The Adidas Eurocamp is annually a gold mine of information about European prospects and the European game in general. One of my goals was to talk with as many European scouts and NBA personnel as possible to learn more about Bulls draftee Nikola Mirotic. After a number of informative conversations, I then lucked into seeing him in person last Friday, as my post-Eurocamp vacation to Barcelona happily coincided with Game 3 of the Spanish ACB League Finals between Mirotic's Real Madrid squad and homestanding FC Barcelona.
One interesting discussion I had with various personnel at the camp was where Mirotic would go if he were in this draft. Mirotic, who was just named ACB league MVP, is a sweet shooting 6'10” 236 lbs stretch 4 whom the Bulls hope to bring over in 2014. Although Mirotic was drafted 23rd in 2011, the summer of 2014 is the operative date due to buyout issues from his European club Real Madrid. By that time, he will no longer be subject to his relatively piddling rookie salary slot since it will have been 3 years after he was drafted, so the Bulls can offer him enough to cover his buyout.
In fact, more than one front officer insisted that Mirotic would be the clear #1 pick if he were in this draft. Of the approximately 7 NBA personnel I talked to, none would have had him outside the top 5. Another source put him in the 5-8 range. While it is unlikely he will be a 20 point scorer in the NBA, the spacing he provides should prove invaluable to the Bulls' offense if he can hold his own defensively. Although I have yet to see enough of him to say, at least one scout I trust described him as an intelligent team defender who should be able to execute Tom Thibodeau's schemes with aplomb. Indeed, it was his overall feel for the game at age 22 that gleaned the most praise.
So I was champing at the bit to see Mirotic on Friday. But shortly after the 10 p.m. start at the Palau Blaugrana, I was crestfallen to see him pick up two fouls in the first 5 minutes of the game, causing coach Pablo Laso to nail him to the bench for the rest of the first half. The story was much the same in the second half. Mirotic immediately picked up his third, begged Laso to keep him in, and then got his fourth a few possessions later. The chances of a good finish seemed remote when he reentered the game with 5:45 remaining after so much time on the bench. But the MVP improbably played like it down the stretch, exploding for 12 points and an assist to help put the game away. For the game he finished with 18 points in 17 minutes, although 4 of those were free throws off intentional fouls. Still, that production on only 9 shooting possessions is about as good as it gets.
Mirotic could doubtless help the Bulls right away on offense with the spacing he provides. He has been compared to Ryan Anderson mostly on the strength of his jump shot from the power forward position, and Mirotic has earned that comparison. He has a quick and high release and does not need to have his feet perfectly set even when shooting 3s. In warmups he showed easy range to well beyond the NBA 3 point line. The Spaniard nee Montenegran also displayed the ability to race the floor (which others have commented on as well) for one nice transition dunk off one foot.
He only posted up twice, both on the left block against CJ Wallace. Both times he backed down and made a nice right shoulder move that would have led to an easy short lefty hook, but he doesn't appear to have that shot. Instead, he had to bring the ball back into his defender with his right, resulting in his 4th foul (a good call) on one occasion and getting bailed out by a weak foul call on the other. Still he at least showed a willingness to back down into close range and seems to have quick feet on spin moves around the rim.
Most encouraging from an offensive standpoint was the dynamism Mirotic showed attacking closeouts. He made about 4 hard drives from this situation in his limited minutes. Particular impressive was one play during his scorching final stretch in which he faked a closing defender out of his shoes, drove, and then smoothly drained a pullup from the right elbow. It was a play not many power forwards can make. Mirotic also showed the ability to drive and kick like a Euro small forward, even when trapped under the backboard. He also throws extremely quick passes* and makes quick decisions when receiving the ball on the perimeter.
*The ability to throw fast passes accurately is an underrated skill; the speed of the ball in the air is critical to giving shooters an extra split second before defenders arrive. It is part of what makes LeBron James such an effective passer.
Despite this offensive explosion, I remain a bit sanguine about his NBA prospects. Unfortunately, Mirotic also looked the part of a Euro small forward on defense and the boards in this game. His help and pick and roll defense was pretty much nonexistent, despite what I'd heard about him being a good team defender. He also did not look great closing out on shooters. Even worse was his rebounding, as a Barcelona frontcourt lacking any NBA athletes inflicted several depressing stretches of volleyball on the offensive glass while Mirotic stood by helplessly. He pulled down only two rebounds in his 17 minutes, although his pace-adjusted per 40 numbers in the ACB and Euroleague were respectable at about 9 per 40 minutes combined and a little under 3 offensive boards per game. Perhaps I caught him on a bad night, but defensively he looked like Matt Bonner out there on Friday.
Mirotic's struggles in Game 3 seemed to stem from his biggest weakness right now: his physical profile. He has very tight hips that prevent him from getting into a deep defensive stance. He does not seem to take stretching seriously at this point, either unwilling or unable to execute the team's warmup of deep lunges to more than half depth. The 236 lbs he is listed at seems a little optimistic, as he lacks any muscle definition. Like a lot of European players he is not much of a 2 foot jumper. ACB league teams do not do much in the way of weight training though, and he could make huge strides once he gets into an NBA conditioning program. I also note that his lack of muscle does not necessarily mean a lack of toughness. Barcelona seemed to make a special effort to cheap shot him on screens, but he handled this just fine.
While I understand the genesis of the Ryan Anderson comparisons, Mirotic reminds me more of a less athletic version of the Orlando Magic era Rashard Lewis. Anderson is a true 4, while Mirotic seemed more of a combo forward at this point because he is not the rebounder Anderson is. And Mirotic would seem to offer better passing than either comparison. Whether he is truly a difference-maker for the Bulls will depend on whether he can defend and rebound like a real NBA power forward.
Score One For Entering the Draft Early.
Another offshoot of the discussion of his draft position was whether Mirotic made the right decision in declaring for the 2011 draft over being a top 5 pick in the 2013 or 2014 draft. While some did not agree, I maintain that entering the draft was the right decision even knowing that a buyout would preclude him from coming over until 2014.*
*I am of the opinion that a player should always stay in the draft if he is going to be a first-rounder, although this applies more to college players than Europeans. The draft is littered with prospects who would have been in the first round but sank by staying in school. Then consider the extra year of pro basketball and the fact that he can start the clock on a more lucrative second contract right away. There is also a solid argument that players develop better in the NBA without the distraction of school and access to pro training staffs and coaching. Moreover, going later in the draft can sometimes help because it means going to a better organization. Finally, would you rather have a guaranteed $2 million (the minimum for a 2-year first-round contract) or a 50% chance of $4 million? It seems like when you have nothing, getting a guarantee of 7 figures (with a higher upside due to starting the clock on the second contract earlier) is superior to rolling the dice on getting hurt or regressing compared to the chance of improving one's draft position.
At first blush, Mirotic cost himself as much a $3.5 million per year (the approximate difference in salary slot between the #1 pick and the 23rd) by coming out in 2011. But on closer examination, entering as early as he did was key due to his ability to avoid the rookie scale when he finally does arrive. Depending on their salary cap situation, the Bulls can now offer Mirotic a contract far larger than that due to the 23rd pick depending on their salary cap situation.* They could offer to sign him into any salary cap space they may have (if under the cap), the mid-level exception of approximately $5 million per year (over the cap but under the apron after signing Mirotic), or the “mini mid-level exception” of approximately $3 million per year (over the apron). The Bulls would want to sign Mirotic to a three-year deal to ensure that they had his Bird rights at the expiration of the contract so they could exceed the salary cap to re-sign him.
*With Luol Deng's contract expiring and Carlos Boozer a possible amnesty candidate, the Bulls could be well under the cap in 2014, or into the luxury tax and over the “apron” (which restricts salary cap exceptions and sign and trades) by keeping Boozer and resigning Deng. The apron sits approximately $4 million above the luxury tax line.
More European Notes
- Another fascinating discussion was whether it is better to draft and “Eurostash” a prospect or bring him over immediately. One scout I talked to said it is always better to bring him over immediately when the team plans to use him in its rotation. If not, they are usually better kept in Europe to develop with more playing time, the exception being where the prospect really needs to get in an NBA condition program and work on his body.
- Being at the Palau Blaugrana for my first high-level European basketball game was a fascinating experience. I purchased a 5th row ticket right at center court for 81 Euros (~$100) online 2 days before the game. The arena is tiny at only 7,500 seats, and boasted no luxury boxes or apparent amenities. (A new arena is scheduled to open soon.) It started out even smaller, but had a heavily overhanging upper deck installed along the baselines. This put the club's famous Dracs 1991 supporters almost right on top of the opposition, and they made their presence felt by singing, chanting, and banging drums while standing the whole game. The first row stood almost on the railing of the balcony and constantly seemed on the verge of being pushed off by the surging tide of the fans further back.*
*I saw one father constantly holding on to his son to keep him from falling.
- While the fan clubs were completely insane, the rest of the arena barely stood at all except for a few individuals who yelled at the refs.* The arena was spectacularly loud at times, notably during the Real Madrid introductions when the earsplitting whistles drowned out the PA announcer completely. During the game, the fans seemed to get most agitated whenever an opposing player complained to the officials. While Dracs' constant singing showed impressive dedication, I didn't find it particularly effective cheering because it was basically omnipresent, even as FCB was clearly out of it down the stretch. While this crowd was consistently louder (perhaps because of the far smaller building), it did seem like the energy at Oracle Arena during the Denver series I attended did a little more to buoy the home team.
*With 44 fouls in the 40 minute game, at least 70% of which seemed to be called off the ball, they had plenty of opportunities. Next time you want to complain about NBA refs, watch a European or college game.
- A number of events during the game served as yet another reminder of how different the European game is. Most striking was the fact that Marcelino Huertas, probably the best pure point guard outside of the NBA right now, played only 6 minutes for FCB and none in the 2nd half.* Sarunas Jasikevicius played only 10 minutes despite a throwback first half that had him in double figures as he led a Barcelona comeback in the second quarter. Instead, coach Xavi Pascual played the unremarkable Victor Sada throughout crunchtime. All of these bizarre playing time decisions seemed the Catalan version of de rigueur to the FCB season ticket holder sitting next to me.
*Team USA fans will remember him carving up the defense for the Brazilian national team during an exhibition last summer.
- I would pay hundreds of dollars to see a 7 game series of HORSE between FC Barcelona stalwart Juan Carlos Navarro and Stephen Curry. These two feature the best assortments of floaters, runners, one-leggers, and pure shooting in the world. At one point in the doldrums of the second half, Navarro sprinted around screens for 20 seconds of the shot clock before finally receiving the ball and driving to the top of the key, where he successfully launched a left-handed one-legged floater that rattled in as the shot clock expired. Although he doesn't look it, Navarro is in absolutely killer shape. He is a good reminder that cardio shape and low body fat are by no means one and the same.
- Spanish national team member Felipe Reyes absolutely killed Barcelona by simply outtoughing them. FCB really has little in the way of frontcourt strength at the moment with Erazem Lorbek a shell of his former self,* and Reyes took advantage. Despite never even thinking about going left or shooting anything other than a righty layup or jump hook, Reyes had 20 points on 12 shooting possessions with 4 offensive rebounds.
*Lorbek suffered a concussion in Game 2 but returned for Game 3. I did not hear anything about him having to pass the league's concussion tests to play.
- Reyes, Lorbek, Ante Tomic, and other post players repeatedly backed down their man for 5 foot jump hooks with absolutely no help. Relying on this, coach Laso inserted Tremmell Darden (who I had never heard of) for a few possessions at the end of each half solely for the purpose of backing down the undersized Brad Oleson for 5 foot turnaround jumpers. It worked beautifully few times, but it was really odd to see that Darden's only playing time come in the last minutes of each half. It was clear that the edict from both coaches was not to double team the post under any circumstances, which led to some easy buckets. It was surprising to see in Europe, where helping is easier due to the lack of a defensive 3 second rule.