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How Nikola Mirotic Rose From Soccer Destiny, To European Phenom, To The NBA

Televisions flickered football matches from the Spanish League and English Premier League, competitive games staged on grassland, and, growing up, this was Nikola Mirotic’s destiny, a pursuit of a career on the soccer field. His passion for the sport swelled in grammar school, and Mirotic’s increasing height gave him such vision in passing, such ability to take advantage of scoring creases across yards and yards of area. Only at 13 years old, his life’s calling forever changed. 

Mirotic had come to visit his family one day, when his grandfather looked into the eyes of a floppy-haired grandson, a thin physique on an ever-growing boy. A nearby soccer field was the destination for them on this afternoon, but Mirotic only remembers listening to the elderly figure in his childhood sway him from a most popular sport to a 10-foot rim, a 20-ounce ball and a hardwood floor.

“One day, my grandfather, he told me, ‘You’re very tall. You need to just try to play basketball.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t like basketball,’” Mirotic told RealGM. “But he said, ‘No, just try.’ He wanted me to just try basketball, he showed me a good school and told me to go, practice and see if I like basketball. I go there, I started to love basketball and I worked hard, and that’s how I’m here.”

Mirotic’s eyes lit up the other day, a bright smile to divide his scruffy beard. Now, he’s here. Nikola Mirotic is in the NBA.

“Now look at this,” Mirotic says. “I would never think before that I will be here, but I worked very hard to be a professional player. I think I’m here now because I do a lot of great things.”

Mirotic’s grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to the European powerhouse Real Madrid, but soccer still consumes part of his mind -- and a part of his cell phone, scanning scores and stats. “I always will like soccer, always will watch Spanish league and Premier league,” he says.

He’s so grateful now, and leaving Europe had never crossed the mind until his agent, Igor Crespo, placed his name in the 2011 NBA Draft. Three teams had secured his rights on that June night, the Houston Rockets’ and Minnesota Timberwolves’ dealings ultimately delivering the 6-foot-10 project to the Chicago Bulls. Everyone knew he needed more experience before signing an NBA contract, and so the Bulls monitored his development in the Spanish ACB league. 

Two years ago, expectations already mounting everywhere, Mirotic emitted the praise of an NBA All-Star. Zach Randolph had played Mirotic in a preseason exhibition game, calling him a blend of Dirk Nowitzki and Danillo Gallinari, a prospect who needed the proper environment to flourish. This made its way to Mirotic once he left the United States for the Spanish camp, and he brought with him greater validation and vigor to Real Madrid’s season.

“No pressure, because for me, I started to think that now I need to work even more,” Mirotic says. “It was more energy for me. If someone says that, it is because he thinks high of you. I worked hard, and now I get a chance to play against [Randolph]. I get to play against Dirk Nowitzki. Every day I am practicing with Joakim [Noah], Taj [Gibson], Derrick Rose. I want to enjoy this.

“Before Chicago drafted me, I didn’t think about the NBA. Three years ago when they drafted me, I started to watch the games and fell in love with the NBA.”

In truth, Mirotic privately believed he would complete his contract with Real Madrid, would never need to be bought out, and would part amicably with the club and its fans. In his mind, the NBA would come as soon as 2015, perhaps 2016, but Chicago’s front office urged for dialogue on a potential buyout late in Real Madrid’s 2014 season. The Bulls tracked him for years, understood the unlikelihood of signing Carmelo Anthony and progressed steadily in contract negotiations with Mirotic. Soon, his agents had negotiated a fully guaranteed three-year deal -- the NBA’s richest contract ever for a rookie, never mind simply a European player signing.

“I was thinking I would finish my full contract over there and come afterward, but life is like that,” Mirotic says. “Chicago wanted me this year, and I was feeling good to go. The decision to come this year is a great thing.”

And yet, back home, Mirotic heard backlash for leaving through a buyout of millions, heard detractors of his American dream. Some told him he should stay. Some said he wasn’t prepared, wasn’t athletic enough. Mirotic had struggled to end the Real Madrid season, dealing with a minor wrist injury. Yes, Mirotic needed to sit down with his family, his wife and his representatives for a final decision -- and everyone agreed.

“I don’t care what people say because it was the perfect moment,” Mirotic told RealGM. “Twenty-three years old, I won titles with Real Madrid, and I did great things there. The perfect moment is now. I was thinking I was ready, thinking that I belong here, and Chicago gave me a lot of interest.” 

A week into preseason, Mirotic has shown promise to be an integral contributor in an NBA rotation for the next decade. And as Crespo says, “Nikola loves Chicago, loves his teammates and loves the coaches. He loves this situation.”

Mirotic is bigger than some teammates had envisioned on tape, a skillful ball handler and accomplished shooter. For Tom Thibodeau, Mirotic still must strengthen, sharpen and quicken the release on his jumper and fully understand concepts.

For the head coach, players must grasp schemes and an edge to maintain a rotation spot, and Mirotic’s there now on a championship contender should Rose and veterans like Pau Gasol stay healthy. Mirotic is still learning this new league, still learning his fresh surroundings. On his way out of an opposing arena recently, he became lost in finding the exit doors to the team bus, and soon a security personnel showed him the way.

“What an opportunity for me here … I cannot believe it. I’m learning a lot, and it’s amazing,” Mirotic says, and he’s so much more coordinated now in his pro career. He’s no longer a 6-foot-something kid running around on a soccer field, a grandfather’s persuasion turning Mirotic into a European basketball prodigy. He’s here now, far from a soccer field, far from the critics back home. Nikola Mirotic is where he belongs.

Real Madrid Makes Case For Being Euroleague's Best Team Of The Century

If there were a voting for the most successful team of 21st century, Panathinaikos would be a main contender to finish at the top of the ranking. Five Euroleague championships in 13 years is something that no other team has achieved and that makes the Greens the most successful team of 21st century.

However, talking about Euroleague’s best team in a single season since 2000 usually leads to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 04-05. Some of the teams were close, such as 11-12 FC Barcelona, but a Maccabi team featuring Sarunas Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker and Nikola Vujcic set the standard so high that it was unreachable until now.

41-1. This is current Real Madrid’s win-loss record, which almost reads like a misprint. In more than 130 days of action, Real has lost only once and for most of the time reminded you of the Spanish version of the Monstars from Space Jam, which on a bad day would still beat their opponents by a double-digit margin. Last but not least, let me remind you that Real plays in Euroleague and Spanish championship (Liga Endesa), which are the second and the third best club competitions in the world behind just the NBA.

But before comparing similarities and differences to 04-05 Maccabi, it is essential to remember how good Maccabi was nine years ago. In 04-05, Maccabi won back-to-back Euroleague championship and became the first Euroleague team to do so since 1991. Back in 04-05, Maccabi won 20 Euroleague games out of 24 and stayed undefeated throughout Top 16, playoffs and Final Four. The team from Israel had some well-known names on its squad such one of the best Americans ever to play in Euroleague: one of the most dominant point guards of 21st century in Sarunas Jasikevicius, the only player to register triple-double in Euroleague in Nikola Vujcic, as well as future NBA starter Anthony Parker. In that historical season, Maccabi led the league in all main statistical categories - in scoring, assists, field goal and three point percentages, and blocks.

Real also ranks in Top 3 in every major statistical category as they posted an average margin of victory of 20.5 points in its 16 wins. No surprise, some of the most talented players in the league wear Real’s jersey - former NBA player and now one of the best point guards in Euroleague in Sergio Rodriguez, future Chicago Bull and MVP candidate Nikola Mirotic, the winner of the 2011-12 RealGM Euroleague Sixth Man of the Year Award Jaycee Carroll and many others.

 

04-05 Maccabi

13-14 Real

PPG

92 (1)

88.2 (1)

RPG

33.9 (5)

36.9 (2)

APG

17.4 (1)

18.9 (2)

SPG

11.9 (3)

8.1 (1)

BPG

4.1 (1)

4.1 (1)

2FG%

57.6 (1)

56.1 (3)

3FG%

40.6 (1)

40.9 (1)

FT%

77.8 (2)

82.1 (1)

The number in brackets shows position among 24 Euroleague teams.

Three similarities and key difference

1. Keeping winning starting five: After winning the Euroleague championship in 03-04, Maccabi maintained its whole starting five and that helped them to repeat their success in the following year. Real did the same thing after reaching the Euroleague final in 12-13, as they didn’t initiate dramatic changes and only strengthened the center position by signing Ioannis Bourousis.

2. Versatile frontcourt: Maceo Baston and Vujcic played a major role in 04-05 and together averaged 28.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. At that time, it was the most dominant “do it all” frontcourt in the league - using post moves and back to the basket play, pick and roll, hitting threes and finishing on fastbreaks. Mirotic and Bourousis have the same importance for Real as they average 20.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game combined. Without their versatility and contribution on both ends of the floor 41-1 record wouldn’t be possible.

3. Unstoppable offense: The biggest Maccabi and Real advantage against their opponents is their dominant offense. Maccabi averaged Euroleague All-Time high 92 points per game in 04-05, while Real is not so far behind this year with 88.2 points. Both teams’ offences were things of beauty and Tel Aviv and Madrid clubs were able to score in as many possible ways as you can imagine. Also both teams scored more than have of their points off assists, therefore 04-05 Maccabi and 13-14 Real are one of the most fun teams to watch in Euroleague history too.

X. Striking starting five and bench depth: Three members of that historical Maccabi starting five later were named to Euroleague All-Decade Team (Jasikevicius, Parker and Vujcic). That’s a good example of how strong and talented Maccabi starting five was and that would be Maccabi’s advantage over Real. On the other hand, Real bench would probably make it to the Euroleague playoffs on their own and they have been much more efficient than Maccabi’s bench. Rodriguez, Marcus Slaughter, Felipe Reyes, Carroll, Dontaye Draper - pretty much every player of the 12-man squad (except Daniel Diez) can be a decisive factor and turn the game in favor of Real Madrid.

 

04-05 Maccabi

13-14 Real

PG

Jasikevicius

Rodriguez

SG

Burstein

Fernandez

SF

Parker

Darden

PF

Baston

Mirotic

C

Vujcic

Bourousis

Crunch-time fives of Maccabi and Real.

To sum up, despite it still being midseason, Real Madrid is already in the conversation to be named the best team of 21st century. Without question Real seems to be just as good and dominant as Maccabi was in 04-05, if not better. However, in order to be a new number one, Real still has to do one thing and one thing only - beat everyone on their way to the final and raise the Euroleague trophy in Milan.

RealGM's 2012-13 Euroleague Awards

For the third consecutive year, RealGM presents the most outstanding players of Euroleague.

Victor Khryapa of CSKA Moscow is the winner of the RealGM Euroleague MVP award for the 2012-13 season. The 30-year-old forward has improved all of his main statistical numbers this season, averaging 10 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Khryapa has also helped his team, which holds a 23-5 record this season, to defeat Caja Laboral Vitoria in the playoffs to reach the Final Four.

For the second consecutive year, the RealGM Euroleague MVP award was given to a Russian player, as the winner of last season's prize was Andrei Kirilenko of CSKA Moscow.

The RealGM All-Euroleague First Team consists of Montepaschi's Bobby Brown and Olympiacos' Vassilis Spanoulis at guard, Khryapa and Maccabi's Shawn James at forward and CSKA's Nenad Krstic at center.

The RealGM All-Euroleague Second Team includes guards Jordan Farmar of Anadolu Efes and Zoran Planinic of Khimki, forwards Rudy Fernandez and Nikola Mirotic of Real and center Ante Tomic of Barcelona Regal.

Paul Davis of Khimki Moscow region is the winner of the Euroelague Rookie of the Year Award, while Aron Baynes (formerly of Union Olimpija before joining the San Antonio Spurs) was the RealGM pick to win the Most Improved Played Award.

Georgios Bartzokas of Olympiacos was named as the 2012-13 Euroleague Coach of the Year, while Kyle Hines (also from Olympiacos) is the winner of the 2012-13 Euroleague Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Euroleague MVP

Victor Khryapa (CSKA)

All-Euroleague 1st Team

Bobby Brown (Montepaschi): 18.8 points, 5.3 assists in 33 minutes

Vassilis Spanoulis (Olympiacos) - 14.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 30 minutes

Victor Khryapa (CSKA) - 10 points (45% 3FG), 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 28 minutes

Shawn James (Maccabi): 11.5 points (64% 2FG), 6.5 rebounds in 24 minutes  

Nenad Krstic (CSKA) - 13.6 points (63% 2FG), 4.6 rebounds in 24 minutes

All-Euroleague 2nd Team

Jordan Farmar (Anadolu Efes): 13.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 30 minutes

Zoran Planinic (Khimki): 12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 31 minutes

Rudy Fernandez (Real): 13.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27 minutes

Nikola Mirotic (Real): 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds in 25 minutes

Ante Tomic (Barcelona Regal) - 11.5 points (63% 2FG), 6.3 rebounds in 23 minutes

Sixth Man Award

Kyle Hines (Olympiacos) - 9.1 points, 5.9 rebounds in 20 minutes

Most Improved Player Award

Aron Baynes (Union Olimpija) - 13.8 points, 9.8 rebounds in 26 minutes

Coach of the Year

Georgios Bartzokas (Olympiacos)

Rookie of the Year

Paul Davis (Khimki)

All-Rookie 1st Team

Paul Davis (Khimki) - 13.4 points, 5.5 rebounds in 20 minutes

Ricky Hickman (Maccabi) - 13.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 29 minutes

Blake Schilb (Elan Chalon) - 15.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4 assists in 33 minutes

Marcus Williams (Unicaja) - 10.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 22 minutes

Shelden Williams (Elan Chalon) - 11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds in 23 minutes

All-Rookie 2nd Team

Drew Gordon (Partizan) - 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds in 29 minutes

Lukasz Koszarek (Asseco Prokom) - 11.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4 assists in 30 minutes

Kelvin Rivers (Khimki) - 9.6 points, 2.7 rebounds in 26 minutes

Dashaun Wood (Alba) - 9.8 points, 2.5 assists in 24 minutes

Maik Zirbes (Brose Baskets) - 8.2 points, 5 rebounds in 20 minutes

Europe Interview: Earl Rowland Of Unicaja Malaga

Earl Rowland has been rising the ranks in Europe and recently moved from the Latvian league to Unicaja Malaga in the ACB and Euroleague.

European Domestic League Power Rankings For February

We are past the halfway point in all of the European National Domestic Leagues and with January fully in the books, it is an opportune time to check in on team rankings for Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, France, Turkey, Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, Israel & more.

Catching Up With Barcelona, Real Madrid

Here is an in-depth look at how a couple of Spanish teams are faring early on in Euroleague, including one that is about to feel the effects of the NBA lockout resolution.

Europe Interview: Joel Freeland Of Unicaja Malaga

Joel Freeland recently sat down with RealGM to share his views on his development, NBA plans with the Blazers and international hoops.

Europe Interview: Ricky Rubio Of Regal Barcelona

Despite a rollercoaster season, Ricky Rubio appeared self-confident as he spoke with RealGM about his Europe career.

European Review: Batiste, Kanter, CSKA's Letter & More

This week RealGM.com reviews wins, losses and transactions of Euroleague, Berni Rodriguez's excellent week, Iverson’s postponed debut and more.

 

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