Confidence is the key for Nikola Mirotic

Fred Hoiberg has seen the look, the hollow eyes, the sag of the shoulders, the quizzical expression. You know, you’d done everything they said, worked as much or more than anyone, cared as much, tried as hard. And it wasn’t working. Nikola Mirotic doesn’t say much, but the two zero field goal games in the last three weighed him down like Shaq sitting on his shoulders. He’d shot six of 28 in the last four games, three of 19 on threes. The Bulls were 1-3. He felt responsible, but kept it inside, determined to work that much more.

Hoiberg saw clearly, and before Thursday’s Wide World of Wade Welcome in Miami, the coach was consumed with his three-Kola that was draining away.

“I had a really good talk with Niko in Miami,” Hoiberg disclosed after Saturday’s victory against Washington. “I said, ‘If anybody can relate to having struggles in the league, it’s me.’ I had him in my office before that game in Miami and just told him, ‘You feel like you’re just this big, you feel like you’re on island, you feel like the world is against you. But it’s never as bad as you think it is.’ I just told him to go out and try to have fun; the big thing for Niko you could see in his face the stress.

“You could sense it,” emphasized Hoiberg. “I recognize it. I remember that face myself when I played. Confidence is such a huge thing. It was great to see him knock down a couple in Miami, six out of seven (Saturday) and the three (of four) threes, the 11 rebounds.

Paid off for the Bulls who cashed in on two Mirotic threes in the last five minutes to detour any Wizards rally. It felt like money in the bank for the embattled and enigmatic Mirotic, whom everyone, especially Mirotic, was counting on this being a breakout and breakthrough season.

It’s hardly too late, and perhaps more important than ever now with fellow reserve marksman Doug McDermott uncertain for this road trip starting Tuesday in Portland with a potential concussion issue again.

“Sometimes even when you are working so hard in practice and working so hard on the floor things are not just coming,” said the 6-10 third year forward from Montenegro. “Sometimes I am too hard on myself, putting extra pressure on me for the next game; sometimes it goes wrong. He told me he was a player and he knows the situation I am in. I enjoyed it a lot (Saturday) and that’s the way I want to play. So right now I just need to move forward."

It’s considerable responsibility to place on a player, but it’s also part of being a professional.

Mirotic is averaging a capable 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in about 23 minutes. But regarded as an important three-point shooting option on a team without a surfeit of long distance shooters, Mirotic is shooting 32.7 percent on threes and just 40.2 percent overall.

The coaching staff, without openly saying so, seemed to be hoping Mirotic could win the starting small forward position in preseason to balance the lineup with outside shooting. But he was badly outplayed by Gibson. So Hoiberg really had no choice without losing credibility in what was termed a competition. Gibson has been one of the team’s most reliable players this season and likely will retain that starting spot.

So Hoiberg has mostly matched Mirotic with McDermott and Dwyane Wade for a shooting group led by the veteran. But Mirotic started the season much like the preseason, two for 10 on threes in the first two games and then that recent four-game stretch.

The questions came fast.

Worn out from playing for Spain in the summer? Shooting too far out again? Upset about coming off the bench? Regressing as the pros catch up with his game? Still affected by last season’s appendix surgeries? Putting too much pressure on himself going into an extension year?

It’s also the issue with having so many young players, which the Bulls actually do despite the additions of Wade and Rajon Rondo. You have to begin making financial decisions on them after the third year. In Mirotic’s case, he didn’t play much as a rookie under former coach Tom Thibodeau and then missed much of the last part of last season after appendix surgery and complications. He hasn’t had a full NBA season yet at 25. How do you make a decision? The Bulls also need his shooting support with three-point shooting questionable among the starters.

It’s been better than expected with Wade at 35 percent and Butler at 43 percent. Can that continue?

Mirotic is a bright guy and well aware of his and the team’s circumstances. He learned English quickly and has had post game sessions doing interviews in three languages. He’s unfailingly friendly and polite and a favorite of teammates.

It’s why Gibson demurred when Hoiberg was prepared to substitute him late. Gibson, we know, never shrinks from a challenge or opportunity. But he also knew his teammate was struggling and how much the Bulls need him. It was a further sign of the camaraderie present with this group.

“Niko is my guy; he’s a great teammate,” said Gibson. “I love playing with Niko. That’s family right there. I’m going to tell Fred to leave him in there if I see that and there is any way I can help his game because he helps my game a lot. He made a tough shot, he’s playing great defense.”

Yes, that as well at times. Often ridiculed for his play on the defensive end, Mirotic can be an excellent defensive rebounder, probably the best on the team since Robin Lopez is not a big rebounder. When Mirotic rebounds like he did Saturday with 10 on the defensive boards, it also helps ignite the Bulls transition.

Since the talk with Hoiberg, Mirotic is five of seven on threes, nine of 14 shooting overall with 16 rebounds in 45 minutes. The Bulls will need that Mirotic on this road trip.

“I told him (Hoiberg) it means a lot to me, his confidence,” said Mirotic. “I knew I had the confidence from my teammates because during the game they are always saying, ‘Good shot, Niko.’ ‘Never mind.’ Always trying to be positive. It (Hoiberg’s reaching out) came in a good moment after a couple of not good games. It means a lot when you know the coach trusts you and he wants you to enjoy and not to think if you are missing the shots.

“I have been working a lot on my game, my shot, on a special diet, trying to do everything I can to be better, to perform great on the floor,” said Mirotic. “But sometimes things are not how you expect them to be. So that’s why I am putting so much pressure on myself because I don’t know the reason. It’s not my first year playing professional. I am just trying to do my job. I am feeling good right now; that’s most important.”