Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Coming to America
Nikola Mirotić’s Long and Winding Journey to the NBA
By Adam Fluck
Nikola Mirotić is hardly your typical NBA rookie. When the young European joined the Chicago Bulls over the summer, it was a long awaited and much anticipated arrival. For Mirotić, who played five years professionally in Spain, it was a matter of timing and the situation being right. Now, as he experiences his first NBA season, Mirotić knows the transition won’t be easy. But no one who knows him doubts he’s got what it takes to get the job done.
Growing Up in Montenegro and Discovering Basketball
Twenty-four years ago this February, Nikola Mirotić was born in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, a place he called home for the first 15 years of his life. Montenegro, a country of about 625,000, is located off the Adriatic Sea roughly 200 miles east of Italy.
“It’s very beautiful with nice people who [are] very polite,” says Mirotić, who along with his parents, Ranko and Dragana, and older brother Filip, lived just over a half hour between the sea and mountains.
Like a lot of boys who grew up in Podgorica, Mirotić began playing soccer at a young age. He dreamed of someday starring for the local club, FK Budućnost Podgorica.
“It’s not a world famous team, but we have great talent and young players there, just like America with basketball,” explains Mirotić. “We are a small country and many of the most talented players from Montenegro are in the European leagues.”
It wasn’t until after Mirotić turned 13 that he started playing basketball. Before then he focused only on the world’s most popular sport—fútbol, as he still calls it. That is, until a wise family elder talked him into giving basketball a shot.
“As I started growing up, I was always playing fútbol,” recalls Mirotić. “One day, I was talking with my grandfather and he said, ‘Hey, you need to go practice basketball. I know of a school named Joker.’ I told him, ‘No, I like fútbol. I don’t want to go.’ He said, ‘Just go to one practice and you will see. You will like it.’ I went there and he was right—I immediately felt something very special.”
The Joker School of Basketball in Podgorica is where Mirotić, then around 6’5”, first met Jadran Vujacic, a fellow Montenegrin and former professional basketball player who helped Mirotić fall in love with the game.
“Jadran really did everything for me,” says Mirotić. “He is the one who pushed me to being a basketball player.”
Vujacic quickly recognized Mirotić’s raw ability as the two worked out daily. They eventually set a goal to get Mirotić to a point where he could play professionally in Spain, Italy or Greece. Chicago Bulls Director of International Scouting, Ivica Dukan, discovered Mirotić not long after his days at Joker.
“Jadran and I played against each other [in Europe]. He played for Partisan Belgrade and we competed against each other a lot,” remembers Dukan. “That’s how I found out about Nikola.”
After two years at Joker, all the work that Mirotić and Vujacic spent in the gym began to pay off. During a workout in Campos, Spain, Mirotić caught the eye of a couple of Real Madrid scouts. Shortly thereafter, he was on his way to Spain to join their program, and the relationship with Vujacic continued to grow stronger. In fact, every summer, including this past one, Mirotić travels back to Montenegro to spend time with Vujacic so the two can continue practicing.
“I speak with [Jadran] all the time. He is, for me, a father for basketball,” says Mirotić.
A couple of years after Nikola signed with Real Madrid, Vujacic became Mirotić’s father-in-law, as the 6’10” forward married his daughter, Nina. This past summer, Nikola and Nina welcomed their first child, a boy named Aleksej, making Jadran Vujacic a very proud grandfather.
Moving to Madrid Where Things Got Real
Though Mirotić was just a teenager when he left for Madrid, the magnitude of the opportunity was not lost on the then 15-year-old basketball prodigy.
“I started to believe that I could be something,” says Mirotić. “But it was hard. [Going to Spain] was a big change for me.”
The transition from Montenegro to Spain was eased a great deal when his parents decided to move to Madrid to be with their son that first year. Then in his second season, Mirotić moved into a residence hall where he lived with other young players. All the while, he continued to attend school, living a comparable life to that of a high school student-athlete in America. It was during this period when Dukan first saw Mirotić play.
“Nikola was about 16,” recalls Dukan. “I saw him working out with Real Madrid’s top team and I said, ‘Who the heck is that kid?’ He was skinny, but you could tell, just like today, that he was very skilled. He had the ability to shoot. He also had some impressive post-up moves. He was just a baby, but his skill and size, I liked those right away. I thought he was somebody I needed to follow.”
Different divisions exist within Real Madrid with players primarily grouped by age but Mirotić’s improvement skyrocketed as he jumped from the cadets team to the junior team before ultimately joining the senior team by the time he hit 17.
“It was a big step,” says Mirotić. “It was hard, but a good experience. I was very young, but I learned a lot. I had great coaches.
“That first year with the senior team, they didn’t expect I would stay long,” adds Mirotić. “But I played really good and surprised them. So they kept me around. I played 15-20 minutes a game.”
At 19, Mirotić signed his first professional contract with Real Madrid. That same year, Nina came to join him in Spain and his future started to take shape. While playing for Spain at the 2010 FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship Tournament, Mirotić averaged a record 27 points and 10 rebounds, earning MVP honors. In 2011, Mirotić was named the Euroleague’s Rising Star Award honoree. The following season, he did it again, marking the only time a player has ever claimed the honor more than once.
“It was a great feeling,” says Mirotić of his accomplishment. “It meant that I was doing a great job and growing as a player. Basketball is a team sport so it was impossible for me to win [the award] without the help of my teammates and coaches. But it felt really good to win.”
At the same time, Mirotić says he knew he wasn’t close to being a finished product, that his game still had a lot of room for improvement.
“I like to be in the gym very early before practice, an hour before it starts to make shots,” says Mirotić. “I stay after practice. In summer, I practice a lot; I really don’t take a lot of time to rest.
“I think a lot about basketball, always try to be [focused]. I try to learn from other players with experience. If you want to be good at something, you need to learn from others, especially if you’re young. I think that’s important, the best way to grow as a player. Be focused, work hard every day and learn.”
In April 2010, as Mirotić continued to shine with Real Madrid, he was selected to participate at the Nike Hoop Summit being held in Portland, Oregon, as a member of the World Select team. At the end of the week, Mirotić and his teammates faced a USA Junior National Select Team featuring the likes of future NBA players Kyrie Irving, Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger. It just so happened that Dukan’s son, Duje, was going to be a teammate of Mirotić’s at the Summit. Thus Dukan went to Portland and spent the week watching Mirotić and his son practice. Though Dukan had seen Mirotić play in Spain, the two had never spoken to each other until that week.
Mirotić scored 14 points, shooting six-of-thirteen from the field, and added seven rebounds in 25 minutes against Team USA, who won the game, 101-97.
“I had a chance to study him,” recalls Dukan. “They practiced twice a day. Nikola was pretty good in the game. From then, I saw him every year. I would go about two or three times each year.”
Dukan wasn’t the only Bulls front office member on hand in Portland that week. General Manager Gar Forman also saw Mirotić play and he came away very impressed.
“Nikola’s talent was very evident,” recalls Forman. “Duke had known of him for several years so he was on our radar.”
Despite performing well in front of a crowd loaded with high ranking league executives, playing in the NBA still had not crossed Mirotić’s mind.
“Believe me, it was a good experience, something new, but I still was not thinking about [the] NBA because at the time I was happy [playing] in Europe,” Mirotić says. “I liked how European basketball is played and I was thinking I would spend more time there.”
The following spring, Mirotić was approached by his agent about the possibility of entering the 2011 NBA Draft. It’s not uncommon for young European players to enter the Draft simply to get a sense of interest from NBA teams before ultimately withdrawing. Mirotić had just signed a long-term contract with Real Madrid, so he planned to eventually pull his name out of the Draft, but that idea changed.
“Duke had developed a personal relationship with Nikola so he knew that we really liked him,” explains Forman. “At the end of the day, that was an important factor in Nikola staying in the Draft.”
The thought of coming to Chicago one day to play for the Bulls was tempting. So Mirotić decided to keep his name in pool of available players just to see what would happen.
Eye on the NBA
The Bulls entered the 2011 NBA Draft with a pair of late first round picks, Nos. 28 and 30, and selecting Mirotić was a “priority,” according to Forman.
Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had been briefed on Forman’s intentions and gave his blessing. However, it wasn’t as simple as just waiting patiently and then selecting Mirotić once Chicago’s turn came up. On the night of the Draft, the Bulls caught wind of a credible rumor that another team with a higher pick was planning to grab Mirotić out from under them. So Forman began working the phones and eventually pulled off a trade that sent the No. 28 pick, which ended up being Norris Cole, and Chicago’s second round pick, No. 43, Malcolm Lee, and cash for the chance to move up to the No. 23 slot to select Mirotić before anyone else could.
“Jerry [Reinsdorf] put in a good chunk [of money] in order for us to move up,” recalls Forman.
Chicago then chose Jimmy Butler with the 30th overall pick. Whereas Butler has developed into one of the NBA’s premier defenders over the past three seasons, the Bulls knew that adding Mirotić to the team’s mix was going to take some time.
“We understood that if we drafted Nikola, we would have to be patient and allow him to stay and develop in Spain because of his contractual situation with Real Madrid,” says Forman.
For Mirotić, on the other hand, once the Bulls owned his draft rights, he began giving the NBA serious thought.
“Before that, I was never thinking of [the] NBA,” says Mirotić. “I was thinking I would stay in Spain and try to be the best player in Europe.”
After the Draft, Forman and his staff shifted their focus to getting to know Mirotić as a person.
“We felt it was important to build a personal connection with Nikola,” explains Forman. “We wanted to let him know how much we thought of him as a player. From that point on, we stayed in regular contact.
“I remember the first time we met Nikola, he seemed pretty nervous,” remembers Forman. “So we tried to put him at ease right away. Then each time we went over [to Europe] to visit he seemed to feel more comfortable. I think our patient approach gave him the time he needed to process the idea of coming over to play in the NBA.
“We saw right away that Nikola is an A-plus guy with an incredible make up and character,” adds Forman. “He is very, very grounded for as talented as he is. You can tell he gets it. Coaches that have worked with him in the past always rave about his work ethic.”
Forman was also on hand when Mirotić and Real Madrid came to North America to play the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors in a pair of preseason games in October 2012. Afterwards, Memphis All-Stars Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph raved about Mirotić. Both said they felt he had the talent to do well in the NBA. Those games also provided Mirotić a much-needed confidence boost.
“I don’t remember how many points [I scored], but [I believed] I played good. I felt happy,” says Mirotić. “I started to think I could play in [the] NBA.”
Sweet Home Chicago
The process of getting Mirotić to Chicago had a unique set of circumstances and complications. Mirotić's contract with Real Madrid included a significant financial buyout provision for the final season of his deal. After some give-and-take, the two worked out a dollar amount both believed was fair, freeing Mirotić to jump to the Bulls in time for the start of the 2014-15 season.
“Until they came to a deal, there was no chance of Nikola playing with us this year,” acknowledges Forman. “We didn’t know how it would go until mid-July. It had always been our goal to get him here as soon as possible, but until Nikola and Real Madrid agreed to a buyout, we weren’t sure if he would be able to come over this summer or next.”
After playing five years in Europe, Mirotić had compiled an impressive resume: besides twice being named the Euroleague’s Rising Star (2011, 2012) he’s also a two-time Spanish King’s Cup Champion: (2012, 2014), a two-time Spanish SuperCup Champion (2012, 2013), a Spanish League Champion (2013), a Spanish League MVP (2013), a two-time All-ACB Team (2013, 2014) and a Spanish King’s Cup MVP (2014).
On the afternoon of July 17th, Mirotić, along with Pau Gasol, who just happened to be on the same flight out of Madrid, arrived in Chicago to sign new contracts with the Bulls. The next day the team introduced both to the Chicago media and later that evening each threw out a ceremonial first pitch before a Chicago White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field.
Mirotić had officially turned the page and began a new chapter in his life, and who better to do it with than Gasol, a 13-year NBA veteran and two-time World Champion, a player who also began his pro career in Spain, playing for FC Barcelona.
While having Gasol as a teammate will certainly help Mirotić’s acclimation to the NBA, it comes back to what he does best which is why the Bulls are confident Mirotić will fit right in.
“Nikola gives us an element we haven’t had around here—a big man who can shoot the ball from distance. But he’s more than just a guy who can shoot,” says Forman. “He can put it on the floor and take the ball to the basket. He’s also a very good passer. He can take his man under the basket and score. He can do a lot of things. But at the same time, he’s still not a finished product. He needs to get stronger. But he’s got a high, high ceiling because of his size and ability. Nikola can become an impact player in our league, he’s got a lot of ability.”
Early reviews of Mirotić have been promising. Just a couple days into training camp, Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibodeau praised Mirotić for his professional approach and understanding of the challenges he faces.
“[Nikola’s] got a great attitude and he’s going to be a very good player,” said Thibodeau. “He still has a lot to learn, so we’ll take it day by day, keep concentrating on daily improvement. He’s got a lot of pride and also a great work ethic. Those are the things you look for with young players. How much he plays this year, I just don’t know. But I like who he is.”
Two-time NBA All-Star center Joakim Noah also likes what he has seen of his rookie teammate.
“[Nikola’s] pretty good. He’s really good,” says Noah. “He adds a different dimension to the game. He is a lot more than just a shooter. He’s a great shooter and he’s done a lot of things that are pretty surprising. You don’t think of a stretch four as a guy who can also block shots and run the floor. He’s a helluva player.”
“Nikola’s going to figure things out like he did when he first moved from Montenegro to Spain,” says Dukan. “The NBA is new for him, but he’s played under a lot of pressure before. He’s already been on one of the best teams in the world, played in one of the top leagues in the world. He’s been on a big stage. He was MVP on a big stage. People are going to be surprised how ready he is because he’s not a typical rookie. He is young. He is 23, but he’s been through a lot already.”
Mirotić also looks to the future with a sense of excitement and confidence.
“It is hard to believe,” Mirotić says of being in Chicago. “It’s awesome, really. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of this great team, organization, a team with history. I want to try to do my best, to help my teammates, to win games, and to win the Championship. But let’s go step by step. It’s time for me to work.”