Great expectations

Nikola Mirotic finished a surprising runnerup in the Rookie of the Year voting last season.

Could he be ready to make a run at succeeding Jimmy Butler as the Most Improved Player?

Mirotic, who with Bulls teammate Pau Gasol is playing for the Spanish National team in the Eurobasket tournament to try to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, told Jorge Sierra of the Hoopshype website in Spain that he expects an increased role with the Bulls this season. Given new coach Fred Hoiberg’s desire to create a more open, shooting oriented game, one possibility speculated upon is that Gasol and Mirotic will start together. And that this Eurobasket tournament will be a nice preview for the Bulls new starting front court.

“Some people may have been surprised with my performance, but those who know me know the best Mirotic is yet to come,” Mirotic told Hoopshype. “The expectations grow year by year, I know that. I have many things to improve, both offensively and defensively. But that’s normal for any young and ambitious guy. I’ve always liked to put in the work and make strong decisions. Next year I guess I’m going to have more of a featured role with the team and that’s just another motivation to work extra hard so when the team needs me I’m ready to deliver.”

Mirotic was one of the biggest surprise players in the NBA last season, coming from Europe and being in and out of the Bulls rotation before the All-Star break. But after the All-Star break, Mirotic was one of the best players in the NBA.

The 6-10 forward averaged 20.8 points per game in March when he led all NBA players in fourth quarter scoring while playing 30.8 minutes per game. Mirotic then averaged 11.9 per game in 22.8 minutes in April. Mirotic before the All-Star break averaged 7.1 points in 17.1 minutes per game. After the All-Star break, Mirotic averaged 16 points in 26 minutes per game. Mirotic averaged 10.2 points per game and 4.9 rebounds overall for the season in 20.2 minutes per game.

But Mirotic slumped in the playoffs, averaging 5.7 points. But his playing time was reduced drastically as Mirotic averaged just 14.9 minutes per game in the two rounds. He admitted to Hoopshype he tired after that strong late season surge in his first experience playing so many games.

“Very tired, to be honest,” Mirotic said about the close of the season. “But overall it was a good year for me. It was a year of adjustment to a new situation and also difficult in the first few months. At the end of the day, you’re a rookie dealing with a different routine even if you have played five, six years at the pro level. You start from scratch there. There were plenty of new things for me, new city, new language. It was a little complicated at the beginning, but I was lucky enough to find teammates and a club that had my back. After two or three months, I felt way more comfortable. Then when I got real playing time, I felt really important with the team and also felt respect coming from my teammates. There’s been ups and downs, but that’s normal. Overall it was a good year. Too bad we lost to Cleveland even though we had our chances, but that’s the playoffs. The expectations for next year are even bigger.”

The expectations for Mirotic also will grow. And while Mirotic obviously had a successful rookie season, the biggest disappointment in his game was his shooting, which was supposed to be a strength. Mirotic shot just 31.6 percent on three pointers during the season and 40.5 percent overall. Post All-Star, when he had his best run of games, he shot just 29 percent on threes. Mirotic’s three-point shooting declined even farther in the playoffs to 23.3 percent. And his overall shooting in the playoffs was 30.3 percent, accounting for his fewer minutes.

Mirotic had a tendency all season to pump fake and then end up with a tougher shot. Hoiberg’s style of offense is expected to feature more catch and shoot opportunities for a player like Mirotic. Thus he will have to begin to commit to what sort of game he needs to play.

Mirotic said he met with Hoiberg in Spain recently.

“It was a very nice conversation,” Mirotic said. “He’s a great guy that wants to be close to the players. It’s still very early to say how things will go, but we have big goals. We know he’s a very offensive minded coach, which perhaps is what the team needed, to play with more freedom. We have very talented offensive players that can score in the open court. I’m personally looking forward to starting the new season with him.”

But Mirotic also was complimentary of former coach Tom Thibodeau.

“We had a great group of people in Chicago with the players and the coaching staff,” Mirotic said. “It always felt like family. We had good and bad times, but we were always together. When things were going badly, we never thought it was the coach’s fault or were thinking this could be his final year with the team. We have been very focused on the task ahead. We knew we had a good shot at the Finals. I can only say positive things about Thibodeau. He has helped me improve. He’s a difficult coach that perhaps doesn’t like to play the young guys much, but you learn from him and he makes you work hard. He got you ready for the time when that opportunity could come. Like I said, we’ve always been together in it and we never doubted one another.”

And that included Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose as Mirotic said he couldn’t believe there even were reports about friction in the locker room.

“Actually, I’m surprised that people write about it,” Mirotic said. “Their relationship is very, very good. They are the leaders of our team and get along real, real well. You can see there’s very good communication between them in games and practices. There’s never been any problem between them that I have seen.”

Mirotic did an amazing job with his English and communicating and became at ease with interviews in multiple languages. He said Gasol and Joakim Noah were valuable mentors.

“I was fortunate to have Pau Gasol there,” he said. “He was very important to me. And then Joakim Noah. I got along well with everybody, but those two, I really hit if off with them, perhaps because they are both European. We have a great team with great and supportive people in it. The atmosphere was very good. I think Chicago does a great job of putting together a team with people of character and easygoing. That’s key for someone like me going into a new place. Aside from being a great player, he’s (Noah) a great person and a great teammate. He’s somebody you can learn a lot from. He comes in to work every day and puts his heart out on the court. He’s a very positive person and when you see how hard he works, you want to emulate that. He’s a motivator and a very important person in the locker room. There’s many positives with Joakim.

“We dealt with many injury problems throughout last season and that took a toll on us,” Mirotic admitted. “I just wish everybody gets back to Chicago healthy.”