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Did Mirotic take the next step to Rookie of the Year?

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By Sam Smith | 4.04.2015 | 1:42 a.m. CT

What did Magic Johnson call it? Winnin’ Time, right? For the Bulls, amazingly enough, it continues to be Nikola Mirotic time. It’s also enough to say with Mirotic Friday being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for the second time this season that Mirotic should be Rookie of the Year.

Really, there aren’t many more unexpected stories this season than rookie Mirotic’s emergence as one of the prime fourth quarter players in the NBA, and for a team playing meaningful games down the stretch of the season.

It was so again for the Bulls Friday in their 88-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons. Aaron Brooks and Pau Gasol were the stars with big scores in the last minutes. But Mirotic again played almost the entire fourth quarter, scoring eight of his 11 points along with four of four from the free throw line.

“Every game now is important,” Mirotic said afterward. “We have six more games, so right now we need to send a message of where we want to be. Are we going to do something really special this year? We have people back now. We want to get the best position we can for the playoffs. It is a good thing we won tonight. We want to try to get the third or second position in our conference. We have to be ready. It doesn’t matter who is going to be for the playoffs. If you want to do something special, it doesn’t matter who is coming. So you need to be ready and beat everybody.”

Mirotic has been ready, and he was there when called upon after a little used first month.

He has his scoring average up to 9.9 now in fewer than 20 minutes per game after averaging 20.8 in March to earn his second such monthly rookie award. Mirotic in March led all rookies and the Bulls in scoring while ranking second among rookies in rebounding and blocks. He scored 10 or more points 14 times, including eight games with 20-plus points. He finished the month with three double/doubles. Mirotic led the NBA in total fourth-quarter points (136) and fourth-quarter scoring average (9.1) in March while scoring the highest percentage of his team’s fourth quarter points (36.8), ahead of Cleveland’s LeBron James (31.8).

There were plenty of unexpected occurrences in the NBA this season, though few less likely to be predicted than Mirotic’s principal role on a contending team. It’s why he should be a serious candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins remains the favorite and won every Western Conference monthly rookie award until Jordan Clarkson got the vote in March. Wiggins leads all rookies in scoring at 16.3 per game. But he is in the top 10 in the league in minutes played at about 36 per game while Mirotic is top five among rookies in blocks and rebounds, ahead of Wiggins in both categories despite averaging about half as many minutes per game. Mirotic is technically fourth among rookies in scoring, though basically tied for third with Nerlens Noel.

The larger issue with Wiggins is he basically hasn’t played a game that’s mattered all season with his team essentially out of playoff contention by the end of November when Wiggins was averaging 12 points. He’s also averaging about twice as many field goal attempts per game than Mirotic, whose shots matter. The Timberwolves are 16-60. Of the top six rookies in scoring average, Mirotic is the only one whose team has more than 23 wins. Doesn’t winning matter? It seems to in basically every other award.

And Mirotic wasn’t even in the team’s rotation when the season started. Coach Tom Thibodeau said before the season with the Bulls having three big men capable of starting Mirotic likely wouldn’t play much this season. So he had to earn his minutes, unlike the other top rookies who were given starting jobs because wins and losses didn’t matter to their team. Mirotic played fewer than 10 minutes six times the first month of the season and had a pair of games in mid season when he played fewer than five minutes. Then with injuries to key players, Mirotic perhaps saved the team’s season by leading the Bulls in scoring in the traditional stretch run. Rookies named Magic do that. Not many others.

“To be honest, not really (did he expect play at this level),” Mirotic admitted after Friday’s win. “I knew if I come (to the NBA), I come because I know I am going to be ready to play. But I know it’s not easy to play on big teams, like Chicago. I was thinking to improve, to help my team, to play better and to get my chance.

“It was tough (at the beginning of the season), different team and you are not playing,” agreed Mirotic. “So in my mind what can I do to get this chance to play? So I worked hard every day and when your chance is coming you need to be ready; if you are not ready maybe you don’t get another chance. I was working and I was ready when the chance came and I’m really, really happy. Right now I am still having my minutes. I am still helping my team. It is a big adjustment for me, too, because right now I am playing two positions; but it’s fun, interesting, tough.”

Mirotic has proven so valuable that Thibodeau has played him at small forward, which before the season Thibodeau said Mirotic could not do. Because Mirotic has been too difficult to take off the court.

“Really happy about this (award),” Mirotic said. “Especially because the last month how important it was for us; we played real tough games. I thin (the Rookie of the Month is not) just about me. It is about all the team because especially last month they trust me and pass me the ball. I was getting more minutes and playing with great confidence. It was a great feeling for me. So right now trying to be a better player, preparing myself for the playoffs and being focused.”