The NBA is trending towards becoming a league where nearly everyone on the floor can shoot and hold their own defensively, big men included. Nikola Mirotic figured to be a poster child of this new way of thinking.
Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting last season despite shooting 40.5 percent from the floor. For that reason, he looked like a prime candidate to improve dramatically this season with numbers more reflective of his years at Real Madrid. Fred Hoiberg even shocked Bulls fans by actually starting the 24-year old Montenegrin to begin the season. Instead of becoming a better all-around player in his sophomore campaign, Mirotic is regressing.
Mirotic has taken a step back in pretty much every statistic this season. His points per 40 minutes have dropped from 20.1 to 18.7. His assist ratio has fallen from 10.4 to 7.1, while his turnover ratio has skyrocketed from 9.5 to 15.5. Perhaps most alarming, Mirotic is shooting 36.5 percent from the field. Those numbers have equated to a below league-average 12.8 PER, a steep drop-off from his 17.9 mark as a rookie. Figuring out why Mirotic is struggling is pretty simple — he’s become almost exclusively a jump shooter:
Mirotic 2014-15 Shot chart Mirotic 2015-16 Shot chart
Jumpers, jumpers and more jumpers. Exactly half of Mirotic’s three-point attempts this season have come from above-the-break three-pointers. That’s an increase from around a third of his shots coming from that area a year ago. Mirotic is connecting on 34.6 percent of those attempts, which is a solid boost from his 30.7 percent mark last season, but that’s an awful lot of attempts for an inefficient shot.
Above-the-break three-pointers are far less efficient than corner threes. NBA players shot 34.1 percent on above-the-break three-pointers last season compared with 38 percent and 39.2 percent marks from the left and right corners, respectively. Mirotic has attempted 58 three-pointers this year, and only six of his attempts have come from the corners (5.7 percent of overall attempts). He attempted corner three-pointers on 15.1 percent of his field goal attempts last season.
Mirotic is settling for deep three-pointers above-the-break far too often:
Look where he was spotting up on that play. He was wide open but standing a couple feet behind the three-point line for no apparent reason. Mirotic will fling up at least a couple of those type of three-pointers every game. Sometimes they go in, but more often they cling off the side of the rim. Mirotic’s average shot distance has increased from 17.013 feet to a wildly-high 18.846 mark this season, per NBAsavant.com. The only players with a higher average shot distance in the league (minimum of 100 field goal attempts) are infamous shot-chuckers in Mo Williams, Kobe Bryant, Isaiah Canaan and Marco Belinelli. Mirotic is 6-foot-10; he shouldn’t be in that grouping of jump-shooting guards.
If you needed any more statistics, and you probably don’t, Mirotic spotted up 27.6 percent of the time last season. That number has increased to a team-leading 37.5 percent this season, per Synergy, and he only ranks in the 46th percentile. As long as Mirotic is hoisting up long balls, he’s not drawing fouls, and that’s his biggest strength.
Mirotic was a foul magnet last season. He fooled players on pump fakes and leaned into defenders to draw foul after foul. People are rightfully critical of Niko’s penchant to pump fake, but it can get a defender out of position and open up lanes to drive. Refs gave him the benefit of the doubt on many questionable foul calls despite being a rookie, but he hasn’t been getting that same whistle so far this season. Mirotic’s free throw rate was .455 last season. Jimmy Butler, who’s an excellent foul-drawer in his own right, had a foul rate of .508 in his Most Improved Player campaign. Mirotic’s foul rate has dropped to a merely average .337 this season.
Hoiberg needs to utilize Mirotic more creatively. Standing around and waiting to shoot is a waste of his skill set. Mirotic isn’t an elite shooter, but he’s a crafty offensive player with an ability of getting to the line with regularity. Pau Gasol shouldn’t be the recipient of each and every Bulls pick-and-roll. He also shouldn’t be playing more minutes than Mirotic.
Mirotic’s net rating of 6.9 is the third-best mark on the team despite his early struggles, per NBA.com. Gasol is sitting at a poor -2.5 net rating, which is only ahead of Doug McDermott and Hinrich. Gasol is a very bad defender, even with his rim-protecting skills, and he’s limited to shooting inefficient mid-rangers and difficult post shots offensively. Mirotic might take some wild shots, but the Bulls are usually much better with him on the floor, although not as much of late. But he’s also only 24 and a building block of the franchise, whereas Gasol might be playing his last season in Chicago.
Niko can still be that perfect modern NBA power forward that each and every NBA team dreams of. He just needs to stop taking so many bad shots first.