Nikola Mirotic is an enigmatic figure. On one hand, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and flashed some brilliance in his first campaign in Chicago. On the other hand, he struggled mightily at times and is 24 years old, which is ancient for someone with his NBA experience. Is Mirotic the player who averaged 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March or is he the player who shot 30.7 percent from the field in the postseason with a Kirk Hinrich-esque 9.8 PER? How good is Mirotic and how good of a player can he become? Let’s investigate.
Mirotic is as crafty of a foul-drawer as I’ve seen in a Bulls uniform. His unlimited amount of pump fakes seemingly get the defender in the air every time despite Mirotic’s sub-par shooting last season (31.6 percent on three-pointers). He might awkwardly dive into defenders at times, but refs gave him the whistle an awful lot for a rookie.
The Montenegrin drew a shooting foul on 11.3 percent of his spot-ups, which ranked tied for fifth in the league, per Synergy (min. 5 percent frequency and 50 GP). Of those six players, only Jodie Meeks (28.5 percent) executed spot-ups on a higher percentage of his plays than Mirotic (27.6 percent). Mirotic also utilized that pump fake to do a lot more than just draw fouls:
Despite standing at 6-foot-10, Mirotic is nimble for a big man. He uses his pump fake and threat of pulling up for a jumper to blow by defenders and score in the paint. He’s also a nifty passer, averaging 2.1 assists per 36 minutes last season. Teams were often forced to put a wing on Mirotic defensively because traditional bigs struggled to stay in front of him. Zach Randolph might still have nightmares after Mirotic torched the Grizzlies with 27 points and a career-high six three-pointers. When small defenders switched onto him, Mirotic made them pay.
Mirotic ranked in the 81.5th percentile in the post last season due to a healthy mix of up-and-unders and pump fakes. He of course drew a ton of fouls in the post too, ranking sixth in the league with a 21.7 percent shooting foul frequency, according to Synergy (min. of 5 percent of players in the post and 50 GP). His penchant to draw fouls is a plus, but on certain nights refs don’t buy his flailing antics. Nonetheless, foul-drawing is undeniably Mirotic’s biggest strength moving forward.
He’s also a solid rebounder despite his soft reputation. He averaged 8.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, and he grabbed 63.1 percent of his rebounds per chance, which was only behind Pau Gasol on the team among rotation players. Mirotic did a nice job of using his length to tip balls to himself when he wasn’t in position for a rebound. However, he did have a tendency of being overwhelmed by bigger players and struggled on contested rebounds.
Mirotic also contributed decently to the counting numbers on defense, averaging 1.2 blocks and steals per 36 minutes. He also played well when switching onto smaller players, well, unless that player is Kemba Walker. Overall, he was more active on defense than I expected him to be in his rookie season.
Mirotic struggled mightily in pick-and-roll defense last season. He was terrific on defense in spot-up (92.6th percentile) and average in one-on-one situations in the post (59th percentile) and iso (44.3th percentile), but he was dead last in defending the pick-and-roll ball handler (2nd percentile, min. 3 percent frequency and 50 GP). When Mirotic plays power forward full-time one day this won’t be a huge problem, but in the immediate future his inability to stop the ball handler in pick-and-rolls could be problematic. Especially if Fred Hoiberg decides to implement a switch heavy defense.
He ranked better guarding bigs in the pick and roll (75.4th percentile) but it’s still an area where he’ll need to improve . Mirotic is a solid defender when he doesn’t have to think, but make him run around screens and all of a sudden he’s clueless. His mobility indicates he’ll improve defensively in the future, but in the short term his lack of D will cost him minutes. Another aspect that’ll keep Mirotic off the floor is his inability to play small forward.
Mirotic thrives as a stretch 4 who can beat slower power forwards off the dribble. Once you stick a wing on him and have a combination of Gasol, Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson play down low, Mirotic is much less effective. He gets less open looks, finds less driving lanes and basically disappears. The Bulls scored a healthy 101.1 points per 48 minutes with Mirotic at power forward compared with a putrid 93.7 per 48 minutes with him at small forward, per 82games.com. Chicago was also outscored by seven points with Mirotic at small forward and outscored opponents by 175 points with him at power forward. Not to mention, Mirotic sported a 15.2 PER at small forward compared with a stellar 19.5 mark at power forward. You get the point.
Gar Forman and John Paxson would’ve been wise to open up playing time for Mirotic at power forward next season with a move or two. Now Hoiberg is forced to find minutes for Gasol, Noah, Gibson, Mirotic and even newcomer Bobby Portis. Mirotic is clearly the Bulls’ future 4, but he’ll have to play a decent amount of small forward to find minutes next season among the gluttony of big men.
Much of the reason Mirotic isn’t best suited at small forward is that he struggled with his shot since tansitioning from Real Madrid to the Bulls.
Mirotic 2014-15 Shotchart
This is an ugly shot chart for a player who made 46.1 percent of his three-pointers in the Euroleague the season before. Mirotic was average or below-average in pretty much every shooting area last season. He even struggled in the corners where players usually thrive.
Mirotic has a pretty stroke with his feet set, but he’s usually moving on the perimeter and takes ill-advised shots with regularity. More reps with his feet set playing alongside a post threat like Gasol could help. Being involved in more pick-and-roll action would also go a long way in improving his efficiency. Playing small forward with a lack of spacing on the floor won’t help his stroke. Mirotic was too good of a shooter overseas to brick shots left and right last season. Expect those numbers to improve dramatically over time.
Mirotic should benefit as much as any Bull from playing in a Hoiberg offense. Hoiberg prioritizes floor spacing and player movement, something the Bulls sorely lacked last season. Mirotic seems like a perfect fit for the new offense with Hoiberg’s array of horns sets (two bigs setting picks at each elbow) and motion-heavy offense. Mirotic will command attention on the perimeter even with last year’s shooting woes, which will create opportunities for others. The minutes might not be there right away for Mirotic, but Hoiberg will learn to play him more over time once Gasol and Noah inevitably wear down.
In the more distant future, there’s no reason Mirotic won’t be an All-Star caliber player. His 17.9 PER was remarkably high for a player who shot 40.5 percent from the floor. In the past 10 seasons, five players have shot under 41 percent from the floor while putting up a 17.5 or better PER, according to Basketball-Reference. Mirotic and Walker did it last season, along with Lou Williams three times, Jason Kidd twice and Deron Williams. On top of that, Mirotic was the first rookie since Elgin Baylor in 1959 to pull off the odd feat. The four rookies other than Mirotic on that list are all in the Hall of Fame, for what it’s worth. If Mirotic can shoot better, his PER has a lot of room to improve.
Tom Thibodeau’s lack of trust in Mirotic also held him back throughout the season. Mirotic will benefit from not only more playing time, but more consistent playing time. One of the drawbacks of a Thibs-coached team was never knowing who was going to play in any given game. Mirotic is far too good to sit on the bench, even if the matchup isn’t to his advantage.
The Bulls are among the oldest teams in the league, but the core of Jimmy Butler (25), Derrick Rose (26) and Mirotic (24) is surprisingly youthful given their experience. Mirotic’s remaining contract ($5.5 million next season, $5.7 million in the final season) is a bargain. He’ll be in for a big payday once he showcases his steady improvement over the next couple years in a more complex NBA offense. Considering what they gave up to get him, the Bulls are lucky to have Mirotic.