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Nikola Mirotic Blossoming When Chicago Bulls Need Him Most

Published by Bleacher Report on Sat, 21 Mar 2015

CHICAGOThe last time Nikola Mirotic turned heads like this, he was a work in progress. Now, he and his Chicago Bulls teammatesand the rest of the NBAare starting to see what the finished product will look like, and its a good look.Mirotics performance in Friday nights 108-92 win over the Toronto Raptors, in which he tied his career high with 29 points and added 11 rebounds and four blocks, is just the latest notch on his belt. He isnt just a rookie who has taken advantage of the absence of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to shoulder a bigger scoring load. Hes become a player who demands to be on the floor, especially in crunch time, even when everybody is healthy again.Mirotic won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for a December performance that only hinted at the kind of player he could become. He still pump-faked on too many looks he needed to just shoot. He still hadnt figured out Tom Thibodeaus notoriously complex defensive schemes, which limited his ability to stay on the floor. He may have been an established pro in Europe, but he was still more potential than reality as a contributor on a good NBA team.Fast-forward to March, and the Bulls are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race despite a seemingly endless list of injuries to their most important players. Thats thanks in large part to Mirotic, whos taken advantage of his newfound opportunity to average 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 32.1 minutes per game in March.But its not just the numbers, which have the makings of his best month as a Bull. Its the way hes scoringhes still shooting his share of threes, but hes become more confident putting the ball on the floor as well. And now that Joakim Noah is looking like himself and Taj Gibson is healthy (he had six points and three rebounds in 10 minutes in his return), Mirotic is playing more at small forward.Im trying to do more than just shoot threes, Mirotic said. Im not really shooting a great percentage from the three-point line, so I try to put the ball on the floor, try to make some easy baskets and rebound, and sometimes in the low post. Trying to play a little bit different, not just catch and shoot. Right now its a big adjustment for me, playing a little bit different, playing the three.Its never been easy for any rookie to get minutes under Thibodeau. Butler barely played his rookie year. Doug McDermott is playing more now than he was earlier in the season, but hes still not a significant rotation player. But other than Omer Asik in 2010-11, no rookie has grabbed hold of Thibodeaus attention and kept it the way Mirotic has.Coming in, you have a pretty good idea of what his skills are, Thibodeau said. But when you go into the season with any rookie, youre not sure how much theyre going to be able to give you right off the bat. So what hes shown is: he can handle it, hes excelling, hes thriving in whatever role you ask him to play.Going forward, his role is going to be up in the air, but hes made it clear that he has to have one, and a significant one. Gibsons return once again crowds the frontcourt rotation with Noah and Pau Gasol, so Mirotic will have to play more small forward. But thats a challenge hes more up to now than he was in early January, when Thibodeau briefly tried him in that spot before going away from it.And no matter what position he plays, this month as a focal point of the Bulls offense is only going to help him in the long term.Youre only going to learn from experience, said Gibson, who has watched Mirotic develop while sitting out the last 10 games with an ankle injury. A lot of people dont understand, when youve got guys out, the best thing to do is to just go in and attack and play free. Hes taking shots we wanted him to take earlier in the year, and it opens up the game so much. You can see his confidence is growing. Hes starting to play a lot more defense. Hes going to open the court for us if were trying to go deep.A lot of that confidence just comes with familiarity with his teammates, his coach and the system. Thibodeaus defense is difficult to pick up for anybody, let alone a rookie also learning a new country and a new language. And Mirotic isnt all the way caught up yet on that end, but Thibodeau wouldnt keep giving him minutes if he wasnt getting there.Ive been here for six months, Mirotic said. I understand a little bit more how theyre playing. I need to communicate better on defense, I need to trust my teammates. Im working hard, especially at defense, because I know that offense is not a problem. If I want to be on the floor, its playing good defense. So Im working on that, rebounding the ball, trying to help my teammates and I think Ive stepped up, but its not enough.Nobody in the Bulls locker room has been more vocal about Mirotics ability than Noah. Dating all the way back to training camp, hes been talking up the rookie, how hes going to surprise everybody, how he gives the Bulls a different dimension as a floor-spacing big man, how hes worked in practice. Now, Noah is starting to see his vote of confidence pay off in a big way, and it couldnt come at a better time.Its only the beginning for him, Noah said. And hes starting to believe it. Hes always been a confident player, but hes been playing at a high level in big games.Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin.
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