CHICAGO — Nikola Mirotic has more than enough on his plate already. Between moving to a new country, learning a new language, learning a new style of basketball in the NBA and learning a new set of teammates with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old rookie has no shortage of responsibilities.
Now, try learning a new position on top of all that.
Mirotic came from Spain as a uniquely skilled power forward, a gifted shooter who can also rebound and put the ball on the floor. But a uniquely skilled power forward is still a power forward, and earlier in the season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau all but ruled out the possibility of Mirotic seeing any time at small forward. He would have to scrap for frontcourt minutes with three much more experienced and accomplished players: Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson.
Out of necessity, Thibodeau has been forced to change his tune lately.
Mike Dunleavy’s ankle injury forced Mirotic into the starting lineup alongside Gasol and Noah in Saturday’s 109-104 overtime win against the Boston Celtics. But what started as an emergency fix has quickly become an asset. Mirotic saw substantial minutes again at the small forward position in the Bulls’ 114-105 Monday win over the Houston Rockets, and he responded to the challenge with a 17-point, eight-rebound, two-block performance.
“It’s been a big chance for me these two games, playing the 3 position,” Mirotic said after the game. “It was not my first time. Last year in Madrid I did a couple times. But it’s not the same, playing in the NBA and Europe. I think I played well, but of course I made a lot of mistakes and my teammates helped me a lot, especially with the plays. The last three or four days, I was learning. I just want to play.”
If Mirotic truly is a viable wing option for the Bulls, it helps to solve not one but two problems with their depth. For one, playing Mirotic at small forward takes him out of the race for minutes with Gasol, Noah and Gibson, which would be a losing battle for him. Thibodeau loves veterans, and all three of those players have much longer and more impressive track records than Mirotic.
The other issue solved by Mirotic’s newfound versatility is Chicago's lack of perimeter depth.
For as deep and talented as this Bulls team is, the shooting guard and small forward positions aren’t exactly loaded with reliable rotation players. Beyond surefire All-Star Jimmy Butler and the quietly dependable Dunleavy, there are a lot of question marks.
Tony Snell has only played sporadically in his second year and hasn't made much of a case for more minutes when he does get on the floor. Lottery pick Doug McDermott got off to a rough start before going down with a knee injury that could sideline him up to another month. And even Kirk Hinrich plays small forward occasionally, which tends to be an unmitigated disaster defensively unless Butler can cover for him.
It’s only two games, but the early returns on the Mirotic experiment have been overwhelmingly positive for the Bulls.
“He’s playing great basketball,” said Thibodeau. “There’s not much he isn’t doing. He’s playing very well defensively. He’s playing well offensively. He shoots the ball. He make plays. He’s rebounding. He’s doing a lot of great things. He’s playing more than one position. Sometimes he’s the big, sometimes he’s a small. And he’s shown he can handle all that, which is very impressive in and of itself because of the differences in the two positions.”
“I’m just playing simple basketball,” Mirotic said. “If I have an open shot, I take an open shot. But the big change for me was playing defense. I wasn’t sure if I could do that. I think it was not bad the last two games, but I want to keep playing and practicing well. That’s the only way for a rookie in this league [to make an impact].”
Mirotic, the 23rd overall pick of the 2011 draft, has been a carrot for Bulls fans through two miserable, injury-plagued seasons. He was never a sure thing, despite being named MVP of the Spanish League in 2013 as a member of Real Madrid. Plenty of European prospects don’t translate seamlessly to the NBA, especially big men. For every Arvydas Sabonis, there are a dozen Darko Milicics.
But Mirotic is showing exactly why the Bulls were so eager to bring him over from Spain, and why he was their most coveted trade asset during the brief time this summer when they kicked the tires on Kevin Love.
He’s giving the Bulls a weapon unlike any they've ever had, a big man with a sweet outside stroke who doesn’t fit any of the “soft Euro player” stereotypes.
“When you have a guy who can play the 4 legitimately and play the 3 legitimately, there are not a lot of guys in the league who can do that,” Noah said. “I think he’s just going to keep getting better and better. He’s hungry to get better. I’ve been raving about him since training camp because of how much better he wants to get. The sky’s the limit for him.”
The transition won’t be perfect, and there will be plenty of growing pains along the way. There always are. But for now, a stopgap has turned into a new weapon for the Bulls. Playing Mirotic at small forward wasn’t in Thibodeau’s plans, but the rookie has forced the coach’s hand.
Not that Mirotic or any of the other Bulls want to hear about positions. Noah, when faced with the question of Mirotic’s natural position, had an easy answer.
“I think he’s a natural player.”
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin