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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.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Through the end of group play at the World Cup, two countries - Spain and the US - have separated themselves from the pack. They dominated their respective groups, with both teams going 5-0 and winning every game by double digits. The surprise isn’t that the Spanish have looked as good as the Americans, especially playing at home, but that they have had as many highlights and are playing the more entertaining brand of basketball.

With Ricky Rubio pushing the pace and getting anywhere he wants to go on the court and the Gasol brothers stepping out on the perimeter and making pinpoint passes out of the post, Spain spreads the floor and zips the ball from side to side. Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

After a wave of last-minute withdrawals from Team USA, the talent gap between the Americans and their biggest rival is as small as it has been since 2006, the last time they lost a game in a major international tournament. The US would still be the heavy favorite in a seven-game series, but in a one-and-done scenario, the team with more size and skill upfront, more perimeter shooting and more overall continuity has a real chance of winning.

When you watch the two teams play, there’s little comparison as to which is group more comfortable playing with each other. While the US has to essentially build a team from scratch every two years, the core of the Spanish team has been together for more than a decade. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Rubio all played in the Olympics in 2008 - none of the Americans from that team are still around.

After showing his age in his last few seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he didn’t really fit with either Dwight Howard or Mike D’Antoni’s four-out system, Pau appears rejuvenated by playing in his home country and being featured in a pass-heavy two-post offense. He is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2 blocks a game on 62% shooting - through the first five games, he would have to be the MVP of the entire tournament.

And while the US has a first-team All-NBA guard (James Harden) and a guy who may be the third best player in the world (Anthony Davis), Spain may have the more valuable NBA player in Marc Gasol. Marc won the Defensive Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and is one of the best passing big men in the world. He makes his teammates significantly better on both sides of the ball, something you can’t really say about any of the Americans.

With the US starting a 220-pound center (Davis) and a 6’8 power forward (Kenneth Faried), Spain would have a significant advantage in the post in a hypothetical gold medal game. The problem is that the Gasol brothers are looking to pass - if they force the Americans to pack the paint, they will be able to find shooters on the perimeter and you don’t want to give Fernandez, Navarro and Calderon too many open looks from beyond the three-point line.

Rubio and Calderon are their only perimeter players in the NBA, but you can’t overlook any of the guys in Spain’s rotation. Fernandez, Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez all had their moments in the league and none of them looked out of place going against the best in the world. Sergio Llull, their other main perimeter reserve, was the No. 34 overall pick in 2009 and Alex Abrines was taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 32 overall in 2013.

None of this, of course, means the Spaniards are unbeatable. No one in their group had the team speed to really challenge their perimeter defense and take the ball at the Gasol brothers. Fernandez is also their only wing with the size to match up against guys like Harden and Klay Thompson, so the American guards should be able to make a killing in the post. If Harden can get Pau or Marc in foul trouble, that could really change the dynamic of the game.

When you look at the box scores of the last two times these countries met - the gold medal games in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics - that’s one of the things that really jumps out at you. Fernandez fouled out of both games and Marc Gasol was in foul trouble throughout - he had 4 fouls and played 17 minutes in London. Serge Ibaka is a very capable reserve, but he can’t create his own shot and Spain needs to be able to run offense through their big men.

The referees, who haven’t exactly been playing to rave reviews so far, could end up having a huge role in what happens in the medal rounds. That’s where having home-court advantage at the World Cup could really come into play for Spain. If the Spanish fans pack the gym and create a raucous atmosphere in Madrid, the FIBA referees could feel pressure to swallow their whistles and negate one of the biggest advantages the Americans would have.

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before Spain and the US would meet and both teams should be challenged in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Nevertheless, it would be a major surprise if either ended up losing. These are two teams playing basketball at a really high level - everyone knows how talented the US is, but if the Spanish national team was playing in the NBA, they would have a good chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Team USA curb stomp other countries, at some point you want to see them challenged. That’s what grows the game, which is really the point of these international tournaments. If the US loses to Spain, they shouldn’t hang their head. The Spaniards are a talented team who play the game the right way and have a ton of flair to boot. If I was trying to sell someone on the beauty of basketball, Spain is the team I’d have them watch.

Interview: Marco Baldi Of Alba Berlin

RealGM sat down with Marco Baldi in Berlin to talk about his vision for Alba, German basketball, the financial side of European basketball, their upcoming friendly game against San Antonio Spurs and much more.

Top-10 American Players In 13-14 Euroleague

RealGM has ranked the Top-10 Americans who were most productive and had most success in 13-14 Euroleague season. Five players from this ranking (Dunston, Rice, Dentmon, Brown, Delaney) played in the Euroleague for the first time in their career.

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.

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.

Euroleague's Most Improved Players Of The 2013-14 Season

While Euroleague is on a short break, here are our Top 10 Euroleague's Most Improved Players Ranking. With the season halfway over, RealGM ranked players who have taken the next step in their Euroleague careers.

Euroleague Rookie Ladder

While Euroleague is on a short break, RealGM presents Top 10 Euroleague Rookie Rankings. With the season halfway over, RealGM ranked best players who made their debut in Euroleague during the 13-14 season. Like season, Americans dominate the ranking, occupying the top five spots.

Europe Interview: Blake Schilb Of Crvena Zvezda

RealGM caught up with Blake Schilb to talk about the transition from France to Serbia, Crvena Zvezda’s performance in the Euroleague, rivalry with Partizan and much more.

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.

Tony Parker Now And In The Future

At an age where most smaller guards are slowing down, Tony Parker is as good as ever. There’s no real secret to what he does: he takes what the defense gives him and doesn’t make the game hard on himself. That’s how a slight 6’2 31-year-old dominates a sport designed for giants.

Behind Serbia's EuroBasket Run

Through the first two rounds of EuroBasket 2013, there’s been no country more impressive than Serbia. Despite having the youngest team in Slovenia, with an average age of 24, they are tied for the second-best record.

The AAU System And How The NBA Could Fix It

Because there is no professional structure to youth basketball in the United States, a poorly organized and often self-defeating culture has developed in its place. If AAU basketball is bad for business, the NBA has the power to fix it and instead look to the models of Europe.

Europe Interview: Tomas Van Den Spiegel

RealGM recently caught up with Tomas Van Den Spiegel, a pioneer in European basketball's social media community, to talk about his retirement, career highlights, Belgium 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.

Beverley, Lin And The Rockets' Meritocracy

Patrick Beverley could be the Rockets' point guard of the future, a tremendous coup considering how they acquired him. He’s the new poster boy for the benefits of mining Europe for talent as well as a walking embarrassment for every point guard-hungry team in the league.

Euroleague Rookie Ladder

Blake Schlib, Paul Davis, Ricky Hickman, Shelden Williams, Marcus Williams, Drew Gordon, Leo Westermann, Dashaun Wood, Nemanja Nedovic and Kelvin Rivers are amongst the top newcomers to Euroleague this season.

Euroleague's Most Improved Players Of The 2012-13 Season

Aron Baynes, Shawn James, Nemanja Bjelica, Curtis Jerrells, Vladimir Lucic, Pietro Aradori, Jaka Blazic, Ante Tomic, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Kostas Papanikolaou have had breakout seasons in Euroleague.

Canada's 2020 Operation

Canada, the only other country with an NBA franchise, has steadily developed a basketball culture over the last generation, the fruits of which are taking shape in college basketball this season. The level of talent being developed could culminate in a remarkable showdown in the 2020 Olympics.

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