Real Madrid’s Nikola Mirotic picked out one of the biggest, baddest dudes in Euroleague and dunked on him.
The 220-pound Montenegran let out a yell as he threw the ball through the net and off the head of 350-pound Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Mirotic landed, shot a searing gaze at Big Sofo and yelled once more as he backpedaled toward halfcourt. By the time he crossed that line, any lingering notions that Mirotic was “soft” had all but evaporated.
But can the prospect the Chicago Bulls traded for on draft night make an impact in the NBA?
“No doubt,” says Martynas Pocius. He pauses, shakes his head, then again: “No doubt.”
Pocius, Nikola’s teammate with Real Madrid, should know; he’s been within spitting distance as the 20-year-old has evolved from boy to man and man to monster in only 11 short weeks.
“His confidence has grown tremendously,” says Pocius. “And with that confidence, he’s been tearing it up.”
Tearing it up, indeed.
Blur your eyes as you look at his Euroleague box scores and you’ll notice things get more crowded toward the bottom.
That’s because after waddling through a less than stellar start—just 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game as Madrid split its first four contests—Mirotic sped to a sprint, nearly tripling his production with 17.2 and 6 over the next six games.
On the heels of their six-game winning streak, Madrid not only found themselves in first place in their group; they had found their team’s best player.
The folks in the Euroleague offices took note as well, dubbing him the MVP for the month of December, in which he converted on 16 of 25 of his two-point attempts and 8 of his 13 threes, 62 percent altogether.
Nikola’s most dominant performance of the month came in Madrid’s 88-64 demolition of Maccabi on Dec. 8, the same night Schortsanitis found himself on the bottom half of that Mirotic poster.
His 22 points in the first half alone torched his previous career high of 19 (he finished with 26) as he laid all his cards on the table in one 40-minute session: pumping in threes from the left side, slashing from the outside, finishing on the inside, and drilling a corner three (his favorite) from the right side.
So when should Chicagoans expect to see Mirotic slip into a red and black, sleeveless number 12? (It’s available at the moment; I checked.)
Not this season. Probably not next season, either. For Bulls fans, the Mirotic Watch should start in the summer leading up to the 2013-14 campaign, with the possibility that he comes over even later than that.
The reason for his delayed departure is a contract extension he signed with Real Madrid back in late April. The Spanish superpowers locked him down until the end of the 2015-16 season, setting his buyout at roughly two million Euros, only $500,000 (rising by $25,000 per season) of which the Bulls are allowed to pay.
Mirotic will be 25 at the end of that deal, and it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a team to wait that long. After all, the Spurs drafted Luis Scola in the second round in 2002, and he didn’t leave Spain until 2007 to play his first NBA game for the Rockets as a 27-year-old rookie.
But to listen to Gar Forman speak, it does not sound like we’re in for another Scola scenario. Here’s what the Bulls GM told the Chicago Tribune shortly after Chicago acquired Mirotic from the Timberwolves on draft night:
“We can’t say for sure when he’ll be able to come over, but we’re hopeful he’ll be a big part of what we’re doing,” said Forman.
Mirotic has also apparently made a fan out of head coach Tom Thibodeau, who saw more than just a pretty jumper.
“But he’s more than a spot-up shooter. He can put it on the floor. I like his frame,” Thibodeau told the Chicago Tribune in that same post-draft meeting with the media.
“He looks like one of those guys who will get better and better.”
Because while many NBA teams reach for European forwards with hopes of turning potential into production, the Bulls put their faith in Mirotic to turn his atypically steady production into undeniable NBA readiness.
“I think he needs another year or so, but once he’s there I think he’s going to do really, really well,” said Pocius after Madrid’s 78-75 road loss to Joventut Badalona on Thursday night.
“He comes in early, he stays late, he competes, and when he’s playing well there’s not really a guy that can stop him.”
While that may be true, there might be an organization that can.
You see, though the Montenegrin-born Mirotic was granted Spanish a Spanish passport in 2010, FIBA might not let Mirotic play for the Spanish National Team at the 2012 London Olympics.
Currently, FIBA regulations read that only one naturalized citizen can grace each nation’s roster. At last glance that spot belonged to Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (Congolese by birth), who helped Spain to a second straight European championship this summer in Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Mirotic spent his summer trashing the competition on Spain’s Under-20 team. He scored under 31 points only twice in two games, averaged 27 and 10 and ran away with the tournament’s MVP trophy as Spain took home the Gold.
Now you understand why Spain is asking FIBA to tweak its policies just a tad.
Yet as Spain pleads their case to the powers that be, the rest of Europe rolls its eyes: Not only do they have the most talent in Europe to begin with, now they need to loot the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere for blue chippers, too?
The most notable dissenter has to be Montenegro itself, which could have theoretically added Mirotic to the existing pair of NBA-grade Nikolas: Pekovic of the Timberwolves, and Vucevic, the Sixers’ first round pick in 2011.
But a pair of Gasols beats a pair of Nikolas anytime, anyplace, so now he is Spain’s to keep. Whether or not we’ll see him this summer in London all depends on FIBA’s ruling.
So in Spain, they’ll wait. And in Chicago, they’ll wait, too.
They all will wait.
Because Nikola Mirotic is worth the wait.
Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers Euroleague and other European basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear each Friday. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
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