 86 236 0.364 Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) 63 120 0.525 -0.161
Omri Casspi 2009-10 21 SAC 75 203 0.369 Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) 19 63 0.302 0.067
Jorge Garbajosa 2006-07 29 TOR 66 193 0.342 Unicaja Málaga (Spain) 44 111 0.396 -0.054
Peja Stojakovic 1998-99 21 SAC 57 178 0.32 PAOK (Greece) 69 170 0.406 -0.086
Pero Antic 2013-14 31 ATL 56 171 0.327 Olympiacos (Greece) 30 115 0.261 0.066
Total -- -- -- 925 2,616 0.354 -- 474 1,169 0.405 -0.052

Last year, Mirotic shot 41-of-89 for .461 at Real Madrid. That would place him fifth on the list in terms of makes and third in terms of percentage. He belongs in this company.

There are a number of mitigating factors involved here. Not all the leagues were of the same quality. There is a wide range of ages, extending from 21 to 31. And the three-point line was moved back 19.6 inches in 2010. Most of the players on this list preceded that time.

Finally, Alexey Shved’s numbers prior to his last year in Russia were extreme outliers. Apart from the listed season, he averaged 0.67 makes per game from deep per game on .325 shooting over five seasons (and one game) playing for CSKA. Ergo, his dramatic fall-off from his first NBA season was more of a return to the norm.

It’s interesting that most of these factors are things that would favor Mirotic having a better transition. He played in the toughest league and played there longer than most on the list, but he is still younger coming over. And he did it with the longer three-point line.

All that said, the field still only dropped their shooting just a tad over five percent. So predicting a similar drop-off for Mirotic is conservative.

Factor in that the Bulls will have other three-point shooters like Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Doug McDermott on the team, Derrick Rose driving and kicking to them and the brilliant passing of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah as well, and it’s easy to see Mirotic getting open looks which lend themselves to a higher make rate.

It’s pretty easy to see Mirotic shooting over 40 percent from deep.

And while Mirotic is a great shooter, don’t confuse him with being just a shooter. As David Nurse of HoopsHype writes:

And Mirotic isn’t only a catch-and-shoot ‘Mehmet Okur Euro’, he has the ability to take defenders off the dribble and get to the hoop (draws 3.3 fouls per game). In one word, Mirotic is versatile – both offensively and defensively. And if you have watched Chicago play over the past few seasons, defensive ability is a must to get on the court and the offensive firepower Mirotic brings is a must-need for the Bulls.

Nurse also elaborates on Mirotic’s defensive abilities:

Mirotic held his opponents to 28 percent from the field and a 20 percent turnover rate when guarding in isolation situations. This will bode well with defensive mad scientist Tom Thibodeau at the helm in Chicago. At 6-foot-10, a wingspan over seven feet, and mobility, Mirotic brings the ability to guard a wing as well as bang with a forward down low. Well ‘bang’ might be a little of an overstatement, but we’ll talk about that later.

Finally, he concludes:

From studying in-depth film, speaking with my connections in European basketball, and reading scouting reports of NBA execs that I have a great deal of respect for, all arrows point towards Mirotic becoming a legitimate star in the NBA and possibly truly being the Next Great European.

The last quote is what I find the most telling, and a consistent theme: The people who are highest on Mirotic are the most familiar with him. He’s not just another stretch 4 from Europe.

In terms of pedigree, he’s more “Pau Gasol” than “Andrea Bargnani,” one of the players many have tried to compare Mirotic with.

As previously stated, Mirotic’s PIR was 20.5 last season. Bargnani’s was 10.2 the year prior to his NBA arrival. Gasol’s was 22.5. Ergo, we should expect something closer to a Gasol-like level of success, particularly with Gasol there to help him navigate his way.

Based on both the numbers and the eye test of those who have seen him the most, there is sufficient reason to believe that Mirotic should be able to approximate last season’s production on a per-minute basis. If he’s even able to even come within 80 percent, he’ll average 18.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes.


A Matter of Minutes

Having established what we might expect of Mirotic on a per-minute basis, the next step is guessing his workload.

M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

This offseason the Bulls have gotten impressively deep inside. In fact, you can argue that they have the best collection of bigs in the league, with Joakim Noah, Gasol, Taj Gibson and Mirotic. Even 12th man Cameron Bairstow showed promise in the Summer League but will likely rarely see the court because of the line in front of him.

So the Bulls have a dilemma in getting everyone sufficient playing time. Yes, on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, there’s actually concern over whether there are enough minutes to go around.

Even if the time is split evenly between the four bigs, that’s 24 minutes per player. However, it’s probably not going to work out that way, and Mirotic will get the short end of the stick behind the three veterans.

With his shooting and ability to drive the ball to the rim off the pump fake, though, Mirotic should split time with Dunleavy and McDermott at the 3, as well.  

Not everyone agrees. Mike Wilbon of ESPN Chicago doesn’t believe that either Mirotic or McDermott will get much playing time, arguing:

I hear all the talk about McDermott starting at small forward, and these people don't seem to consider that the head coach hates rookies more than missed defensive assignments. Thibs isn't starting McDermott even if the kid averages 31 points a game in summer league. Not happening. And the only person who has less chance of starting than McDermott is Mirotic, who may be 23 years old but is still a rookie -- a rookie who has no clue about playing NBA-level defense.

I think Wilbon is wrong. Thibodeau doesn’t hate rookies.

He hasn’t had rookies who were ready to play. You can’t put Marquis Teague, Tony Snell or even Jimmy Butler in their rookie seasons on the level that McDermott and Mirotic are at now.

Mirotic has been playing professional basketball in the second-toughest league in the world since 2008. That might not be the NBA, but it’s more than college. In fact, in many ways the NBA is a bit cushier. The travel schedule might be heavier in the American league, but the means of transportation and accommodations are much better.

Euroleague is a full-time and far more grueling job. It’s not the same as playing college ball.

Miroitc also has a talent level that none of the other rookies are even close to. Nick Friedell tweeted that Gar Forman told ESPN 1000’s Waddle and Silvy that they were offered top 10 picks by “several” teams for his rights:

What does “several” mean? It has to be at least three right?

Furthermore, Scott Howard-Cooper wrote back in February, “One executive, after seeing Mirotic play, said the power forward originally from Montenegro would go 'top two or three for sure' if he was in the 2014 draft and 'maybe even one.'”

That’s clearly more talent than Thibodeau’s previous rookies have had. Both as a player and as a professional, Mirotic is on an entirely different level than someone like Teague, who was a one-and-done college player who came out too early.

To simply use the limited rookies Thibodeau has had to work with to predict Mirotic’s minutes is specious. It’s not about how long they’ve been in the league so much as how well they play. Omer Asik got regular minutes because he was NBA-ready.

And so is Mirotic.  

And this is also where I’d like to point out the strange phenomenon I’ve noticed with Mirotic. Just as those who have watched Mirotic are very high on him, those who have not seem to have the strongest skepticism about him.

Wilbon is an outstanding writer and a devout Bulls fan, but that doesn’t mean he’s correct. His observations about Mirotic’s defense and versatility belie that. Wilbon calls Mirotic a “professional shooter” (in a positive sense), ignoring the other aspects of his game that Nurse noted.

That’s why I think that Wilbon prediction that Mirotic will score “Six to eight per game perhaps, and that's if Thibs starts to use him by January,” sells the Montenegrin short. The Bulls didn’t pay Mirotic $17 million to play 10 minutes a night and score six-to-eight per game. They didn’t turn down multiple offers for top-10 picks to barely put him on the court.

Sometimes we make “realistic” synonymous with not being overly optimistic. But being too pessimistic is just as unrealistic as only looking at the bright side. That’s Wilbon’s problem here: He’s selling Mirotic short.

Which Bull will have the better rookie season?

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Unrealistically so.

Reasonably, Mirotic should average about 20-22 minutes per game—15 at the 4 and five at the 3—and potentially more if he shines or if there are injuries which necessitate it. Based on the previous per-minute projections, that would put him at 11 points and four rebounds per game.

More importantly, though, look for him to score efficiently. He should flirt with the 50/40/90 club, and that quality of production will bode well for more minutes in the future seasons.  It took years for him to come over to Chicago, but it should only take weeks for him to validate that he was worth the wait.

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