"I'm growing every day," said Mirotic. "He's (Thibodeau) a great coach. He tries to do the best for you. If you can, he'll push you all the time. This is something very good and he knows what you can do, what you can't do."

Mirotic making a (nick) name for himself

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By Sam Smith | 10.01.2014 | 9:30 p.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

The real thing from Real Madrid? Niko the Natural? The Montenegrin Magician? Montenegrin Matrix?  The Mahatma from Montenegro? N-Mirotic? The Menorah (for the way he lights it up?) He does look a little Jewish with the beard.  Of course, it also makes him look more like James Harden. MJ for Mirotic Jumper? Oh, right. Taken.

But Nikola Mirotic, the 23-year-old, 6-10 long distance shooting Bulls rookie who has been a professional for seven years, is drawing so many raves just a few days into training camp that he has to be closing in on a nickname.

Coach Tom Thibodeau: “I thought he had a really good first day (Tuesday). And then after watching the film, it was even better than I thought. He has a great attitude. He’s going to be a good player. He has a lot to learn. Take it day by day, concentrate on improvement. But he has a lot of pride and great work ethic. But any young player that’s what you’re looking for. How much he plays, I don’t know. We’re going to find out some things early. But I like who he is.

“The thing that I really like about his game is he knows when to shoot and he knows when to pass,” Thibodeau added Wednesday after practice. “He doesn’t force things. When he’s open, he shoots. If you’re closing at him hard, he’ll put it down on the floor. If he’s guarded well, he’ll make a play. Usually when a guy plays like that, the team will function well. Knowing your job and doing your job, those things are critical to winning.”

Thibodeau was immediately examined by team doctors as there was a fear he had been possessed by Zul and was seeking the keymaster. No, it was Thibodeau. He was praising the rookie two days into camp.

Derrick Rose: “He’s going to surprise people by the way that he puts the ball down. Like if you fly out at him, he’s able to really attack the rim and avoid charges. He did a couple of moves where it was supposed to be a charge, but he pumped his way around the opponent and scored the ball. We already know he can shoot, but he’s good.’’

Taj Gibson: “He’s been playing great. He’s knocking down a lot of long threes; it’s been great. He’s learning from me, I’m learning from him.”

Joakim Noah: “He’s pretty good (pause); he’s really good. And he adds a different dimension to the game. He’s 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 stretch fours as guys that can block shots, run the floor, and he can; he’s a hell of a player. Yeah, he’s pretty complete. I think he’s definitely one of our secret weapons.’’

As for Mirotic, he stepped up Wednesday with pretty strong English when meeting media after practice. Though he apologized for his imperfect English, it was better than anyone else’s Spanish, Serbian or Montenegrin. Better than some English we hear around here as well.

“It feels good,” Mirotic said about his first days with the Bulls. “For me, different because I played before in Europe. So I don't know really how they work, but I learn every day something new; so they've helped me, teammates. Coaches have helped me. I feel good. So exciting. I'm really hungry to work and be better every day. I like to run, you know, fast break. I like to be very good on defense, to give good energy and my game I like to pick-and-pop, three-point line, to penetrate, to make one more pass. I try to do best for team. Depends on how they want to use me.

“I know Chicago the last couple of years have been a good defensive team in the NBA,” Mirotic said. “So I'm going to try to do my best job to work every day hard. I know that I'm not a very, very good defensive player, but I need to learn. I need to work. Every day I learn something new on defense. So I just need time. They help me every day. So I think I can get better. I'm growing every day. He's (Thibodeau) a great coach. He tries to do the best for you. If you can, he'll push you all the time. This is something very good and he knows what you can do, what you can't do. So you try to do the best for team, using the best things you can do. I'm happy with him. I'm working hard to make him happy with me. So excited.”

This is one of those “problems” a team solicits.

The Bulls appear to have too many talented big guys.

Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson comprise the front court, which may be the best in the NBA. And Thibodeau already has dismissed discussion about using three big men with two guards or a guard and small forward.

Plus, Gibson coming off his best season and runner up in Sixth Man of the Year, has been one of the more impressive players in the first days of camp, teammates say. There were fears Gibson might resent likely losing a chance to start with the acquisition of Pau Gasol, who is targeted to start along with Noah.

“I feel good,” said Gibson. “I came in the way they wanted me to come in, about 242. I feel stronger, I feel lighter, I feel quicker. (The addition of Gasol) gives us a lot more depth. It’ll help us out as far as me in the second unit; that’s my job right now. Whatever comes at me, I feel it’s going to be much better for me in the second unit. As the second unit big, like I did last year, I had a lot of fun with that, especially my post moves.

“Thibs knows me; he knows how I like the ball,” Gibson said when asked about retaining his reserve role. “Teammates have been looking for me in practice right away. I’ve just been having fun. Just playing against Pau; going against another tall defender has helped my game a lot. I’m just going to take it and run with it. It’s about winning. We understand we have a championship mentality team. It’s within our grasp; we’re close to a title. That’s the only thing we’re thinking about right now. Winning a title and getting better; that’s our main focus, everyone firing on all cylinders. There’s going to be bumps in the road all year, but I’m ready and I know my teammates will be ready for whatever comes our way. I’m just focused on us getting wins and going deep in the playoffs.”

There’s been a canard, actually, about Thibodeau’s dislike for rookies as if they are welcomed by other potential title teams. Actually, Thibodeau has been as supportive of most rookies as any coach with top teams and began to use Omer Asik extensively as his rookie season progressed. Thibodeau brought up the last few days how rare it is for a title team to have two rookies in the regular rotation; it hasn’t been done since the Golden State Warriors in 1975.

But it can be—Thibodeau hasn’t ruled it out—and 1975 Warriors coach Al Attles indicated in an interview the Bulls having “veteran” rookies was not unlike his situation with Jamaal Wilkes and Phil Smith.

“We didn’t have prejudice against rookies,” said Attles, who still works for the Warriors. “But we had a veteran who had played, Derrek Dickey. Derrek got hurt. Jamaal stepped in and Derrek never started another game for us. Back then it was commonplace to have a small forward and big forward. Rick (Barry) was considered our small forward and Derrek our big forward. Now when Derrick got hurt, we had to put Jamaal in as the so called big forward even though he was smaller than Rick. But it worked out, like a match made in heaven because they were both far beyond their years as young players. Phil was four years at the University of San Francisco.

There’s a learning curve for a professional player. The four years in college really prepares you better. Staying in school helps a lot of kids.”

So the Bulls have two rookies, but both are experienced players with Doug McDermott a four-year collegian going on 23 and Mirotic already having played in two Euroleague finals.

The big story of the Bulls preseason, obviously, was the return and health of Derrick Rose. Rose has looked good, which everyone saw with a strong physical presence with USA Basketball this summer playing nine games in 16 days and five in six days in one stretch.

Noah came into camp after spending all summer in recuperation from his first knee surgery, but he said after two days practicing and scrimmaging he is doing well.

“I feel pretty good,” said Noah. “This is the first basketball I’ve played in a while. I’ve been training really hard all summer, just trying to be as ready as possible for this, and it’s really exciting. We’re working really hard. As a team, we’re a work in progress. But overall, I feel a lot better in the second practice than the first practice, so that’s a plus.

“I’m always concerned, but I think that’s who I am as a player,” Noah said when asked about saying at media day Monday he has to be cautious. “I’m going through something a little bit different, but this is all part of the process. So I’m just staying focused, doing what I’ve got to do every day, just trying to get better.’’

Asked about being 100 percent, Noah quipped: “I haven’t been 100 percent in years. ‘’

So, 95?

“No,” he said.

But Noah seemed in high spirits and when asked why he had previously said he never thought Gasol would come to the Bulls responded: “Because it’s freezing out here. I think the last night he came here (as a Laker) was that polar arctic thing going on, that polar vortex. It’s brutal. When you’re used to the beach every day, to pick the polar vortex, it says a lot.’’

As long as he’s healthy, Noah will occupy that starting center spot even as Thibodeau has cryptically talked a lot thus far about everyone having to sacrifice, perhaps in playing time, rotation space or offensive responsibilities.

With a fuller roster, there will be a lot of guessing about who will play and when. The starters seem set, though hardly the finishers as Thibodeau rarely played Carlos Boozer in the fourth quarter last season while opting for Gibson. But Gasol is a greater offensive and even defensive presence than Boozer, especially because of Gasol’s height and length with the biggest arm span on the team.

So it also raises the question about a player like Mirotic, whose shooting skill is needed given the Bulls general dearth of good three point shooting and its importance for winning teams. The last three NBA champions have either been first or second in three point shooting.

So one question then comes to the regular playing rotation. Do you keep rookies? Can you afford another big man? How many players?

“In the preseason, I want to see a lot of guys play,” said Thibodeau as the first preseason game is Monday in the United Center against Washington. “Any preseason, you want your whole team to get some minutes. And the last couple preseason games, you narrow it down to your rotation that you’ll start the season with. Sometimes you have tough decisions to make. Are you going with a nine-man rotation? Are you going with an eight-man rotation? If you try to play too many, nobody plays well. Get your rotation. I think we’ll have a really solid bench. I’m looking forward to that. Over the course of the season, you need everybody.  Things happen. When your time comes, just be ready. I think for the most part, our guys have done that. We’ve had guys change roles a lot in the last two years. Guys go from being bench guys to starting. Guys who were out of the rotation have moved into the rotation off the bench and even some guys who weren’t in the league got the chance to perform for us.

“Usually most teams are around nine and as the playoffs get closer you are going to pare that down some more,” said Thibodeau. “We’ll see. My first two years we played nine; sometimes ten. Ten is hard; most likely nine.”

So Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Gasol and Noah to start.

Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson off the bench.


Nikola is a compound name from the elements of nike (that should sell some shoes) and laos, which combines to mean victory of the people. That should work for Thibs.