Three years after getting picked 23rd overall, Nikola Mirotic will be joining the NBA next season. Playing for powerhouse Real Madrid, the Montenegrin-born of Spanish citizenship has developed from a highly touted European prospect to one of the best players in the continent and the most highly-expected transfer to the NBA since Ricky Rubio.
Mirotic is the rare combination of youth and experience, as he is about to enter his age-24 season with 4,800 minutes of high level pro ball already under his belt. He is just removed from a tremendous season, but one that faded a little in the end.
Mirotic looked fatigued in the Spanish league finals, playing without much energy, and was rumored to not be getting along well with head-coach Pablo Laso by that time. Real Madrid lost that series to arch-rival Barcelona 3-1, despite being the better team all season long and in most of their head-to-head matchups over the last couple of seasons, including a 38-point demolition in the Euroleague semifinal just a month earlier. Barça won two of those games late and one other by hitting an uncommon amount of three-pointers but Real Madrid just never looked like the team that had the superiority in talent, athleticism and the style of play Barça had struggled to deal with for two years. And Mirotic was a huge part of it. He logged fewer than 16 minutes per game in that series (down eight minutes from his season average), scored 30 points on 22 shots (down from his 1.56 point per shot season average) and grabbed four total rebounds in his 63 minutes.
His struggles against the highest level of competition started a month earlier, when he chose a bad day to have a bad day in the Euroleague championship game, which Real Madrid lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in overtime. Maccabi guarded him with guys like David Blu and Ricky Hickman. They are shorter players, but have just as much core strength as Mirotic and he struggled to take advantage of them in the post. His stat line in that game was fine (12 points on 10 shots, seven rebounds and seven fouls drawn in 27 minutes), but those who watched that game noticed he didn’t have a great outing. He especially struggled down the stretch of regulation, when all Real Madrid did was go outside its normal pick-and-roll heavy offense to keep getting him isolated in the block.
If he really was fatigued (he looked fatigued to me but players always deal with nagging injuries and illnesses that we never get to know about), then it’s a bit of a cause for concern. The 1,800 minutes (73 games) he logged last season should be on par with what is expected of him in a normal NBA season, except that the pace of play is faster and the interval between games is shorter. But as far as I’m concerned, those late season struggles are the exception to the norm.
He was tremendous the vast majority of the season, an efficiency machine as an all-around scorer. According to in-the-game.org, Mirotic shot 69.5% on his 59 attempts at the rim, 41% on his 78 two-point jump-shots and 46.3% of his 82 three-point attempts, aside from averaging almost five free throw attempts per 28 pace-adjusted minutes in his 691 Euroleague minutes. He ranked second in the league in scoring per possession among power forwards who logged at least 200 minutes. In the Spanish league, he was seventh in scoring per shot and ranked third in offensive rating, per RealGM.com.
It’s his scoring versatility as a face-up power-forward that helps Mirotic project well for the NBA. Mirotic does not use his above average quickness to dive hard to the basket on the pick-and-roll as much as he should, showing a strong preference for operating on the perimeter. He is a great set shooter, with a fluid motion and an semi-quick release, which is actually an accomplishment considering he is taller than the average shooter and loads by bringing the ball down to hip level. Every team is looking to space the floor with big men who can shoot these days. Mirotic fits that criteria well, both as a spot-up threat camping beyond the three-point arc and working on the pick-and-pop with Derrick Rose. The pick-and-pop has hurt his ability to be a factor on the glass though, as Mirotic ranked outside the top 15 in offensive rebounding rate among power forwards in both leagues.
He is not particularly fast off the dribble, but is more mobile than the average six-foot-10, 230-pound player and got to the rim with some consistency in Europe. He doesn’t finish with authority — just 12 of his 499 points in the Spanish league came off dunks — but has tremendous touch to score around challengers within five feet. Mirotic does not dribble the ball as low as he should when attacking the basket on drives from the perimeter, which leaves him vulnerable to getting the ball stripped. That was not a problem in the European game (he posted an average turnover rate) but could be one in the NBA, where the arms are longer and the hands are more active.
Part of why he was so efficient is that Mirotic proved himself an intelligent player that rarely forced his way through non-existent driving lanes, plus hit his mid-range pull-ups with consistency. It’s questionable if that will translate as well to the NBA, though. He shouldn’t blow by many defenders with his average first step and the average NBA athlete recovers to contest shots a lot quicker European defenders. He does have a high release point thanks to his height and long arms, so he should get his shots off fine.
Mirotic also shows himself a capable passer, consistently making the obvious pass to teammates left open by helping defenders, but didn’t rank high in assist-rate among peers in either league. As mentioned above, he struggles against strong players on straight post ups. However, operating from the low block is a part of his game the Bulls shouldn’t quit developing, as Mirotic has the shooting touch and high release point to be really effective on fadeaway, turnaround jumpers if he gains more strength to set up defenders properly.
Mirotic projects quite well as a defender in Tom Thibodeau’s system. Thibodeau is known as a very demanding coach, but he will certainly like how much he has to work with in Mirotic, who has proven himself both intelligent and a hard worker on that end. He has the mobility to hedge and recover on pick-and-rolls, which is the strategy Thibodeau prefers in order to keep the opponent from getting to the middle of the lane. And he was remarkably attentive to his help responsibilities, bumping opponents and crashing inside to protect the basket when his front court-mate was hedging or trapping on the perimeter, then showing good agility to go back to his man.
Statistically, Real Madrid actually defended better without him in the Spanish league. However, that can be explained by him logging a lot of minutes with Ioannis Bourousis at center, a bad defender, and Real Madrid’s second unit featuring Felipe Reyes and Marcus Slaughter upfront, two excellent defenders.
His lack of core strength also hurts him defending the post, but very few teams have the type of post scorer and commitment to keep going to that player enough to take advantage of that. His rebounding is more concerning. He rebounded fine in the Spanish league, but ranked 27th in the Euroleague in defensive rebounding rate among power forwards, grabbing only 16% of opponents’ misses. Bourousis is a good rebounder but definitely not good enough to suppress his teammates’ rebounding opportunities. Mirotic is a big player, but doesn’t have a big rebounding area and doesn’t go after the ball with a lot of intensity.
Overall, Mirotic should be a good addition to the Bulls. There are some legitimate question marks here, but if they can be ironed out he will translate well to the league.