Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Nikola Mirotic continues to impress

The Montenegrin forward is turning heads around the league with his early-season play

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By Sam Smith | 11.3.2015 | 1:20 p.m.

The Bulls may be heading to a first this season, the first back to back Most Improved Player winners in NBA history.

Nikola Mirotic, who looks like he’s solidified the role as starting power forward, has been one of the team’s most productive players in the 3-1 start with the Bulls in Charlotte Tuesday.

Mirotic is second on the Bulls in scoring to Jimmy Butler at 18.8 points per game. Mirotic also is second in steals at 1.25 to Butler, who is second in steals overall in the league. Mirotic is tied with Joakim Noah and second to Pau Gasol in rebounding at 6.8 per game and second to Doug McDermott in three point shooting at 46.4 percent.

But among those players in the league attempting at least 20 three pointers, Mirotic is fourth behind only George Hill, Bradley Beal and Stephen Curry.

“Niko has been great,” coach Fred Hoiberg said after Bulls practice Tuesday morning. “I’ve been really happy. I (also) think he’s an underrated defender and rebounder. I think a lot of questions starting the way we have (with Gasol and Mirotic) was how are we going to guard. I think Niko has been terrific. He’s been getting after guys. He gave up the first dunk of the season. But he battled the heck out of Kevin Love after that. That’s an All-Star right there.

“He means a lot (for us) because he spaces the floor,” Hoiberg noted. “As we continue to work on pace and try to get the ball up the floor with Niko being able to shoot it the way he can it’s going to open driving lanes for Derrick (Rose) and Jimmy. Plus, his ability to pass. He’s a great passer. If we cut and move when he gets the ball generally good things happen.”

It’s been a whirlwind if sorts for the 24-year-old native of Montenegro who also is regarded to have the league’s second best beard.

The Bulls traded for the rights to Mirotic at No. 23 in the 2011 draft knowing he would play in Europe for three years. It is becoming one of the great draft coups. The Bulls gave up the draft rights to Norris Cole and Malcolm Lee to move up to get Mirotic.

After excelling for Real Madrid for several years, Mirotic worked a buyout of his contract to join the Bulls for the 2014-15 season. He didn’t play much early, but then contributed, especially late in the season when he was the league’s top fourth quarter scorer in March. But he wasn’t used much in the playoffs, averaging 5.7 points.

Then in the summer, Mirotic joined Gasol to play for the Spanish national team and won the Euroleague tournament to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Hoiberg chose to emphasize a more open offense with three-point shooting. The controversial result was to start Mirotic and move two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year Noah to the bench.

“A big part (for Mirotic) was the summer he had; that built a lot of confidence,” said Hoiberg. “The most improvement you usually make is from your first to second year in this league because you know what to expect. Coming in it’s impossible to know that, especially the physicality with the players. That’s a big part, being comfortable coming in and he had a really good preseason. That obviously has carried over so far.”

It was the big personnel move for Hoiberg to go to Mirotic, and so far it’s worked well with Mirotic becoming the first Bulls player ever to make at least three three-point field goals in each of his first four games. Mirotic also has proven a good pressure free throw shooter, earning time on the floor down the stretch of games as he’s shooting 90 percent on free throws while averaging five free throw attempts. He and Butler are the only Bulls averaging more than three free throw attempts per game.

Mirotic and Butler have been the most consistent and productive players for the Bulls in the early going. Butler was the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season, and Mirotic could follow with his play.

Among NBA players who have made an early impression, the 6-10 Mirotic is in the top 30 scorers along with Beal. C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Marcus Morris. Last season, Mirotic averaged 10.2 points in about 20 minutes per game.

“I think I am working hard, working in a good direction,” Mirotic said after Tuesday practice. “The team so far is playing good. We are 3-1 and I am feeling really comfortable, offensively and defensively, too. Right now I am looking forward to playing hard and feel it will be a really exciting year.

“Last year I was thinking, ‘Pump fake, yeah.’ This year, yes, much less pump fake,” Mirotic said with a smile about the criticism he’d heard. “I was really mad last game when I did pump fake once, but it is good. Right now, sometimes I am playing the low post, too. I am not just a pick and pop player. I am reading what Pau is doing. Sometimes he can pop. So I am going straight to the post. I just want to keep shooting the ball like this. But I have to be ready because sometimes you cannot make those threes. I need to find another way to play. I know I did not rebound great the last two games (nine total after nine in each of the first two games). That’s a way to improve.

“It was a huge summer for me, playing a lot of games with Pau, winning the European championship,” said Mirotic. “So when I came here I was ready to compete. It was not preseason for me. I had already played two months. That really helped me a lot. We (with Gasol) have much better communication. So we know how to play together. I think that has helped a lot for us and the team.

“Yes, a lot of people were yelling, “Stop the pump fake! Shoot that ball!’” Mirotic laughed. “It’s true, too. I know because the (opposition) players (were) expecting me to pump fake. So they were waiting for me. The first thing in my mind now is to try to make the first couple of shots so they are going to jump at my pump fake. So far so good.”

So far, very good.

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