Nikola Mirotic was not on anyone’s preseason list because he wasn’t expected to play much after being drafted in 2011 at No. 23. But, with about a third of the season gone, it seems obvious the runaway leader for Rookie of the Year is the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls Mirotic rising among rookies

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By Sam Smith | 12.22.2014 | 9:12 a.m. CT

It’s been perhaps the most difficult and unfortunate season for NBA rookies, especially those taken in the draft lottery, the first 14 selections. Already the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 7 picks are out for the season with Jabari Parker, probably the early Rookie of the Year leader at No. 2, tearing his ACL last week. The Nos. 6 and 11 selections have had injuries that cost them at least a month and the No. 12 pick has not even come to the NBA yet.

The favorites for Rookie of the Year were Parker and Andrew Wiggins, the latter traded from the Cavs to the Timberwolves in the Kevin Love deal. Wiggins is leading all rookies in scoring, but for last place Timberwolves. There were those who suggested as top rookie contenders Julius Randle, out for the season, Marcus Smart, just back from injury for the Celtics and whose return helped prompt the Rajon Rondo trade, the Jazz’s Dante Exum, the Magic’s Elfrid Payton or the 76ers’ Nerlens Noel after missing last season.

But with about a third of the season gone, it seems obvious the runaway leader for Rookie of the Year is the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic.

Mirotic was not on anyone’s preseason list because he wasn’t expected to play much after being drafted in 2011 at No. 23, traded to the Bulls and playing in Europe the last three years. And Mirotic would not have played much if not for multiple Bulls injuries. But the way the 6-10 Mirotic has played—plus coming off his best game of the season with 27 points and eight rebounds and six of six on threes in Friday’s win in Memphis—he’s not only earned rookie recognition but perhaps a regular place in the Bulls’ rotation.

Plus, no rookie has had the impact with a contending team like Mirotic. That should be a tiebreaker, if needed. Wiggins has proven somewhat tentative at times and even was chided about it by his coach. But it doesn’t mean that much to score for a last place team, like it is with other “top” rookies Noel and K.J. McDaniels with the 76ers. Someone has to score. And if you don’t, who notices? And who cares? They’re playing for more draft picks. With a team considered a title contender, as the Bulls are, you earn your minutes. They aren’t given in the name of development like with the Timberwolves, 76ers, Jazz, Magic and Celtics. Mirotic had to produce to play and come through in big situations. Or he wouldn’t play at all.

Consider where Mirotic ranks among rookies in totals:

Overall efficiency by NBA rating: 2nd behind Parker;

Total points: 5th behind Wiggins, Parker, McDaniels and Bojan Bogdanovic;

Rebounding: 2nd behind Noel;

Defensive Rebounding: 1st;

Three point shooting percentage: 1st;

Free Throws Made: 2nd behind Wiggins;

Free Throws Attempted: 2nd behind Wiggins;

Blocks: 3rd behind McDaniels and Noel;

Assists among big men: 3rd behind Kostas Papanikolaou and Noel;

Points per game: 6th behind Parker, Wiggins, McDaniels, Zach LaVine and Bogdanovic. Mirotic has averaged 18.7 minutes per game while each of the five players in front of him has averaged at least 25 minutes. His 15.7 points per 36 minutes leads all rookies;

True Shooting Percentage (twos, threes and free throws): 1st;

Box score plus/minus: 1st;

Minutes: 11th.

While Mirotic is the leader or among the leaders in just about every major rookie statistical category, there basically are no other rookies showing up in all the categories and essentially only Bogdanovic and Papanikolaou playing regularly or having any impact for potential playoff teams. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s difficult to make a case at this time for anyone but Mirotic.

Plus in the last 14 games in moving into the rotation (Mirotic went a five-game stretch before that averaging 5.4 minutes), Mirotic is averaging 14.3 points and 7.1 rebounds. And that includes a scoreless eight minutes against Golden State. In that stretch he’s also 21 for 49 on threes, which is 43 percent, and has three double/doubles, which is second behind Noel. But Noel has yet to score 20 points in a game and Mirotic has two games of at least 24 points and four other games in which he missed a double/double by one or two rebounds while playing 30 minutes or fewer.

Key games among Eastern Conference contenders

The Bulls Monday begin the three-way round robin to determine the Cavs opponent in the conference finals. Not really, but LeBron demands we say that. And don’t forget Atlanta, which just beat the Bulls, the Cavs by 29 and the Rockets on the road. It’s Toronto in the United Center Monday and the Bulls in Washington Tuesday, perhaps not statement games quite yet or conference finals previews. But they are among the few kinds of games to measure your team. It’s not quite as much with first place Toronto as their best player, DeMar DeRozan, remains out. But it should be an interesting matchup for the Bulls with the 19-7 Wizards, tied with Atlanta for second (the Cavs are fifth). It’s one of those matchups you wait for with Derrick Rose against John Wall, the latter having his best season and often saying this is a payback season for him being left off the USA Basketball team with players like Rose making it ahead of him. But one of the best stories for the Wizards is general manager Ernie Grunfeld, often maligned in Washington but who now has put together his third contending team with a different franchise, virtually unheard of in the NBA. Grunfeld was the architect behind the Knicks team of the late 90’s after Pat Riley that went to the Finals in 1999. He was fired that season even though he acquired every player for that team but Patrick Ewing, who was hurt in the playoffs. Grunfeld then went to Milwaukee, where he put together the best Bucks team since the Don Nelson teams of the mid-1980s and was a game from the 2001 Finals after a questionable suspension of Bucks players by the league for Game 7 of the conference finals. And now after having put together a team with Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler that was an East contender, seeing it destroyed in the Arenas/Javaris Crittenton gun fiasco, Grunfeld with the commendable patience of owner Ted Leonsis has assembled a versatile team with Wall, Bradley Beal, veteran Paul Pierce and interior size that can contend in the East. Yes, the Eastern Conference has some good games as well.

Kyle Korver's historic shooting season

Stephen Curry is often talked about as maybe the best shooter the NBA has seen. That might be true if he were the best shooter in the NBA this season. That’s Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who is blowing away the hallowed club for great shooters, the 50-40-90 club where players shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on threes and 90 percent on free throws. The only players ever to do that were Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant. Korver is shooting 51.9 percent overall, 53.9 percent on threes and 96.3 percent on free throws after setting a franchise record for most consecutive free throws Saturday as he currently has 49 straight. Last season he set the alltime NBA record for most consecutive games with a three. He’s the player you most often hear media ask, “How can they leave that guy open?” as Korver makes big shot after big shot and led Atlanta in a win in Houston Saturday. When the Bulls played Atlanta last week, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was asked about Korver’s shooting. Quipped that old quipster Thibodeau: “I do want to look at the two free throws he’s missed.” Ba-boom. “It’s a great skill he’s had and every year he gets better and better,” said Thibodeau. “It’s a tribute to the way he works at it, the way he studies, prepares; his offseason conditioning work he puts in is incredible. It’s not an accident what he’s doing. Everyone knows it’s coming. He knows how to get open, he plays for the team. He’s a star in his own way; he’s always embraced his role, always played for the team, a great pro. The numbers say that (he’s among the elite all time shooters).” And Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a coach of the year candidate, added that in Korver he may have one of the game’s all time greats. Forget three-point contest. Korver can be an East All-Star. Said Budenholzer: “Kyle’s getting better. His footwork, ability to read screens, understand the offense. He’s an incredible shooter. I was blown away with how he shot it last year and now percentage wise he’s shooting it even better. The league has had some pretty amazing shooters without getting into names. For me in a season and 20, 25 games, I personally haven’t seen anyone on a night in and night out shoot it better.”

Western Conference logjam in standings and stars

The Spurs rest-for-the-playoffs strategy cannot be much questioned with back to back Finals appearances and what should have been two titles. But this season in the loaded Western Conference the Spurs are seventh and the only top eight team with a losing conference record. With the Thunder and Suns ninth and 10th, if one of them makes a run the Spurs could end up with a lot more rest than they imagined ... Some huge games last week from Damian Lillard, including 43 points in the triple overtime win over the Spurs. So say there’s seven West guards on the All-Star team. Which two, assuming they even get to seven, do not make it among Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kobe Bryant, Mike Conley, Monta Ellis, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook? ... Alexey Shved was a nice addition for Houston in the Corey Brewer deal. Rockets coach Kevin McHale as Timberwolves executive drafted Brewer in 2007 ahead of Joakim Noah, Brewer’s college teammate ... The Suns with all that backcourt speed makes it intriguing, but by adding Isaiah Thomas for no apparent reason they may be pushing out Goran Dragic, who can be a free agent and already was sending out signals to the Knicks last week when the team was in New York ... Probably says all you need to know about the conferences. The Mavs added All-Star Rondo, the Rockets reacted with veteran role player Brewer; the 76ers traded for a guy out for the season injured.

NBA news and notes

Most interesting player for Boston from the Rondo deal may be Jameer Nelson, who has a $2.85 million player option for next season and should draw trade interest as a backup … The Nets Tuesday game against Miami last week started 30 minutes late to stop a leak in the roof, a fitting metaphor for their season with the latest Deron Williams trade rumors mentioning Sacramento ... The Raptors, often mocked for their Barney the Dinosaur mascot, will feature a new logo shield next season with their “We the north,” marketing campaign. Shush, no one spoil it with a grammar lesson. Supposedly Drake was involved, though it seems inappropriate to take inspiration from Sir Francis Drake of pirating fame ... Booed coming back to Philadelphia, Evan Turner offered, “I don't want to sound super weird, but Jesus was hated, too.” Oops, too late for not sounding weird ... Like the Nets roster, figure you can pretty much have your pick from the Pistons’ and Nuggets’ rosters as the Nuggets, one of the bigger disappointments, fall out of it as Danilo Gallinari now goes out with a torn meniscus on about the same schedule as Derrick Rose. Presumably he’s not called as many names as Rose. On that mismatched Pistons roster, one intriguing much undervalued guy is Jonas Jerebko ... Merry Christmas, Josh? Big surprise Monday morning was the Pistons releasing Josh Smith with $27 million on his contract after this season and $13.5 million this season. Don't be surprised if he ends up in Houston with close buddy Dwight Howard.

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