Nikola Mirotic and Anthony Davis celebrate near the end of a win at Brooklyn

Nikola Mirotic enjoying Pelicans’ success as he settles into new home

by Jim Eichenhofer

Watch Nikola Mirotic swish a deep three-pointer or position his 6-foot-10 frame to deftly box out an opposing player for a rebound, and you might think Mirotic was a basketball prodigy, someone who excelled at the game at an extremely early age. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mirotic had no interest in hoops as a youngster growing up in the European nation of Montenegro – soccer was his game – and didn’t even begin playing until he was 13 years old. He was urged to try basketball because he was already over 6 foot as a tween. You may have noticed that there aren’t many 6-10 men running up and down soccer fields.

“I was very good and skilled at soccer, but I was very tall,” the early-February New Orleans trade acquisition said. “I remember they told me, ‘Why don’t you try one (basketball) practice? If you don’t like it, you can come back and play soccer.’ I went and I really did like it, even though I didn’t know anything about basketball – didn’t know how to dribble or shoot. It was all (brand-new) for me. I had to start from zero. My coach worked with me and had patience. After a few practices, I improved a lot. I remember my first game, after two or three weeks of practicing, I had 20 points.”

Mirotic’s first few weeks with the Pelicans have similarly been immediately productive. The forward posted a double-double in his Feb. 3 debut at Minnesota, set a career high in rebounds Feb. 10 at Brooklyn and has been a valuable contributor during New Orleans’ longest winning streak since the 2010-11 season. He was well on his way to the best season of his four-year NBA career prior to being traded by Chicago, but has continued to show why the Pelicans were interested in adding him both before and after the DeMarcus Cousins injury.

“New Orleans wanted me because they trust that I can help them, and so far that is what I’m doing,” the 27-year-old said. “I’m very happy the team is playing well. But I know that there is a lot of room for me to improve.”

The former first-round draft pick made a significant impact as a Chicago rookie in 2014-15, but his role didn’t drastically expand over the next two seasons. He spent last summer working diligently on improving, including adding muscle to his now 250-pound body. He entered 2017-18 viewing it as a pivotal season in his career; he’s now philosophical about being dealt by the team that brought him to the NBA.

“I understand that this is all part of the business. Getting traded doesn’t mean something bad,” he said. “I just turned 27 a couple weeks ago. I think the timing is the best for me to grow as a player. This is my fourth year in the league, so it’s time for me to step up, and so far this has been my best season I’ve had. Nothing personal about the trade. This is like a new home, a new opportunity to prove myself.”

Mirotic began his ’17-18 season atop the NBA leaderboard in three-point percentage, a big factor in the Bulls playing infinitely more competitive basketball after a dreadful 3-20 start without him. Since coming to the Pelicans, New Orleans has been pleased by other aspects of his game as well, including rebounding and defense.

“Especially with the work I did this summer, working with my coach and on my body, I knew this was going to be an important season for me,” Mirotic said. “I really do feel comfortable, especially improving defensively and rebounding the ball. I did good but not good enough in the beginning (of his NBA career), so now it’s more for myself to prove that I can do it. So far I’m doing that.”

While many European players have begun coming to the NBA as early as age 19 or 20 this decade, the native of Montenegro waited until he was 23 to arrive in the United States, partly because he enjoyed playing for powerhouse Real Madrid in Spain, winning multiple championships there. He wanted to wait until he was completely prepared for the NBA before being tested in the world’s top league.

“I felt very comfortable in Europe and I had a very good life,” he explained. “I was one of the best three players on my team and winning a lot of championships. I wanted to make sure when I came to the NBA, I was ready to play.

“It was not easy under (then-Chicago head coach Tom) Thibodeau,” he continued, smiling, “because he will really work you, but I had a good rookie year.”

Since arriving in New Orleans a month ago, Mirotic has barely had time to unpack his suitcase, due to the Pelicans playing numerous road games and an All-Star break he spent in Chicago, where his wife and 4-year-old son temporarily reside. They’ll soon move to the Crescent City, with Mirotic recently looking at potential homes in the area (“They are excited to come here,” he said of his family. “I’ve been sending them a lot of pictures of the city”). While living short-term at the Hyatt in downtown New Orleans, Mirotic has enjoyed meeting several employees who hail from Serbia or his native Montenegro, staff members who also helped Mirotic locate New Orleans’ Serbian church. He’s quickly appreciated the cosmopolitan nature of his new home.

“I’m happy to be here and obviously the food has been really good,” Mirotic said, smiling. “I haven’t had much of a chance to see the city, because we’ve been traveling a lot, but it’s a great city with great people, and there are a lot of people here from everywhere (around the world). So far it’s been great.”

Both on and off the court.

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