When Nikola Mirotic was playing in Europe, everyone wanted to know: Was he the next Toni Kukoc? The next Dirk Nowitzki? Or was he just the next Andrea Bargnani?
Now that he’s with the Chicago Bulls, the only fair answer is he’s the first Nikola Mirotic. There just is no precedent.
There are, however, players who have with things in common with Mirotic. It’s by looking at them and how diverse they are that we can determine just how unique Mirotic is. And from that, we can derive how high his ceiling really is.
First, let’s look how his per 36-minute numbers stack up against the players he was most frequently compared with coming over—those mentioned above. Here they are, as provided by Basketball-Reference.com:
Overall, Mirotic has the best numbers. And it’s rebounding where Mirotic separates himself the most. In fact, if you look at his traditional box score numbers and efficiency, the rookie he most resembles isn’t any of the other European players. It’s Charles Barkley.
|Nikola Mirotic vs. Charles Barkley, Rookie Years, per 36 Minutes|
Part of what makes Mirotic intriguing is that he’s able to play with the physical presence of a traditional power forward while maintaining the shooting stroke of a stretch 4.
Mirotic’s rookie year is unprecedented when factoring in rebounding, scoring and three-point shooting. In fact, only two players in history posted his per-36-minute numbers while playing 1,000 minutes. Here are the only instances that match his 2014-15 season:
|Players with 2.0 Threes, 9.0 Rebounds and 15.0 Points per 36 Minutes|
So the very short list consists of just Troy Murphy and Kevin Love, but even that has a caveat. When you factor in the free-throw line, the number pares down even more.
Mirotic has been to the stripe 4.7 times per 36 minutes this year. The only one of the seasons above where that’s happened is Kevin Love in 2013-14, when Love averaged 6.7 free throws per game.
Let’s restate that quickly for emphasis: The only time in history a player averaged more points, threes, free throws and rebounds per 36 minutes was Kevin Love, last year. That’s the best year of Love’s career compared to the first year of Mirotic’s.
And while Love makes the best comparison, even that falls short of demonstrating the diversity of talents offered by Mirotic. During Love’s 2013-14 season, only 64 of his 2,010 pints—or 3.2 percent of them—came on drives, per NBA.com/Stats. By comparison, Mirotic has scored 67 of his 567 points (11.8 percent) on drives.
Mirotic is unique because he has a range of abilities we just haven’t seen before. He has the size and strength to contest for rebounds inside. He has the shooting touch to knock down threes. And he has the handles to put the ball on the floor and either get to the rim or draw fouls.
And, above all, his game is made for the modern era.
There are three principle areas that modern analytics tells us are the most efficient for scoring: outside the three-point line, inside the restricted area and from the charity stripe. I refer to them as the “Morey Zones” because they are emphasized by Daryl Morey, the analytical genius and general manager of the Houston Rockets.
I looked at every player in history who has made at least 50 three-point shots and how many of their points came in the Morey Zones. I used the player pages at NBA.com/Stats to determine points in the restricted area.
Mirotic has earned 91.5 percent of his points from those three areas, which is the most of any rookie, ever. But that’s only the beginning of the intrigue here. What’s compelling is how evenly Mirotic distributes his points.
Rudy Fernandez had the second-highest percent, but the bulk of those—58.5 percent—were from the three-point line. Players who had a high percentage with most of them concentrated in one area didn’t go on to fare so well. Those who were evenly distributed have had much better careers. Here are the top 10.
|Top-10 Rookies in Percent of Points from Morey Zones|
|Rk||Player||Season||% FT||% 3P||%RA||%Morey|
What’s most striking is the next guy on that list (11th) might be the best and most favorable comparison. Only two players have ever had 25 percent of their points in their rookie season come from each the three-point line, the free-throw line and inside the restricted area: Mirotic and Kobe Bryant.
According to the numbers, Mirotic is doing things that only franchise-level to Hall of Fame players have achieved. When names like Bryant, Barkley and Love start getting tossed around, though, you have to take things with a grain of salt.
It’s worth mentioning here that these numbers are intended to show the diversity of Mirotic’s abilities more than the level of his play. They are showing what he could do more than they’re emphatically stating what he has done.
There’s an argument to be made that the numbers might not be outright “lying" here, but they could be fibbing a bit. That’s where the eye test and an appreciation of the direction of the NBA are needed. The numbers here are all prorated to 36-minute bites. So it’s fair to wonder whether Mirotic would be able to put up the same numbers with extended minutes.
It’s also fair to wonder if they could be better if he were the first or second option instead of the third or fourth, as he has been much of the season.
It’s also just his rookie year. There’s a whole career ahead of him. Whether Mirotic can hit his ceiling depends on how he adapts and improves, particularly from the area most thought he would specialize from: the three-point line.
Let’s be careful to balance this assessment. The only 6’10” rookie in history to notch more three-point shots per 36 minutes is Bargnani. Ryan Anderson and Vladimir Radmanovic aren’t far behind. So Mirotic can hit from behind the arc.
But of those guys, Mirotic’s 32.9 three-point percentage is the lowest. It needs improvement. There are a combination of reasons that is low.
First, it seems like fatigue might be setting in. Before January, he was shooting 40.4 percent from deep, but since the calendar flipped, he’s hitting 27.1 percent. So, conditioning might be in order.
Form might be part of it too. Watch him on the catch-and-shoot here:
There’s nothing particularly “wrong” in any one step of the process. You could argue he puts the ball down too low on catching it, but Ray Allen would take it down to about the same spot. It’s more of an issue of fluidity. Allen was quick and smooth from catch to release. Mirotic is slow and clunky.
If he can speed up and smooth out his motion, he should be much more lethal from three. And next year, he shouldn’t have fatigue set in as much as he learns what’s entailed in an NBA season. Both of those problems are fixable.
And that makes him even more dangerous, as he uses three-point fakes to set up his drive. He has a bona fide skill set, as you can see in the following clip, but a lot of what he does comes off his fakes. He needs his deep ball to be falling if he’s going to continue to keep the fish biting at the bait.
Unlike a lot of European players, he’s not a liability on defense, either. His defensive real plus-minus is 1.79, per ESPN.com. And while some might argue that such numbers are impacted by team defense, the fact he is the second-best on the Bulls would suggest that he’s doing the influencing more than being influenced.
He’s able to guard either forward position. He has surprising quickness and is able to stay in front of most 3s. For example, see how he puts the clamps on C.J. Miles twice in this play, first by deflecting the pass, then by denying Miles the straight line to the basket and forcing him to throw up an errant shot.
However, his rim protection needs work. According to Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus, Mirotic’s giving up an extra 2.61 points per 36 minutes inside the restricted area. And while his opponents shoot .9 percent worse overall against him, they shoot 2.4 percent better within six feet of the basket.
He could stand to not only put on a little muscle, but to learn to utilize his strength. That said, he’s not a “soft” player by any stretch. We’re picking at nits here.
Based on his array of abilities, penchant for scoring in the most efficient areas and defense, Mirotic’s going to have a long and successful NBA career. What his ceiling is depends on how he develops.
This year, in the 10 games he’s played 30 or more minutes, he’s averaged 19.3 points and 9.3 boards with a 59.0 true shooting percentage. That’s his floor, and those are All-Star-caliber numbers. Ergo it’s not unreasonable to conclude that once he starts getting starter minutes, he’ll be an All-Star.
I repeat. He is, at minimum, an All-Star. Barring injury (a necessary qualifier with any Bull), Mirotic will be an All-Star by his third year. I predict this unequivocally and unreservedly. Mock me until I’m proven right.
Yes, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson are under contract, but I believe that Mirotic will make it impossible for even Tom Thibodeau to keep him down in the rotation. And if that doesn't happen and Thibodeau remains coach, Gar Forman and John Paxson will find a taker for Gibson to give Mirotic the minutes. He's that good.
And considering some of the Hall of Fame and franchise-level stars his rookie season is on par with, it’s not a stretch to think that his future could be of that type. How many guys have had numbers compare favorably with both Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley? That’s why is ceiling is so high. And why he is such an unprecedented player.