When the offseason began, all the talk around the Chicago Bulls was regarding the acquisition of veteran All-Star forward-center Pau Gasol and how he would work in a three-man big rotation with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
Then the focus shifted to former MVP point guard Derrick Rose and his arduous comeback from a pair of debilitating knee injuries as he played for Team USA in the World Cup and arrived in training camp.
Once the first two months of the season unfolded, all eyes shifted to shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who did not receive a contract extension and has responded with All-Star level play as he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for November.
Gasol has fit seamlessly into coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. Rose is gradually working his way back to a superstar level. And Butler has shown no signs of letting up, making the Bulls the favorites in the East in the eyes of many observers.
But somewhat overlooked through the first third of the season has been the play of rookie forward Nikola Mirotic.
The 6-10 Mirotic has worked his way into Chicago’s rotation as its fourth big man, which is no small feat given Thibodeau’s impatience for rookies and his track record of giving big minutes to his trusted players. He has filled in nicely as Noah, Gasol and Gibson all have missed time with injuries and also provides an element the other three do not have – 3-point shooting.
“All our bigs can play with each other, there are a lot of different things we can go to,” Thibodeau said.
Mirotic is shooting nearly 41 percent from the arc this season, including a sizzling 6-of-6 a week ago in a win over Memphis. Among Chicago’s rotation players, only guard Aaron Brooks (.433) is shooting better from deep.
But the Montenegro native does not want to be a cliche. While the Bulls do need his stretch-4 capabilities, Mirotic wants to be more than just another big guy from Europe who can shoot – and who doesn’t defend, rebound or show a willingness to mix it up.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Rose said. “He wants to show everybody that he can do everything on the floor. He hates to be labeled as just a shooter. He wants to be labeled as a great basketball player. I can respect that.”
For the season, Mirotic is averaging 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18.3 minutes. Perhaps more telling is his PER of 18.8, which is by far the highest of all qualified rookies and just below Rose’s 19.0.
It certainly helps Mirotic that he is often playing alongside good, experienced players. But he also is contributing to Chicago’s success. The Bulls are 12-2 when he scores in double figures, including seven straight wins.
Mirotic’s success shouldn’t surprise fans of the international game. For the last two years, many talent evaluators felt he was the best player in Europe and would excel upon his arrival in the NBA, which was delayed by a prohibitive buyout in his contract with Real Madrid. Nick Gibson, now with the Hawks, was singing his praises on this site two years ago.
And as the season progresses, his teammates expect him to get better.
“We still don’t know how good he is, as he is showing flashes,” Rose said.
On to the rankings.
1. ANDREW WIGGINS, F, MINNESOTA: We were ready to keep him out of the top spot when he posted back-to-back five-point outings and drew criticism from Wolves coach Flip Saunders about his consistency. Perhaps he took that to heart or was motivated by a return to Cleveland, because he snapped out of his funk with 27 points, including 3-of-3 threes and this dunk on Kevin Love. LAST WEEK: 2
2. NIKOLA MIROTIC, F, CHICAGO: If he didn’t get your undivided attention with his 27 points on 10 shots (including 6-of-6 on threes) against the grit-n-grind Grizzlies, then you must be an NFL fan. Mirotic followed that with a dozen points in a win over Toronto and 13 with seven boards on Christmas vs. the Lakers. Clearly the best rookie on a good team and arguably the best on any team. LAST WEEK: 3
3. NERLENS NOEL, F-C, PHILADELPHIA: The “catch-your-eye” games are starting to come with more frequency for Noel. He followed up last week’s season-high 19 points with a 13 and 12 in Sunday’s win over Orlando for his rookie-leading fourth double-double. Noel also swept up 10 boards in Tuesday’s win at Miami, although the accompanying 0-of-5 from the field was unacceptable. LAST WEEK: 5
4. K.J. MCDANIELS, F, PHILADELPHIA: He appears to be bouncing back a bit after a slow start to December. In back-to-back wins by the Sixers (yes, you read that correctly), he averaged 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, very solid numbers for a reserve. McDaniels still leads all rookies in the latter category, although his rookie teammate listed one spot above is closing quickly. LAST WEEK: 4
5. ELFRID PAYTON, G, ORLANDO: He was moved back into the starting lineup by coach Jacque Vaughn, who likes his on-ball defense and distribution skills better than Evan Fournier’s shooting. Payton notched his first double-double with 11 points and 11 assists in a loss to Utah and had 12 points, seven dimes and two steals in Tuesday’s win over Boston. Now, could he please make a free throw? LAST WEEK: 7
6. ZACH LAVINE, G, MINNESOTA: He is still the starting point guard, but Mo Williams is getting most of the important minutes for the struggling Wolves, who are 3-19 without primary handler Ricky Rubio and are starting four players with two years or less experience. LaVine averaged 7.3 points, 3.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 21.7 minutes in three games last week. LAST WEEK: 6
7. BOJAN BOGDANOVIC, F, BROOKLYN: He is now clearly a reserve behind both Sergei Karasev and Alan Anderson and subject to quick hooks, as his two fouls in two minutes at Cleveland illustrated. But he is keeping a stiff upper lip amid plenty of rotation shuffling by coach Lionel Hollins and bounced back with 14 points (3-of-4 threes) in a win over Detroit two nights later. LAST WEEK: 8
8. P.J. HAIRSTON, G, CHARLOTTE: The Hornets are 4-0 since Lance Stephenson had to sit out with a groin injury, and the two direct beneficiaries have been veteran Gerald Henderson and Hairston, averaging 8.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in those games. The kid’s not bashful, either. In 62 minutes over those games, he has hoisted 33 shots (making 11), including 21 threes (making 6). LAST WEEK: NR
9. RODNEY HOOD, G, UTAH: His rookie teammate Dante Exum was here last week and definitely has the higher ceiling. But the truth is that right now, Hood is the more complete player. He averaged 6.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in three games last week – two of them wins – and is averaging a respectable 6.1 points in December. He needs to pick up his shooting a bit. LAST WEEK: NR
10. JUSUF NURKIC, C, DENVER: He barely gets the nod over Miami’s James Ennis, who had the better individual game. But the 7-foot, 280-pound Nurkic had the better week, averaging 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.5 minutes over four games, including a pair of wins. He also had 14 fouls and just two blocks in that span and needs to be better in both categories. LAST WEEK: 10
DROPOUTS: Jabari Parker, F, Milwaukee (1); Dante Exum, G, Utah (9).
FIVE TO WATCH: Kyle Anderson, F, San Antonio; James Ennis, F, Miami; Jerami Grant, F, Philadelphia; Johnny O’Bryant, F, Milwaukee; Marcus Smart, G, Boston.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.