Nikola Mirotic
"I’m being won over as probably others are with Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic, emerging thus far as one of the few positives in a growingly negative 1-2 road trip."
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

You're going to love this guy

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By Sam Smith | 11.23.2014 | 12:35 p.m. CT

You’re going to love this guy.

I’m being won over as probably others are with Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic, emerging thus far as one of the few positives in a growingly negative 1-2 road trip. And Mirotic should be an important addition this week with the big man breakdowns as Taj Gibson likely will be out with a sprained ankle and perhaps Pau Gasol still with a sore calf. That while Joakim Noah continues to battle back from off season knee surgery and playing time limitations.

Give me your energetic, your promising, your huddled masses yearning to catch and shoot.

Hello, Niko.

“Let’s think another game and hope Taj going to return, Derrick and Pau fast,” added Mirotic, the Serbian native who doesn’t quite speak perfect English yet in his first months in the U.S., but who is proving easy to understand both off and on the court.

Mirotic was the lone light on a dark Friday night in Portland for the Bulls with 24 points and 11 rebounds in the Bulls 105-87 loss when Gibson joined the injured group. And in taking up for Gasol and now Gibson, Mirotic has been one of the best on the 1-2 road trip, averaging 14.3 points and 7.7 rebounds on 50 percent shooting in 23 minutes per game in the three contests. He is averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 assists for the season, though in limited play in half the games.

It’s more than impressive NBA potential as an excellent shooter at 6-10, but also with a keen ability to put the ball on the floor and pass off the dribble. Mirotic plays out of control at times and defensively has a bit of the wild crane game with arms flailing and fouls coming in attempts to track down his assignment.

It’s Mirotic’s hooping insouciance combined with a wide eyed innocence and determination to please and succeed that stamps him with a seal of welcome. You want someone like him on your team.

“Niko competed hard and is somebody who is a difference maker on the offensive end,” Noah said after Friday’s loss. “He can score the ball, he can shoot, can pass. He’s getting better every day. That’s good for us.”

We tend to scrutinize young players well beyond reason or reasonable proportion. NBA life becomes a significant adjustment for every young man, even more so when player comes from a different country. The U.S. rookies tend to have a harder edge from the years of AAU competition and corruption and then big time collegiate ball, a sometimes sneering acknowledgement they’ve seen it all and a resolute exterior that doesn’t like to admit they might not have.

So sometimes there’s this refreshing virtue with players from overseas, who are not always easily accepted in the NBA. Not because of the bias that once existed from resentment of jobs supposedly being stolen but more a language and culture barrier.

Like Gasol and Noah, Mirotic will do interviews in multiple languages, the few he does, anyway.

Mirotic has been willingly cooperative, though little called upon from media given the stars around him and the early misfortunes of the Bulls.

So there’s been the arm’s length analysis of his game. One frequent observation has been his tendency to pass up shots with pump fakes and sometimes end up with a much poorer attempt or forced pass. One of coach Tom Thibodeau’s rules always has been to take the best shot.

So after Mirotic’s best game of the season Friday as he dawdled late in the locker room, I asked him about that pump fake. One of the methods for reporting is to make the question general to not put yourself in the story, which is what I am doing here, however.

So I said something like fans asking about his tendency to pump fake, which many have.

“I know sometimes you don’t like that,” Mirotic said with a smile.

I had to admit being surprised as players usually don’t read much about themselves unless it’s harshly critical and then usually just parts. And almost never do they admit to reading it, and rarely ever suggestions about play.

You know the line: You didn’t play the game.

“Yes, I read,” Mirotic said with a smile.

He smiles often.

“It’s true sometimes I fake a lot of shots because sometimes I am thinking a lot,” he said. “I know I don’t need to think (so much); like, just play basketball. But I do that because a lot of times I shoot; they jump and I try to do one more pass. Today was better. I take more shots; no pump fakes. Just shoot the ball. I like that.”

Not that any of us are teaching basketball; that’s for the coaches and they say Mirotic is an eager and willing student.

Also, the language. It’s a difficult decision quoting someone when English is not their first language. You know, like with Richard J. Daley, our former mayor about who it was famously said never came out of the same sentence he went into.

So the writers would clear up the grammar somewhat in the quotes. You know they did that with Ozzie Guillen or none of it would make sense. Quotes are supposed to be inviolate, but media also is the art of communication. So you help out. You want to with someone like Mirotic, but you can also tell he’s working diligently on English and he’s really developed quickly. I personally have great regard for international players who come to the NBA and adjust to the language so readily. Mirotic is making terrific progress and is already an entertauining English interview. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I chose accounting as my college major because it was the only subject that didn’t require taking another language.

It’s not easy to decide in which order to put the adjectives and nouns. So I can appreciate not being able to get the articles, adverbs and pronouns so quickly.

But Mirotic is getting the basketball and with the injuries coming fast for the Bulls his learning curve is likely to be expedited.

Mirotic is an unusual talent with his pure shooting ability from long range (11 of 28 on threes overall for 39 percent and six of 14 the last three games) to go along with toughness, a welcoming combination of skill and scuff. He’s not afraid to drive the ball and has taken some hard hits at the basket while still getting off shots. He’s almost made some amazing shots with serpentine twists at the rim.

“I like to do these (drive) shots, especially when I penetrate,” said Mirotic. “I am not just shooter. I know I can put the ball on the floor. I’m running on floor too, so no good just to be shooter; try to do a lot of things.”

It’s a process, of course, as Mirotic has proven foul prone, common for young players.

“I thought (Mirotic) played with a lot of toughness,” Thibodeau said after Friday’s game. “He’s not hesitating. He’s letting it go, putting it on the floor, making plays. It’s the other end we have to continue to work on. I've got to get him to concentrate more on body position and not reach as much, the foul troubles and also what it’s leading to; it’s leading to other people getting in foul trouble (by helping). We’ve got to correct that.”

But Mirotic seems a quick study. He appears to have gained the confidence of Thibodeau as much as any rookie in Thibodeau’s tenure and has a strong sense of team.

“I was feeling good today,” Mirotic told reporters after Friday’s game, though with the appropriate respect for the blowout loss. “My teammates, they find me great today. We share very good. It was good game for me, but the big thing we lost; doesn’t matter I score 24 points. We lost. I don’t care about points, really. People know sometimes before this game I take a shot, I didn’t take a shot, I pass the ball when I see some open player. Today was to take more shots. I was feeling like more confidence. It was important to me to play more minutes, to score more points. But I really always think about the team. I no player just want to score. No, no. First the team and after team, me.”

Mirotic is married with a young child, and life in a new country is always difficult, though he is worldly having been born in Montenegro and playing professionally in Spain. It’s not a Bulls group that runs around much together with veterans who are established in their ways.

“Tough really (to adapt),” Mirotic conceded. “Especially now in the beginning; everything for me it’s new, new life, new city. I came here with my family. I love it so far.

I think Chicago is perfect city. I am with perfect team, perfect situation. I know I am growing like a player every day. I am working hard. My teammates, they help me every day. Coach, too. Just I need to be patient and I need to work hard and try to help my teammates to win more games.

“Pau he helped me a lot,” added Mirotic, filling out his beard as well. “First, because he’s from Spain we spoke in Spanish. As a player, he has lot for experience. He not just helps me, helps all the team. I feel really lucky to have him in locker room. What I am doing now, this process, he do this 10 years ago.

“Of course, defense I need to improve,” Mirotic agreed. “I need to communicate more with my teammates, especially in the pick and rolls. I need to be more strong. I need to work more on my body (he’s 6-10 and listed at 220). I am really working; every day I lift and I know everything going to come. Most important thing, stay positive and working hard and I need to rebound more. I am big guy. I know a lot of times coach tell me, ‘Niko, we need rebounds.’ I know that I need to improve on this.

“Especially the bench, we need to play hard,” Mirotic continued. “We need to forget this game, think next game. We are a very good team, especially on the road. We need to keep playing good like a team, believe in ourself and play like we know.”

You know Jerry’s mom would agree, “How can anyone not like him?”


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