If you would've told me, or any other Bulls fan, that in Nikola Mirotic's second year, he would be starting over Joakim Noah back when the Bulls drafted Mirotic in 2011, I would've called you crazy. After all, nobody knew how Mirotic's game would transition to the NBA. In fact, no one knew when Mirotic would even be crossing the ocean to come play in the NBA. The most common NBA comparison Mirotic received back in 2011 was Jason Kapono, which at the time seemed pretty accurate. Jason Kapono was a 6'8" swingman who was a deadly 3-point shooter who led the league in 3-point field goal percentage in back-to-back seasons and also won the Three-Point Shootout twice.
Mirotic is a 6'10" swingman who can be a matchup nightmare. He can play both the small forward and power forward positions, though he is currently the starting power forward. His biggest strength, which was well-touted while he was on his way to the NBA, is his offensive ability. His shot-fake was the most lethal over in Europe, and his ability to put the ball on the ground and drive to the hole was great for his size. At 6'10" and 225 lbs., the mismatches in the matchups he created was plenty. Pulling out 4's to try and guard him and keep up with him around the perimeter or taking 3's down in the post to take advantage of the size mismatch, Mirotic's offensive basketball IQ was touted as fantastic.
A lot of fans were a little torn on the pick. Drafting at the 23rd position, not many quality players were still available on the draft board. The Bulls ended up drafting Jimmy Butler seven picks later, but not many people thought even Butler would turn out to be as great as he turned out to be. There was Reggie Jackson, Norris Cole, Chandler Parsons, and Isaiah Thomas still left on the board at the time the Bulls were up. Other than that, there weren't many players that panned out as well as those five. Still, some people were skeptical about the Mirotic pick for the Bulls. The major reason behind that is that people had no idea when Mirotic would even suit up in a Bulls uniform.
Fast forward to July 18th, 2014, and people finally got their answer. It was speculated for the entire 2013-14 season that Mirotic was going to finally come overseas and sign with the Bulls in the summer of 2014, and that is exactly what happened. On July 18th, the Chicago Bulls officially announced that they had signed Mirotic to a deal. Terms had not been released at that time, but it was later unveiled that Mirotic had signed a three-year, $16 million contract. Couple his signing with the signing of Pau Gasol, and the Bulls had a revamped roster.
Under former head coach Tom Thibodeau, it was unknown just how much Mirotic would be used. After all, Thibodeau always favored defense over offense, and Mirotic was never touted as a good defender, though he wasn't a bad one. So in the two games the Bulls had in October, Mirotic had limited opportunities. In 19 total minutes, Mirotic scored five points and grabbed seven rebounds. In November, however, Mirotic was thrust into a more prominent role and showed many flashes of the excellence he put on display overseas. His minutes per game almost doubled, jumping up to 18 per game in the month of November, and his statistics somewhat backed up the increase in minutes. He had a few games where he looked like he could legitimately challenge Andrew Wiggins for the Rookie of the Year award.
December saw the same statistical increase that Mirotic experienced in November. In fact, Mirotic was named Kia's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December. Most of his statistical categories saw an increase and two important categories saw a decrease: fouls and turnovers. However, over the course of January and February, as the Bulls returned to full-health, Mirotic saw his statistics, and his role, come back down. Mirotic went from just over 19 minutes per game in December to just a shade over 14 minutes per game in February.
March, however, was a different story for Mirotic. Mirotic would garner his second Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award, as he led the Bulls in points per game throughout the month. Due to various injuries hitting the Bulls, Mirotic was once again thrust into a prominent role on both offense and defense. Mirotic played so well in March that many fans and media personnel alike thought that Mirotic deserved to be named Rookie of the Year.
Mirotic piled up some pretty impressive accolades in the month of March as well. He led the NBA in fourth-quarter points (136) and fourth-quarter scoring average (9.1) during the month. Once the Bulls returned to full-strength, Mirotic's role shrunk once again, but not nearly the amount that it had beforehand. April was Mirotic's second-best month, and his averages over the month most closely resembled his season-statistical averages.
Mirotic had a sub-par performance through 11 postseason games, which many people expected, playing in such high-pressure games as an NBA rookie. His role reduced on both offense and defense, and he struggled to find any rhythm in the playoffs. He averaged a hair under 14 minutes per game and didn't have any noticeable statistics to point out. Essentially, he struggled in his first taste of postseason basketball. He showed promise, however. He was confident in his abilities and proved that he wasn't going to shy away from the big moments, proving time and time again that he was willing to play in crunch time and take big shots when the ball came his way; the shots just were not falling for him.
The Bulls went through a major transition in the offseason, transitioning from defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau as the head coach to offensive-minded Fred Hoiberg, who implemented the motion offense in the Windy City. Hoiberg made a huge decision in the preseason, with a little nudge from Joakim Noah, and decided to bring Noah off the bench and start Mirotic alongside Gasol. Even though the sample-size is two measly early regular season games, Mirotic has shown a ton of promise. While he has struggled on defense, there is no denying that he has made strides on that end from how he was last year. His big leap, however, is on the offensive end.
Other notable statistics thus far for Mirotic through the first two games are the fact that Mirotic has 3 steals in 2 games and his player efficiency rating is an astounding 27.14. Clearly, Mirotic is flourishing in Hoiberg's offense, which encourages ball movement, off-ball movement and outside shots, three areas which Mirotic excels in. While his statistics will see a dip as the sample size grows larger, it's not unreasonable to expect Mirotic's statistics to stay relatively high, at least compared to how they were in his rookie season. Mirotic is still improving as he is still adapting to the NBA-style of basketball, and one thing is becoming clearer and clearer each game that Mirotic plays: Nikola Mirotic, drafted back in 2011, is proving to be well-worth the three-year wait the Bulls had to endure for him, as the offense is seemingly tailor-made to fit Mirotic's style of play.