Nikola Mirotic already among elite company

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By Sam Smith | 3.25.2015 | 8:44 a.m. CT

It’s not an official award, like Rookie of the Year, for which Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic is one of the top contenders. Really, given Mirotic’s play in March when he is arguably the most clutch player in the entire league—Mirotic leads all NBA players this month in average points, total points and percent of his team’s points—Mirotic makes a good case to win Rookie of the Year.

But perhaps more impressively, Mirotic’s run in basically the first month of the season he is receiving regular minutes already is moving him into the company of the greatest international players ever to come into the NBA.

“I came in younger with not as much experience that he has, a team rebuilding and moving into a new city and we were not very good,” recalled teammate Pau Gasol, whose 17.6 per game rookie average in Memphis is regarded as the most for a player coming from overseas to the NBA . “So I got a lot of minutes from the beginning and I was able to put together a pretty outstanding year individually, at least. What Niko is doing with this team is remarkable.”

Mirotic is averaging 9.7 points and five rebounds for the season, which tells only a small part of the story since Mirotic wasn’t in the rotation early in the season and has 11 games in which he’s played fewer than 10 minutes. He’s not in the top 10 among rookies in average minutes per game. But he’s second in scoring to Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, who is averaging more than 35 minutes per game (to 19.7 for Mirotic) and whose team has the second most losses in the league to the New York Knicks.

But as the Bulls prepare to play Wednesday in Toronto in what may be their penultimate significant game of the season—perhaps one more at Cleveland April 5—Mirotic has emerged as the fourth quarter go to scorer on a team that boasts four current and past All-Stars.

Consider these statistics for March, during which Mirotic is averaging overall 21 points and 8.2 rebounds, courtesy of Elias Sports:

Highest Percent of Team’s 4th Quarter Points:

Williams, by the way, had an incredibly selfish sequence to end Toronto’s Tuesday loss in Detroit. With 22 seconds left and trailing by one, Williams dribbled out the clock, waved off screens and then launched a 27 foot three pointer that missed badly. The loss pushed Toronto a half game behind the Bulls into fourth place. The Bulls have a 3-0 edge on Toronto this season and thus the tiebreaker unless Toronto wins their division. If the Bulls would win Wednesday in Toronto they’d be in strong position for a third place finish in the Eastern Conference. Which likely would mean a first round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, who stole a win from the Miami Heat Tuesday on a buzzer beating three pointer from Khris Middleton when Miami repeatedly failed to get loose balls at the end. The Bucks swept the Heat this season and now have a two and a half game lead for sixth.

Most Fourth Quarter Points in NBA since March 1

Most Fourth Quarter Points Per Game since March 1

Plus, despite having played the fewest minutes among the league leaders, Mirotic is tied for 12th overall (with teammate Aaron Brooks) for total fourth quarter points this season. Jimmy Butler actually leads the Bulls in average fourth quarter points per game at 5.2. But he has missed so many games he is 20th overall. Mirotic averages 4.8 per game in the fourth quarter for the season despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game every month before March. In fact, for the first 10 games of the season Mirotic was only averaging about 11 minutes per game.

Perhaps more remarkably, for the entire season even with his limited play early, the only players with more total fourth quarter points than Mirotic are Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, James Harden, Jamal Crawford, Kyrie Irving, Lou Williams, Dwyane Wade, Monta Ellis, Anthony Davis and Gordon Hayward.

And in many ways beyond even fourth quarter scoring, Mirotic has been a pressure performer. He has nine games of at least 20 points. Seven were against top playoff teams—Portland, Memphis, the Clippers, Washington, Toronto and the Thunder twice—and the other two were against teams on the edge of the playoffs, Indiana and Charlotte.

Consider the praise in the last month from opposing coaches for the versatile 6-10 forward who shoots threes (though just 31 percent this season) and leads rookies in free throw shooting:

Steve Clifford, Hornets: “He’s playing at a high confidence level. When you watch him on film he has that combination of size and skill. That is what you win with in this league. He lends versatility to their defense. He can shoot with range, he can post and he can drive the ball. He is a talented player.”

Frank Vogel, Pacers: “He’s spectacular. He gives us a lot of problems. Coach Thibs puts him in situations that are unique for power forwards to guard. He is a threat at the three point line; he is great off the bounce and he is great at his cutting game. He is a heck of a weapon off the bench.“

Doc Rivers, Clippers: “Mirotic was killing us; he killed us in L.A., too. He clearly he likes our team. So we have to figure that problem out if we ever see him again.”

Scott Brooks, Thunder: “We put their big fellow (Mirotic) 10 times to the free throw line in the fourth quarter alone. That’s easy points for them.”

The Bulls have had three players win Rookie of the Year, Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose and Elton Brand, the latter who tied with Steve Francis. There’s no rookie in the NBA this season playing in the meaningful games that Mirotic is and producing at the level he is.

Which begets history. How high can he go?

Certainly there is much to come and who even knows what his role will be when the Bulls are at full health, which they haven’t been the past month. Will Mirotic’s role change or playing time decline once Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson all are available to play?

Consider most of the greatest players to come to the NBA from outside the U.S. without playing U.S. college ball and what they averaged scoring in their rookie seasons:

It suggests quite the career for Mirotic.