NEW YORK -- Nikola Mirotic doesn't want to let anyone down. Not the teammates who helped him through his up-and-down rookie season, not new coach Fred Hoiberg who has shown faith in the second-year pro by inserting him into the starting lineup this year, and especially not himself.
The soft-spoken 24-year-old has always believed he could play at a high level -- now he's just proving it at a more consistent level. After spending part of the summer helping Spain win EuroBasket, Mirotic has started off the season about as well as the Bulls could have hoped. In his first two games, he has combined for 37 points, 18 rebounds, two assists, three steals and a block. He was a plus-30 in Wednesday's win over the Brooklyn Nets, the best plus/minus of any player in the league's 14 games on the night, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"You call him a hooper, man," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said of Mirotic. "He's a baller. Whatever you need on the floor, he's going to do. He's never like a selfish type player. Even if he's not knocking down shots he's doing things on the floor, trying to get his teammates involved in the game. And we need him, we need him to do that, create more with his pump fake and have people close out long to him."
Mirotic is playing with the type of confidence that comes when a player feels he can score almost any time he wants. Over the first two games, the Bulls are outscoring opponents by 39 points when Mirotic is on the floor. He had 75 touches on Wednesday, the most of any Bulls player. After just two games it's hard to tell how much difference there is in any player's game, but it looks as if Mirotic is intent on proving he is a more complete player.
"He's shooting the ball with a lot of confidence," veteran big man Pau Gasol said. "With good rhythm. He's getting to good spots on the floor, being aggressive, playing with confidence. So far he's doing a good job."
The aspect that Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg seems impressed with is that Mirotic is showing more fire at both ends of the floor. He's trying to get better defensively, and the renewed aggressiveness has shown up in his rebounding numbers as well.
"He understands that," Hoiberg said of improving on the defensive end. "I think he realizes how important he is to be out there on the floor and a big part of that is being able to defend his position."
If Mirotic can maintain that level of play on both ends for a while, Hoiberg's decision to insert him in the starting lineup will look that much better over time. The starting five, which included Mirotic, Gasol, Rose, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, played together for a total of 17 minutes on Wednesday night. In that time, they outscored the Nets 50-22 and shot 62 percent from the field including 6-for-8 from beyond the arc.
"It's huge for us, for me, for all the team," Mirotic said recently of the freedom the new offense allows. "Because I think that we have a lot of players who can grab the rebound, push the floor, play simple basket[ball], play for each other, so that's what I'm doing sometimes and I'm really feeling comfortable ... it's [a] great offense right now, but we could be better. This is just the beginning, but it's a good start."