When the highlights moved to the Timberwolves' just-completed win and the camera zoomed in on Andrew Wiggins, the NBA TV analysts, Dennis Scott and Jerry Stackhouse, told viewers they were looking at the leading candidate for NBA rookie of the year. Stackhouse, I believe, said Wiggins was the only real candidate, even though NBA was just coming out of a Bulls highlight package that featured Nikola Mirotic, a rookie last I checked, going for 28 points and eight rebounds in a win over Charlotte.
The Mirotic-Wiggins discussion (it'll be a full-blown debate in another week or two) has become particularly relevant because Mirotic -- first in the absence of Taj Gibson, and more recently in the absence of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose -- has gone from surprise contributor to dependable reserve to carrying the entire team. As a rookie. And while Wiggins has better season-long numbers, still projects to be a better player in the long run, and probably will make more All-Star teams and be a bigger star in the league, Mirotic has had a greater impact now, playing for a team for which every game matters.
Wiggins, whose team is dead last in the Western Conference and has won even fewer games than Philly, hasn't played in a meaningful game all season. Though he's certainly not to blame, he hasn't played with any real stress all season. As the star of the team, the franchise player, he's under no obligation to fit in or blend his talents with more established vets and max-salaried players. It's his team, and he can take any shot anytime he wants and plenty of them -- again, under zero pressure this season. Even though Wiggins has gotten better every single month and put up some pretty impressive numbers, he hasn't had any measurable impact on an awful team.
Mirotic, who was completely fortunate to be drafted by a full-stocked playoff team, started the season as a curiosity and now is an essential part of a team still clinging to serious championship aspirations. And he has played every game in March with the pressure of helping hold the fort until the injured stars crawl back into the lineup.
So at this very critical time for his team, March, Mirotic is averaging 21 points and eight rebounds. The thing that was supposed to be his greatest asset, 3-point shooting, has been the weakest part of his game the past couple of months: Mirotic is shooting just 25 percent from 3. He's a much better playmaker than expected, a better rebounder than expected and has worked to become a decent enough defender, which is the biggest praise given how poorly he defended in November.
Still, it's his big-category contribution that has enabled the Bulls to go 7-7 in their past 14 games despite having to play so many of them without Rose, Butler and Gibson. Mirotic had 29 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Toronto, 25 and nine in a win over Indy, 27 in a road loss to OKC, 26 and eight in a win over OKC, 29 and nine in a loss to the Clippers, 17 and eight in a win over Houston, and perhaps most impressively, 27 and eight in a win at Memphis.
The lift he has given his teammates, when they could have wallowed in a self-pitying funk, is incalculable.
"He's still exploring his game," Gibson said admiringly. "With Niko playing the way he is now, the court is wide open. I was open and playing freely with him as (small forward) and me as a (power forward) and Joakim at (center). It's very flexible. Niko can rebound and push and get easier baskets. We can run more now."
Gibson continued: "We've been yelling and telling him and Tony Snell to just play like they've been playing. And of course, guys being out gave him an opportunity to get in there and explore his game and help the team at the same time. You can tell a guy 100 times what he has to do, but when you have no other choice but to do it because guys ahead of you are injured, there's nothing like that. Early in the season he'd catch and shoot. ... Now he's pump-faking, sizing guys up and taking them to the basket. ... We were sitting on the bench watching him, and Derrick said, 'I can't wait to get back out there. Look how open the court is with Niko!' "
It's not the best position in the world, a team trying to make a deep playoff run with a rookie playing such a prominent role, and this is the cautionary note. During this fabulous March run Mirotic is also averaging 2.3 turnovers to 1.6 assists per game. And at some point the Bulls will absolutely need 3-point shooting, which ironically has plummeted as every other facet of Mirotic's game has improved. If the Bulls are going to make a serious run, Mirotic's minutes, scoring and rebounding numbers will almost have to come down. None of the other serious threats to reach the conference finals (Spurs, Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets, Clippers, Cavaliers, Hawks) rely to such a degree on a rookie. Mirotic has not only been leading the Bulls in fourth-quarter scoring this month, he's scoring more points per game in the fourth quarter than LeBron James.
The argument for Wiggins, which will certainly be advanced by people who vote for him, is that he has averaged 16 points overall (six more than Mirotic) and shown steady monthly improvement. But the fact is, Wiggins' team is 3-11 in its past 14 games with Wiggins playing 38 minutes per. The rookie of the year award isn't a projection; it should be an assessment of a rookie's impact on his team and on the league. Mirotic is having a greater impact now, in March, which is a helluva lot more important than scoring a bunch of points in January and February.
Mirotic's unexpectedly fast evolution, from insurance policy to key component, has allowed the Bulls to win a few extra games and breathe, quite literally, a sigh of relief. They think they've weathered the worst of the barrage. With Gibson and Butler back, the Bulls can also spot-rest Noah the way they did Monday night in a win over Charlotte, which is also critical if Noah is going to be the force he was in the 2013 playoffs instead of dragging his shot body up and down the court the way he had to last season in a that playoff loss to the Wizards.
Gibson said the successive injuries to him, Rose and Butler "felt like a heart attack." Still, asked if it's fair to say the Bulls are now in an entirely different mood than they were a month ago, Gibson said, "That's definitely fair. ... Now that guys are coming back we feel like ... if we can just stay healthy. "
They know going .500 over the past 14 games has kept them in position for home court in the first round of the playoffs, and they know Mirotic has been an enormous asset in making that happen. Pau Gasol said, "We held up pretty well under the circumstances. Staying healthy is a key component in this league. ... You look at how injuries are affecting so many teams. ... We've weathered it pretty well, and a big reason why is Niko has taken advantage of the opportunity in such an incredible way."