Nikola Mirotic aims for strong second impression

Nikola Mirotic could be a key to the Bulls' frontcourt success.

 Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- As he made his way through an up-and-down rookie season a year ago, one piece of advice seemed to stick with Nikola Mirotic more than most. Tired of seeing the talented big man pump-fake his way out of shots, his teammates continued to pepper him with the same message.

"Niko, don't think," Mirotic said in April, recounting the advice. "Just shoot the ball because you're wide open. Don't pump fake."

Six months later, Mirotic is trying to keep that same mentality in mind as he finds his way in coach Fred Hoiberg's new system. When the topic of playing the 3 or playing the 4 came up recently, Mirotic responded with the most straightforward answer he could.

"The most important [thing] for me is to play," he said.

The soft-spoken big man admits to being more comfortable at his customary stretch 4 position, understanding that his offensive talents have the ability to flourish within the confines of Hoiberg's basketball road map.

"I really like [Hoiberg's system], because we are playing with a lot of space," Mirotic said. "Playing free, running the floor. So that's good for me, because I really like to run the floor. When I grab the rebound, he lets me take the ball and make some plays for my teammates. I think [the system] will be good not just for me, but for all of the team."

While the early returns on Hoiberg's offense have been well received by much of the locker room, the onus will be on Mirotic to continue building on a solid rookie campaign in which he averaged 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game. There is more pressure on Mirotic to produce this season because of the offensive freedom that the new game plan allows. Hoiberg is hopeful that other aspects of Mirotic's game come to the forefront, as well.

"He's such a good playmaker," Hoiberg said. "I think a very underrated part of his game is passing. And when he takes it off the dribble he can make plays.

"Niko's one of those guys, [when] the ball's in his hands good things happen."

Fellow second-year man Doug McDermott will feel some of the added pressure, as well, given that the Bulls front office felt at times that both men could have been used differently under former coach Tom Thibodeau. For his part, McDermott has carried himself much more confidently on the floor this season and believes Mirotic has become a smarter and more confident player than the big man was a year ago.

"Last year, there was times where he would catch it and kind of stare at the rim or make that really quick pass when he's open," McDermott said. "This year, coach Hoiberg's just preaching, 'Let that thing go if you're open.' And that's something that's really stuck with me, as well."

Hoiberg believes that as Mirotic enters his second season, he is more "comfortable" on the floor. After spending the year in the United States, he also is more comfortable in his surroundings. How much of a difference that makes when the games start to count again remains to be seen, but Mirotic continues to open eyes around the league because of his talent.

"He's very good, and he's very versatile," said Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. "He's a guy that can play the 3 and the 4 at great size. He can put the ball on the floor. He can shoot it with range. He's capable of passing the ball. He's just a really talented versatile, offensive player."

In order for Mirotic to take the next step in his progression this season, he is going to have to prove that he's more than just an offensive player. Mirotic's struggles on the defensive end were noticeable a year ago, and that is one of the main reasons he didn't play more at the 3 last season. He admits he needs to get better on both ends of the floor, but his deficiencies make his court pairings even more intriguing going forward.

Hoiberg tried out a starting lineup on Wednesday night that included Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Mirotic in the frontcourt, which did not pay immediate returns for the first-year NBA coach. With Gasol and Noah still looking clunky together at times on the floor, it will likely be up to Mirotic to jell with both players, at separate times, and prove that he can show more consistency than he did a year ago.

While the key to his continued success might reside on the defensive end, the heartbeat is and always will be his ability to shoot the lights out at times. With that in mind, Mirotic is banking on being able improve a 31.6 percent mark from beyond the arc a season ago. In order to do that, Mirotic has to remember the advice the Bulls have been trying to instill in him since he came to the NBA last summer.

"It's confidence, first of all," Mirotic said. "Of course, last year was my first year in the NBA. Big adjustment, long season, too, so a lot of games. [Teams] started defending me different in the second half of the season, so I was trying to shoot it faster.

"But this year, I know that I've been working this summer and right now I'm not shooting good from the 3-point line, but I'm feeling good. The shots that I'm taking are good, I just got to keep shooting. I know that I'm going to make those shots, and the team needs me to shoot."