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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.

14-15 Euroleague Power Rankings: Centers

As the 14-15 Euroleague season begins, RealGM presents the ultimate positional rankings of the league's best players. In this first edition, we ranked the elite centers from one to ten. 

1. Gustavo Ayon (Real, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (NBA): 4.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Euroleague finalist Real Madrid won the biggest fight of the offseason in signing Gustavo Ayon. One of the best big men in 2014 FIBA World Cup, Ayon has joined Real for the next two seasons as a replacement for Nikola Mirotic. Ayon can unquestionably contribute as much as Mirotic did in 13-14 statistically - Ayon failed to establish himself as anything more than an NBA role player but has always been very productive in international competitions. The 29-year-old center averaged 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in the World Cup, including 25 points performance in the quarterfinal match against Team USA.

2. Ante Tomic (FC Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. 

Ante Tomic stands out statistically from the other players ranked here. The Croatian big man was the only Euroleague center that ranked in the Top 15 in scoring last season and also was the second best rebounder of the league. In 13-14, Tomic was not only as productive as the previous season, but also had a career performance in a game against Anadolu Efes in which he scored 26 points, grabbed 15 boards and collected career-high 40 performance index rating (PIR) points. Numbers don’t lie and the 27-year-old Tomic is expected to remain in elite for the upcoming years.

3. Tibor Pleiss (FC Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 12 points (86% FT) and 5.4 rebounds.

Now it is obvious that moving to Laboral Kutxa in 2012 was a great move for Tibor Pleiss. After adjusting in 12-13, last season was a great success for Pleiss. He more than doubled his stats in Euroleague (12 points and 5.4 rebounds), while he was also a dominant figure in Spanish league (12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game). If Dunk-O-Meterexists in Europe, Pleiss would had been among leaguers as the German center successfully used his height (7-foot-1), long arms and often finished off plays with dunks. As Pleiss joined Tomic at FC Barcelona by signing a two-year contract, it is going to be interesting to see how two elite centers will fit together on the same team.

4. Ioannis Bourousis (Real, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 8.3 points (86% FT) and 5.9 rebounds.

After spending two title-less years with EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, last season Ioannis Bourousis finally got into a winning situation and was a part of an astonishing Real Madrid run. Real was only one win away from becoming one of the most remarkable teams in the history of Euroleague. However, Bourousis is not the one to blame for loss as the Greek center was one of the most effective players in the final game, where he scored 12 points and grabbed nine boards. With Mirotic gone, the biggest challenge for Bourousis will be to use all his experience to help Real maintain the impressive level of play as it was last season.

5. Bryant Dunston (Olympiacos, Greece)

Statistics in 2013-2014 (Euroleague): 10.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. 

Last season Bryant Dunston, now a second-year center, stepped into a difficult role as a rookie as he became a starting big man of back-to-back Euroleague champion Olympiakos. It did not take long until Dunston turned into a dominant player inside the paint who was a difference maker on both sides of the floor. Dunston's defensive skills and rim-protection was noticed by Euroleague coaches, who voted Dunston to become 2014 Euroleague Best Defender trophy winner. Despite Olympiakos tried to strengthen their frontcourt by adding Othello Hunter, it seems that Olympiakos will still rely mostly on Dunston, who will again be the strongest candidate to win Best Defender award.

6. Shawn James (EA7 Emporio Armani, Italy)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

Shawn James missed a big part of last season as he recovered after having back surgery in January and had to watch his teammates lifting Euroleague trophy in Milan. However, most of Euroleague fans should still remember his game from 12-13 season as back then James led the league in blocks (1.9) and was named to the 2012-13 All-Euroleague Second Team. Now James moved to Milan, where he might become a piece that kept EA7 Emporio Armani team way from winning a playoff series. If James gets back to the level he was in 12-13, Milan will become a real contender to play in Euroleague Final Four.

7. Sofoklis Schortsanitis (Maccabi, Israel)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis is one of the most unique players in the Euroleague as he didn’t receive more than 15 minutes of playing time per game in last three seasons but still remained among elite centers. Due to his condition, Schortsanitis’ playing time was limited in 13-14 but the Greek as usual was able to do a lot of damage in a short period of time - Schortsanitis also led the league in points per 28 minutes (19). Do not expect to see Schortsanitis to climb the ranking in the upcoming seasons but the current Euroleague champion should remain a guy who can get the job done in 15 minutes.

8. Sasha Kaun (CSKA, Russia)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 8.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Now as the only center on a Euroleague title contender, 14-15 is going to be a make or break season for Sasha Kaun. The big man was very efficient on pick and roll situations and was productive when CSKA needed that the most. Kaun scored 29 points in the last two playoffs games against Panathinaikos and collected 27 points in two 2014 Euroleague Final Four games. It is going to be interesting to see how Kaun will look on the court together with Nando de Colo and if he can develop himself into a big man, who put double-digit performances on a game-by-game basis.

9. Lamont Hamilton (Laboral Kutxa, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 10.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists.

Even though he missed half of the Euroleague games last season due to injury, Lamont Hamilton was still selected to RealGM’s Euroleague All-Rookie 2nd Team and in general had a productive season. Hamilton was one of the best sixth men in the league as he averaged 10.3 points and 3.6 boards in 19 minutes of action. With Pleiss gone to FC Barcelona, Hamilton’s role is set to increase but as Laboral Kutxa acquired Ryan Gomes, Davis Bertans, and Thomas Heurtel flashed in 2014 FIBA World Cup, the center’s touches will be limited.

10. Nenad Krstic (Anadolu Efes, Turkey)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.6 points and 3.2 rebounds.

After a slow start last season, Nenad Krstic finally became himself in the beginning of Top 16 stage, where he put four 20 PIR points performances in a row but after the seventh game of the second stage Krstic disappeared and never came back. Overall, Krstic has been in decline over the past few seasons. In the 2014 FIBA World Cup, Krstic’s playing time was limited due to his poor conditioning, which was mainly caused by a knee injury, therefore it is unsure if he can get back this season at the top level that he was just couple years ago.

Euroleague MVP Race

As the Euroleague Top-16 phase approaches its end, here are our Euroleague MVP rankings, where there are six new faces and big changes since the beginning of the season. 

- All records and stats through Game 10 of Top-16. The number in brackets shows position in previous ranking.

1. (4) Keith Langford - EA7 Armani Milan (7 wins - 3 losses)

17.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3 assists in 30 minutes.

EA7 Armani Milan is changing its face from a permanent loser to a serious threat and possible candidate to make it to the playoffs. The Italian team won four games in a row and with seven wins ranks second in group E. Probably not even the most optimistic fans of EA7 Armani Milan saw that happening. However, that wouldn’t be possible without Keith Langford, who has been averaging 17.4 points per game to lead the Euroleague in scoring. Langford collected a 20 or better power index rating (PIR) in half of his Euroleague games this season. His productivity might take EA7 Armani Milan to the playoffs for the first time in the modern version of Euroleague.

2. (-) Sergio Rodriguez - Real (8-2)

14.2 points (55% 3FG, 92% FT), 2.1 rebounds, 5 assists in 22 minutes.

Sergio Rodriguez, 27, is likely the most powerful weapon for Real this season. If the starting five of Real Madrid don’t break their opponents, Rodriguez, who always come off the bench, sets such a high tempo and raises the quality of basketball to the level that the opposite team has nothing to do but collapse before halftime. Rodriguez is no doubt the best sixth man of the Euroleague and he will most likely join 50-40-90 club by the end of the season. Rodriguez ranks second in three-point shooting, third in free throw shooting and fourth in assists per game. Perfect all-around performances might soon lift Rodriguez to the top of the MVP ranking.

3. (-) Ante Tomic - FC Barcelona (10-0)

12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists in 24 minutes.

First of all, let me remind you that at the beginning of the Top 16 Ante Tomic was nowhere close to this position. Tomic averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in January and couldn’t finish any of his first five Top 16 games in double digits scoring. However, it’s a whole different story now as Ante Tomic is the most dominant center in group E, averaging 30 PIR points over his past four games. If Tomic continues to produce these amazing results, we’ll have to wait for the playoffs to see if somebody, including Nenad Krstic, Sofoklis Schortsanitis or Real's frontcourt, can stop the Croatian big man.

4. (1) Nikola Mirotic - Real (8-2)

12.9 points (54% 3FG), 4.8 rebounds in 24 minutes.

Nikola Mirotic fell in Euroleague MVP ranking, though not because his results have declined recently. The situation in Madrid doesn’t require Mirotic to produce 100 percent on a daily basis as he could likely average around 18 points and eight rebounds for any other Euroleague team. Nevertheless, Mirotic remains as productive as he was in the beginning of the season as he ranks fifth in points per possession (1.25). He’s also ranked third in three-point shooting, making 54 percent of his shots from the long range. Mirotic is the only big man to be ranked among Top 10 shooters.

5. (9) Malcolm Delaney - Bayern (5-5)

14.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists in 28 minutes.

Now it’s obvious that Bayern Munich made a great decision choosing Malcolm Delaney to be their leader in their debut 13-14 Euroleague season. Delaney, the best rookie of this season, is successfully leading Bayern towards the playoffs as he collected 20 PIR points or more in eight games. The 25-year-old guard might be the main factor in Bayern’s journey to the playoffs and the last four weeks may be the biggest challenge in Delaney’s professional career. However, going through to the Top 16 would be another sign for Bayern to sign a long-term deal with Delaney, who could be team’s face for years to come.

6. (-) Rudy Fernandez - Real (8-2)

12.4 points, 4 rebounds, 3.9 assists in 27 minutes.

Similar to Mirotic’s situation, the statistical numbers don’t reflect Rudy Fernandez’s capabilities. With 12.4 points, 4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, those would be great numbers for any Euroleague player, but he could perform much better than that in a different situation. Also, Fernandez is one of the reasons Real has lost only twice in 20 games played. Both times, opposite teams were able to slow him down. Against CSKA Fernandez converted only two of 13 field goal attempts, versus Bayern - 4 out of 14. So if you plan to stop Real, slowing Fernandez down would be a great start.

7. (-) Emir Preldzic - Fenerbahce Ulker (5-5)

10.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists in 29 minutes.

Emir Preldzic, who played great in the regular season, sank with Fenerbahce Ulker during the Top 16 stage. Preldzic’s statistical figures dropped significantly in all main categories - points, rebounds, assists, same as shooting percentages. However, while Fenerbahce Ulker shows its first signs of recovery and won four out of five last games, Preldzic fails to be as efficient as he use to be. In last three games, Preldzic averaged 4.6 points and 1.3 rebounds. If Preldzic continues to struggle, Fenerbahce Ulker will most likely have to put off their final four ambitions until next season.

8. (5) Derrick Brown - Lokomotiv Kuban (5-5)

13.9 points, 4.4 rebounds in 29 minutes.

At the beginning of Top 16, it seemed that Euroleague teams found a way to stop Derrick Brown, but the big man later proved that to be just a little slip. Same as in regular season, Brown averages 13.9 points per game in the second stage and constantly makes his input to Lokomotiv Kuban offence. Of course, for some of his points Brown must feel thankful for Marcus Williams. Brown and Williams duo is one of the most efficient in the league as Williams already dished out 27 assists to Brown. It’s a do-or-die time for Lokomotiv Kuban and soon we will see if Brown rises in this ranking or will fall with his team out of the Euroleague.

9. Vassilis Spanoulis - Olympiacos (4-6)

14.6 points, 2 rebounds, 4.8 assists in 28 minutes.

The 10-0 result in the regular season was a remarkable start  but that dream came to a quick end once the injury bug and losses struck. Vassilis Spanoulis was one of the reasons, as he played horrible in three of his seven Top 16 games. In the match against Unicaja Malaga, Spanoulis scored only one field goal out of 12; collected minus eight PIR points and played his worst Euroleague game ever. Looking back to previous seasons, Spanoulis can get hot anytime and put 20 or 30 points in few games in a row. But seeing Olympiakos in such difficult situation, Spanoulis needs to become a hero once again, and right now.

10. Carlos Arroyo - Galatasaray (4-6)

13.8 points, 2 rebounds, 5.2 assists in 32 minutes.

Carlos Arroyo's game in the regular season and Top 16 are stark in contract. In the first stage, Arroyo was about to become one of the biggest disappointments of the season, as he averaged 10.7 points and 9.8 PIR points per game. The situation has changed in the Top 16 as his numbers became very solid - 16.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists. Arroyo also demonstrates consistency in the Top 16, as he scored at least 10 points and dished out three assists in all of his Top 16 games. However, it seems that Arroyo is not capable of carrying Galatasaray to the playoffs on his own and in order to move on, he will need more help from his teammates than ever before.

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

Real Madrid has a remarkable 41-1 record this season and could become the best team of the 21st century if that continue this path all the way to the Final Four in Milan in May.

24 Questions For The Start Of Euroleague 2013-14

On Nikola Mirotic, a possible threepeat for Olympiacos, Carlos Arroy's return, can CSKA buy chemistry, the rise of Ukrainian basketball and much more.

RealGM's 2012-13 Euroleague Awards

Victor Khryapa wins Euroleague MVP, while Paul Davis is Rookie of the Year, Aron Baynes wins Most Improved and Georgios Bartzokas is Coach of the Year.

24 Questions For The Start Of Euroleague

As the 12-13 Euroleague season begins, RealGM presents 24 questions for the Euroleague fans.

Euroleague MVP Race

We are in the middle of the Top-16 phase of Euroleague competition, which makes it an opportune time to check in on the favorites to win MVP.

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.

Euroleague Recaps, Finishing The Regular Season

The Euroleague Regular Season came to an end this week as we begin to move into the Top-16 stage.

Euroleague Power Rankings For Mid-December

With its regular season winding down, we evaluated and ranked all 24 Euroleague teams' performance over their first eight games and their perspective in future battles.

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.
 

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