Move over Andrew Wiggins.
Because, if Michael Carter-Williams has taught us anything about being a rookie in the NBA outside of the fact that everyone still smokes weed (SURPRISE!!), it’s just not that crazy difficult to put up great numbers on a lousy team. The two of them average(d) just over 16 points a game in stellar breakout seasons, though MCW had 6.5 rebounds and assists to Wiggins’ 4.5 and 2. Of course, any sane hoops head would say that comparison is unfair to Wiggins. Carter-Williams had a lot more help padding his stats, playing under Philly’s frenzied pace and with an absolute shoot-whenever-the-hell-you-feel-like-it green light from coach Brett Brown. All of that was reflected pretty accurately in Carter-Williams’ dreadful shooting statistics and maybe more insidiously in how Sam Hinkie and the Sixers organization decided to cut bait on the young PG after a single year, choosing to reload in the draft with another first rounder.
Wiggins isn’t a flash in the pan. The first thing to remember here is that the 2013 draft class was widely regarded as one of the weakest in years (case in point). Although Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo have emerged as genuine contributors, there just wasn’t a lot of competition for MCW last year. Secondly, through his first year, Wiggins has showcased his potential as a scary two-way player, averaging over 35 minutes a game and taking on some of the NBA’s premier players on the defensive side of the court. Third, and possibly most importantly of all, Wiggins just looks the part of a future All-Star (Ignore the Song). He has the size and athleticism to absolutely bully most 2 guards in the post while displaying a great set of moves to score in the paint. He competes, defends three positions, runs the floor, and has allowed Minnesota to feel truly excited about the future just months after being scorned by their greatest star since Kevin Garnett. Andrew Wiggins is the future of the NBA.
I don’t care about any of that right now. Because look at this guy.
Okay, maybe it’s safe to say that the announcer is hyping him just a little much here. But, there is absolutely no denying that in the last couple of weeks, with the loss of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler gone with an elbow strain, the homie Nikola has turned it up big time. Over that time, the bearded wonder has been killing it for Chicago. He’s averaging just under 20 points per game on 50% shooting from the floor. 85% from the line on over 7 trips a game. 7 rebounds a game. 1.5 3 pointers a game. The ability to slide between the 3 and the 4 to fit in seamlessly with any and all of Chicago’s big men.
More importantly than any of that, THE BULLS ARE WINNING BASKETBALL GAMES!!! Sure, they’re only hovering around .500 during that time with some pretty lame losses to the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets. However, that 5-5 record over the last ten games doesn’t really matter much when you consider that Chicago took care of business when it counted, winning a home-and-home against Toronto to take a nice 1.5 game lead for the 3rd seed (And also sweeping the season series in the process 4-0). After that, the Bulls have a pretty cakey end to the season with no games against the Western Conference and only two series tilts against Atlanta and Chicago. Barring another catastrophic injury, these guys should be able to keep the chippy Raps at bay with less than 10 games to play on the season.
Its hard to understate the importance of finishing 3rd in the East over 4th or 5th. While most analysts would say there are only two real teams in the Eastern Conference, Washington and Toronto still have the potential to mix it up a little come playoff time. Chicago likely has the juice to take out either of these foes, but they should be downright excited to play Milwaukee instead, especially if they can finish up that series quickly and rest the pile of broken bones and bloody bandages they call a roster. After that, there’s always the argument that the Bulls have the coaching and the mental toughness to play even Atlanta or Cleveland tight in a six or seven game series. Taking the show-and-prove attitude most people are taking toward the Hawks in the postseason, the Bulls have a good chance to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Derrick Rose’s MVP season.
So how does Mirotic fit into this? While Tom Thibodeau has recently stated he believes Rose can return to contact basketball as early as this week, if the Bulls are going to win in the playoffs this year, it will be for the same reason they’ve won any year: defense, grit, and big, bruising bodies in the frontcourt.
Pau Gasol will definitely come up huge here. Say what you want about the quality of the East, but he’s been a deserving All-Star this season (especially when you consider the total upheaval of moving to a completely different team after years in Los Angeles) and can rebound incredibly well for someone so unbelievably lacking in athleticism. With Gasol posting up and creating some nice midrange offense and Noah finally healthy enough to resemble some vestige of his DPOY campaign, the Bulls are stacked up front. Hell, they even have Taj Gibson (also finally getting healthy again) coming off the bench to provide even more hard-nosed defense and tough play. They should be more than big enough to pound anyone in the East.
Mirotic is the X-Factor. Say what you want about his defense, and it is legitimately not great, this guy has been getting serious minutes even under the psychotically competitive Thibs. He has the range to play as a stretch 4 or to dominate smaller players, maybe backed by Noah and Gibson to cover for him on the other end of the floor. Like Jimmy Butler he has an uncanny neck for drawing fouls and getting to the line, which is huge during the playoffs, and can be even huger if you’re drawing them on the right player. And, lastly, he has the balls to take (and make) some huge shots.
Just look at this video. I know the Bulls went on to lose that game, but Mirotic looked like a wildcard capable of challenging even Russell Westbrook for “Holy Shit this guy is putting the team on his back right now”. I mean, Chicago was basically getting ready to walk out of the building when he started raining down 3s, terrifying Chicago like Marcus Paige trying to pull UNC back into it against Wisconsin. Maybe it’s not for the best if Mirotic has the same green light as MCW, but Thibodeau is no Brett Brown. He’s competing and trying to win, and knows that this goofy, gangly, super-puppy gives them a chance to do so. He won’t be a huge piece in any of Chicago’s postseason success, but I’ll guarantee he pulls his share of highlights and swings a game or two.
And when you remember his fellow freshman will be watching those games from their respective IKEA couches, it should be more than evident who the real R.O.Y. is.