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Nikola Mirotic: the best kept secret in the NBA

When Andrew Wiggins likely wins Rookie of the Year, just know that he did so in a year that another rookie averaged more rebounds, more assists, more blocks, more free throws, more made three pointers, fewer turnovers, the same number of steals per 36 minutes, scored points at a higher rate while doing so on a team that won approximately three times as many games.

Ask any casual fan to name the best rookie in the NBA and he will probably say Andrew Wiggins.

On the surface, Wiggins has the look and feel of tomorrow’s superstar: On the cover of Sports Illustrated before he played a minute at Kansas; the first overall pick in the draft; traded for a perennial All-Star before ever stepping on an NBA court; easily the NBA’s highest scoring rookie. Wiggins very well could be a superstar someday.

If you’re looking strictly at points per game, Wiggins is your guy. But by virtually any other measure, the best rookie in the NBA? It's Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls.

Scoring while contending

While Mirotic is averaging just 9.9 points per game -- second among all rookies but far behind Wiggins (16.4) -- he’s also playing only 19.9 minutes per games. On a per 36-minute basis, Mirotic jumps ahead of Wiggins in scoring and leads all rookies at 17.9.

Perhaps most impressive is that he’s doing it on a very good team.

Since the All-Star break, Mirotic is averaging more than 17 points per game. It’s incredibly rare for a rookie to play this big of a role on a title contender. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since playoff seeding began in 1984, only two rookies have averaged more than 17 points per game after the All-Star break on a top-four team in its conference: David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Mirotic, Michael and the metric that loves him

Mirotic leads all rookies in both win shares and player efficiency rating. Despite leading the rookie class in win shares, Mirotic’s value is still hidden due to his somewhat limited playing time. Looking at win shares per 48 minutes (a stat devised by Basketball-Reference.com that measures a player's overall contribution to winning), Mirotic is having a historic season for a rookie.

In a vacuum, his 0.162 win shares per 48 minutes may not wow you. But comparing that value to those of past rookie of the year winners might change your tune. Based on this metric, Mirotic is having a better season than 25 of the last 30 rookie of the year winners. The only ones which rated higher during their award-winning rookie campaigns? You may have heard of them-- David Robinson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Shaquille O'Neal.

Ultimate closer

Playing for a team without its former MVP (Derrick Rose) and – until recently – its All-Star shooting guard and leading scorer (Jimmy Butler), Mirotic has become one of the NBA’s elite closers. Since March 1, he’s scored more points in the fourth quarter than any other player in the NBA. His 9.1 points in the fourth in March ranks just ahead of Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

Over this stretch, he’s carried the Bulls in the clutch (final five minutes and score within five points), scoring 24 of the team’s 54 points. In clutch time since March 1, only Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Khris Middleton, James and Anthony Davis have scored more points.

Huge impact off the bench

Perhaps the scariest part of all is that he doesn’t even start. Mirotic has come off the bench in all but three games this season and his impact – no surprise if you’re still reading – can’t be overstated.

With Mirotic off the floor this season, Chicago has outscored its opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. With Mirotic in the game, that figure jumps to 5.4 points per 100 possessions. How big of a jump is that? Over the course of the season, the first figure would rank 15th in the NBA. The second number would rank third in the NBA, including first in the Eastern Conference. Essentially, his presence changes the Bulls from an average team to a title contender.

Why he won't win (even if he should)

Despite all of that, history tells us that he won’t win rookie of the year even if he should. The fewest minutes per game by a Rookie of the Year winner is 29.1 by Mike Miller in 2000-01 while the fewest points per game by a rookie of the year winner is 10.7 by Monk Meineke in 1952-53. Those are not good omens for Mirotic (9.9 points per game in 19.9 Minutes per game).

When Andrew Wiggins likely wins rookie of the year, just know that he did so in a year that another rookie averaged more rebounds, more assists, more blocks, more free throws, more made three pointers, fewer turnovers, the same number of steals per 36 minutes, scored points at a higher rate while doing so on a team that won approximately three times as many games.