Through the first third of the season, the Rookie of the Year race has been anticlimactic. Injuries have knocked Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Noah Vonleh out. The biggest challenger to Andrew Wiggins so far has been Nikola Mirotic, who is averaging 8 points and 5 rebounds for the Chicago Bulls. Mirotic, a 23-year old who spent the last four seasons in the ACB, was ready to step in right away and play a key role on a contender.
That’s the difference between Mirotic and the rest of the guys in his rookie class - he’s a grown man who already knows who he is as a basketball player. The more accurate comparisons for Mirotic are guys his age, 22 and 23 years olds who have been in the NBA for 3-4 seasons. He was originally drafted in 2011, but he spent the last three seasons in Spain, where he became one of the best players on the continent. He developed on someone else’s dime.
When Mirotic was ready to come over, he walked into a perfect situation with Chicago. The Bulls' length and athleticism means that he won’t be tested too much on defense early in his career while his shooting and playmaking ability from the top of the key opens up the floor for everyone else. His per-36 minutes are even more impressive - 16 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1 steal a game. He’s going to be a big part of their team, going forward.
Does that mean he is going to be a future star? A lot of it depends on who you compare him too.
In large part because of concerns about his buyout and how long he would stay overseas, Mirotic fell to No. 23 overall in 2011. He was taken four spots behind Tobias Harris, who also slipped because of things out of his control. As one of the youngest players in his freshman class, Harris could easily have stayed for his sophomore season of college and been a lottery pick, but the resignation of his coach (Bruce Pearl) because he lied to NCAA investigators about having a kid over for BBQ (this is a true story) forced his hand. There’s no reason to turn down millions of guaranteed money in the NBA when you don’t even know who you are going to play for next season if you stay.
Coming into the league at such a young age had its share of disadvantages. The Milwaukee Bucks were trying to contend for the playoffs and they didn’t have much time to bring a 19-year-old rookie along, regardless of his talent level. Harris averaged 11 minutes a game in one and a half years in Milwaukee, becoming one of the most anonymous players in the NBA. When the Orlando Magic acquired him as part of the package for JJ Redick, it was met with a chorus of shrugs.
For young players, the NBA is all about taking advantage of your opportunities and Harris took advantage of his. In 27 games in the second half of the season with the Magic, Harris averaged 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 45% shooting. Keep in mind, he was still only 20 years old at this point. He would have been a junior if he had stayed in Tennessee, where he could have been the SEC Player of the Year (which was won by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and a first-team All-American.
Last season, his third in the NBA and his first full season in Orlando, was supposed to be his breakout campaign. Instead, an ankle injury kept Harris out for the first few months and he never totally got in rhythm, starting in only 33 games and seeing his numbers plateau. He was eligible to sign a contract extension with the Magic but they weren’t able to come to terms, meaning he will enter restricted free agency this summer, always an unsettling process for a young player.
Harris came into his fourth season in the NBA with a lot to prove. He was still only 22, the same age he would have been if he had stayed four years at Tennessee and been drafted in 2014. Imagine how many points he would have scored in the SEC as a 21-year old senior, the same year he averaged 14.5 points and 7 rebounds a game in the NBA. So much of the publicity a young player gets in his first few years in the league depends on the path he took to get there.
Compare Harris with Doug McDermott, another 22-year-old combo forward. While Harris was paying his dues in Milwaukee and Orlando, McDermott was putting up All-World statistics in the Missouri Valley Conference and the new Big East. Sports Illustrated even put him on the cover of their magazine posing like Larry Bird. When judging his NBA potential, though, he was basically an older kid who got held back in gym class to beat up on freshman. Who cares about his NCAA records when guys his age are already testing themselves every night against the best players in the world?
There’s certainly no comparison between Harris and McDermott when you look at their physical tools. At 6’9 235 with a 6’11 wingspan, Harris is one of the biggest and most athletic SF’s in the NBA. He came into the league as more of a small-ball PF, but he has steadily improved his outside shot to the point where he can thrive on the perimeter. That has been the biggest improvement in his game this season - he is averaging 40% from 3 on 3 attempts a game.
With the three-point shot in his arsenal, Harris is almost impossible to defend. He’s really big, he’s really fast and he has the quickness and ball-handling ability to punish a defender if they play him too close. He’s skilled enough to lead the break himself and he’s big enough to put smaller perimeter players on his back. He can do it all on the offensive end and he is putting up All-Star caliber numbers this season - 18.5 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists on 47% shooting.
He gives Jacque Vaughn a ton of line-up versatility - starting him at SF gives Orlando one of the bigger frontcourts in the league while playing him at PF gives them one of the fastest and most athletic. Harris shooting and defensive versatility means he can thrive next to almost any type of frontcourt player and Vaughn can eventually use him in all sorts of interesting combinations with guys like Aaron Gordon, Channing Frye, Nik Vucevic and Kyle O’Quinn.
If Harris was putting up numbers like this as a rookie, he would be getting a ton of publicity. However, as a fourth-year player on a young team in a small market with a below .500 record, he is pretty far below the national radar. It’s unclear whether the Magic even know what they have in him, as they seem insistent on having everything run through Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Harris is a very efficient player with a good feel for the game and he already has two game-winning shots this season - he shouldn’t be getting frozen out of the offense for large stretches of the game.
As his career path has shown, it all comes down to opportunity in the NBA - Harris has a career-high 24.5 usage rating this season, a number that has steadily risen from 20.6 in his rookie season. The question with Harris is what would happen if he ever got a chance to put up a 27-30 usage rating season ala Carmelo Anthony. He was the No. 6 overall player in his high school class - he was always supposed to be a star. He just had a bumpy road from ages 18-22, going from Tennessee to Milwaukee and Orlando without ever landing in a very stable situation.
Orlando has a lot of good young talent, but it’s still unclear how the pecking order will ultimately shake out. They will have to make a lot of tough decisions this summer, none bigger than what they do with Harris. If a team with cap space is willing to throw a max contract at him and dare the Magic to match, they could rapidly accelerate their rebuilding process. It’s not often you can sign a 23-year old SF with Harris combination of size, skill, athleticism and productivity so early in his NBA career.
Nikola Mirotic is a good player, but Harris is the young combo forward in the Eastern Conference with a chance to be a future star. A lot of people will look at it like we already have three years of data points about Harris as an NBA player, so that means he has less of a chance to take the next step. The key thing to understand is you don’t want to give an older guy too much credit for being held back in school and competing against younger players and you don’t want to punish a younger guy for being pushed ahead and competing against older ones.
When the best prospects are coming into the NBA at 18 and 19, people are going to have to be a little patient. For a young guy with only one season of college under his belt, their rookie season in the NBA is mostly about survival - knowing exactly how bad Ben McLemore sucked as a rookie doesn’t tell you all that much about what type of NBA player he will be. When it comes to long-term potential, it doesn’t really matter how much better Mirotic is right now than guys like Dante Exum, Zach LaVine and Bruno Caboclo. If you want to know how good those guys will become, you are going to have to wait a few years. For the most part, the days when the Rookie of the Year race actually mattered have come and gone.