A little over three years ago, the Bulls drafted a relatively unknown 19-year-old European prospect who, as the years went by, became more of a myth than reality as his stature increased.
Friday, Nikola Mirotic finally arrived in Chicago and while he won’t suit up at the United Center for another few months, the 6-foot-10 forward, now 23, is no longer just a legend. In the time since the Bulls drafted Mirotic, he’s grown into one of the top young international players and one of the best in Europe, period, as he’s excelled for Real Madrid in Spain’s ACB League, regarded by many observers as the best league outside of the NBA in the world.
“In 2011, when we drafted Nikola, we knew we were getting a very talented player and a player with great potential. But we also knew that we would have to remain patient in that Nikola was still very young and he was under contract with Real Madrid. We made the decision at that time that it would be worth the wait for Nikola and during the last three years, we’ve developed a relationship with him and with his agents, and we’ve had a chance to watch him and his game grow. During that time, the last three years, Nikola’s become what many would say is the best young prospect that wasn’t playing in the NBA. He was the two-time winner of the very prestigious Rising Star award, he was the MVP of the Spanish Cup, he was the MVP of the Spanish league and he helped Real Madrid have great success during his time there,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said at Friday morning’s press conference at the United Center. “What we feel we’re getting in Nikola is a guy who’s a real fit. We think he’s a fit on and off the floor. He’s a big that’s extremely skilled. He’s a spacing four that shoots the three very well. He’s versatile in that he can play inside and outside. He’s got a high basketball I.Q. He’s got a good motor. He’s got the type of makeup and character that we look for in players. The past several weeks, in working with his agents, they were able to come and get together with Real Madrid and negotiate a buyout of his contract, and then of course, we were able to come to terms with Nikola and we’re very, very excited to add him to our team, and we want to welcome Nikola, Nina and their newborn son to Chicago.”
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Mirotic, who signed a reported three-year, $17-million contract with the Bulls after completing his buyout with Real Madrid, speaks some English, but also let his agent translate some answers from Spanish into English for him. In any language, his excitement about arriving from Chicago was evident.
“It’s a pleasure to have that opportunity for me. Since I have been drafted in 2011, I have watched many games of the Chicago Bulls and I have always dreamt about the moment of playing for them and being here, and now that I’m here, I’ll work as hard as possible to help the team get the most out of it and the most victories,” he explained. “It was a difficult decision to make, especially because of a personal moment that I was leaving in Madrid. For everything that happened at the end of the year, where we didn’t win the titles and that was what everybody was expecting in Madrid, that I would stay over there for one more year because the Final Four of the Euroleague next year will be held in Madrid and because I had a contract. But I felt the right moment was right now, was this year, both for me personally and especially because I thought I would have the chance to improve more as a basketball player over here, and because I was absolutely sure that I could adapt to the Chicago Bulls’ game in the first year. It played a key role, the fact that the Chicago Bulls had so much interest in me and they tried so hard to get me, and I valued that and I made the decision to come early.
“All this is a big challenge for me. The whole situation is a big challenge. I know it’s going to be hard, especially in the beginning. But as Coach is saying and that helps me a lot, they want me to progress step by step and take it one step at a time. I strongly believe that I’m ready for this challenge and I’m going to show it by practicing, working out hard and playing,” Mirotic went on to say. “I like to play at the three-point line. I think that’s something special, my three-point shot. I like to run the court. So it depends on the coach, how Coach wants to use me. I will adapt. I want to help the team and I know that a lot of things will improve, especially my physique. I’m young, but I know that I can do it. I just need time to prepare. We’ll see.
“Right now, I’ll go back tomorrow to Madrid. My family is there. I will take my family to Montenegro all summer and practice there with my personal coach and after that, I want to come back to Chicago, maybe in August, depending on what Coach wants. To practice, to prepare myself, I know that I need to be here early and I want that. I know that I have a lot of things to prepare, to be here early and bring my family to meet the new players, teammates and city. So I want to be here early.”
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Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t specify exactly what Mirotic’s role would be for the team, but he made it clear that he likes the potential of Spanish-Montenegrin import.
“Well, we won’t know until training camp. We love the characteristics that he has, his intelligence, his drive. Each year that he’s played, he’s improved significantly. So coming to the NBA, it’s a big adjustment in learning the league, our system, our players. But he’s a guy who’s played professional basketball for a long time and has achieved at a high level. So there will be a learning curve, but we’re excited to have him. I do think he’ll open up the floor for us. His ability to stretch the floor, most teams now have a power forward with that skill set and I think it’s important to have in the NBA today,” the coach said. “Each player, I think, has his own characteristics. So I hate doing that, to compare him to somebody else. We just want him to be himself. We feel, if he does that, he’s going to be fine. Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses, fit in to the team, understand what the team’s trying to do, play as a team, play to win and those are things he’s already done, so that’s why we think he’s going to be a good fit for us.
“It’s everything. So it’s the league, it’s the style of play for the league, it’s your teammate, it’s the system. There’s a process that he has to go through, but it’s no different than the things that he’s gone through. At each level, you’re challenged differently and he’s responded well at every level. So we expect this to be no different. How quickly it happens, we don’t know that. We just want him going step by step. If he does that, he’s going to be fine,” continued Thibodeau, who considers Mirotic more of a power forward than a small forward, despite the player’s shooting range. “That’s always an adjustment, the defense. But we really don’t do anything individually. We’ll start with individual fundamentals and build up to the team concepts because everything we do is five-man defense. So he not only has to learn what he has to do individually, but what he also has to do team-wise and that’s a learning process. But he’s smart, he plays good body-position defense already, so that’s a good step in the right direction.”
As far as Mirotic’s adjustment to the NBA, Thibodeau believes that Mirotic’s extensive international experience will help him make a more seamless transition than most first-year players and hinted that he won’t be viewed quite the same as a typical sparingly-used Bulls rookie during his coaching tenure in Chicago.
“I’ve gone through this once before, in Houston with Yao, and Yao seemed to understand when it was praise and had a hard time when it was criticism,” Thibodeau quipped. “But I think it will be fine. Nikola’s, I think, ready for this. I think he’s going to be a good fit for our team. We’re going to start the process of getting him up to speed right away and we’ll see where we go once we get to training camp.
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“Oftentimes, I think those things do get overlooked, but Tony Snell averaged 16 minutes a game. Omer Asik played a lot as a rookie. Jimmy [Butler] didn’t play as much, but it was a lockout season and I think when you look at what rookies play their first year, you’ll find that Tony was one of the leaders in rookies’ minutes played this past season. So if a player is ready and he can help us, he’s going to play. Like Omer Asik, I went into the season, I didn’t think I would play him, but he showed in training camp that he could play and he played extremely well, and when Jo went down that year, he had a huge role for us,” he added. ““He’s played in a lot of games. To me, it’s similar in some ways to Omer. Omer was not your typical rookie. He’s been in a lot of big international games. It’s the same for Nikola. He’s played in a lot of games. He’s going to have to get used to the speed and the strength of the NBA games, and that’s different, different rules. There will be an adjustment there and then just learning everybody. But each time he goes through, he’ll get better and better.
“I think you guys hit on it earlier. I think the fact that Pau went through it, so I think it’s great to have Pau here for that. But there’s a lot of international players in our league and they have done quite well. So I don’t think it’ll be a hard transition for him. There’s some things he’s going to have to get used to—it’s a new culture, the NBA’s different—but he’s been preparing for this for really three years, so once he gets here, it’ll move along well.”
Mirotic, who hasn’t played on Spain’s senior national team yet—the squad can have one naturalized citizen and in recent years, that has been Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, who played professionally in Spain before being drafted by the Thunder, as opposed to the Montenegro-born Mirotic—and before Thursday, hadn’t met Gasol, who the Bulls also introduced Friday. But the idea of Gasol, a native of Barcelona, serving as a mentor, seems to have already taken hold.
“I think that it’s great, especially for me. I think that he will help me, be a great player for the team and has a lot of experience. He will help,” Mirotic said. “He’s a great guy and I’m happy to have him here.”
Gasol, who began his career in Memphis, where he was the 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year after being drafted by the Grizzlies in 2001, chimed in: “It’s going to be an adjustment year for him. I think he’s going to be homesick for a while. But I think coming into such an exciting situation and an exciting team like Chicago is going to help, as well. There’s a big Serbian community here. I think that’s going to help, as well. I think my situation 13, 14 years ago, it was a little different. I was lucky my family was able to join me and make that transition much easier than if I had to come by myself. I had a great year, so hopefully he’ll have a great year, he’ll have an impact pretty immediately and he’ll be a great contributor. I think he’s a very talented player. Now let’s see how he adjusts to the game here and see how it goes. I’ll try to help him out as much as I can. I think he feels good that I’m here, as well. He can speak Spanish to someone on the team, he can relate to me and I can help him out.”