The NBA draft is the future, a wish and a hope for greatness, where success can begin. With good fortune. It's where perhaps a team might find the modern big man, someone nearly seven feet tall who can shoot with grace from 25 feet and find his way to the basket against the game's best.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown knows these things with his exciting, modern team featuring Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
"When we study what does a modern day player look like, it looks like him, big athlete, rebounds, can make shots," Brown was saying Monday before the Bulls defeated his 76ers 117-115.
But Brown was not talking about any of his players; he was talking about the Bulls' Nikola Mirotic, who then made the crucial plays down the stretch—along with Kris Dunn—accumulating 22 points and 13 rebounds off the bench in just 26 minutes. It meant the Bulls sixth consecutive victory as they move on to host the Orlando Magic Wednesday in the United Center.
"The inclusion of Mirotic has allowed them to have a heck of a run," Brown acknowledged. "He's been one of the key things to connect the dots."
So what if the Bulls in this rebuilding puzzle of a season have found a potential star, a picture coming into focus? And he just happens to have been on their roster for three years. What if given time finally to grow and mature his game, Mirotic is the missing piece?
Sure, it's just six games, a minuscule sample given a month or so to rest for his early December debut. Mirotic is averaging 20.3 points and shooting 50 percent on threes in his six games back, all Bulls wins. But what if we didn't take into account the transition from overseas, Mirotic barely able to speak English as a Bulls rookie, the rotation changes from the bench to starting to inactive, the coaching change, the revolving door of a roster, the appendicitis in the middle of one season and complications. And, of course, the punch.
Mirotic is just 26 years old, generally still not considered the prime for a player.
What if with a more athletic group that now includes the fast developing point guard Dunn, the soon-to-appear super athlete Zach LaVine and the promising rookie seven footer Lauri Markkanen, that young core actually is there. And just needs a veteran free agent?
"I don't know what you guys were expecting," Mirotic asked reporters after the 76ers victory about his NBA career, which has generally been considered a disappointment, though he was not a lottery pick. "I struggled, was things I didn't do well. But it was all process, too, coming from overseas to the NBA. Some people need more time, some people less. But the good thing about it I did learn a lot from those players, D-Rose, Pau, Jimmy, from all of the great players, superstars, just trying to pick good things from them."
I had floated to Mirotic my theory of it being difficult to join a team with star celebrity players, first in Rose, the league's youngest ever MVP, and Joakim Noah, the Defensive Player of the Year. But also all-league Jimmy Butler and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Rose and Noah were trying to resuscitate their careers after injuries. Gasol was trying out an Act III of his career; Wade was trying to reclaim past glories. All succeeded on their own by dominating the ball. Of course, Mirotic is in no position to blame those players or use their presence as an excuse. But not everyone is easy to play with, especially an uncertain Montenegrin by way of Spain with a big buildup and a small role.
"This game I am playing right now I thought was going to be sooner, but it was not," Mirotic accepted. "I had moments, great moments, especially March each my three years, rookie (leading fourth quarter scorer in the league). I was never consistent. That was a big part of my improvement, being consistent. Working all summer, just seeing how I can be consistent and so far I am finding that way and hopefully I will keep consistent."
Plus Mirotic made some additions that may go a long way toward that dependability. He's stronger, able to hold position inside better with extra weight and regular weight training. More certain of himself with language and teammates, he's displayed leadership abilities, admonishing and supporting, the younger players embracing his messages. He's abandoned the frustrating habits, excessive pump faking and length with his shot and flopping. He's sought out the big moment with enthusiasm.
"Last year took a lot of shots too far from the three-point line, not good balance," Mirotic admitted "This year, after the work, after I got stronger, everything is looking different and maybe those shots (that looked) so hard and different last year, this year look much more comfortable and why I am hitting a better percentage. Rebounding that ball and playing in the low post by myself. I been more comfortable there and defensively, too. Sometimes when I try to go to the basket I feel much more confident and strong, so I can go into the guys and try to finish. I never did that before in my life."
Inconsistency has been Mirotic's business card since his return.
But consider these last five games since his brief play in his first game back:
Dec. 9. NY. 20 min; 6-10; 5-8 threes; 19 pts, 3 rebs
Dec. 11. Bos. 32 min; 9-14; 3-7 threes; 24 pts, 8 rebs
Dec. 13 Utah. 35 min; 11-18; 3-5 threes; 29 pts, 9 rebs
Dec. 15 Bucks. 29 min; 7-16; 3-7 threes; 22 pts, 8 rebs
Dec. 18 76ers. 26 min; 7-16; 3-6 threes; 22 pts, 13 rebs
Mirotic is 6-10 and closed Monday's win sweetly along with seven footer Markkanen. Dunn was excellent demonstrating guard leadership skills and effectiveness no one has seen since Rose at his best. LaVine is due back next month. And handyman David Nwaba has been a defensive darling and fierce competitor constantly producing results. Do the Bulls still need to take a step back toward more youth? Or are they risking being fooled by a small sample?
"Like I said, it's been a long time I didn't compete," noted Mirotic. "Didn't play national team, didn't play first 20 something games, I miss the game a lot. I was very, very excited to start the season, gaining 20 pounds on my body. Sometimes things happen and you don't know the reason. Could be looking bad in the beginning, but at end of the day not saying good, but trying to be positive and out there, making my life simple in the game and putting in the work and enjoying the basketball.
"I have to say yes (feeling pride in his play and the results)," Mirotic agreed. "Why not? It's my moment; team moment, too. I am very proud, but especially of the team finding a way to win again because we struggled before I came back and we didn't enjoy too much basketball. But we were so close to finding our way and finding that small piece. Maybe that small piece (is) on the bench."
Could it be Nikola Mirotic? The Answer for the Bulls?