Nikola Mirotić’s voyage from teenage sensation to Euroleague MVP candidate has hardly been of Hollywood material: Too rich his repertoire of moves, too focused on success his mindset, too smooth the transition from role player to go-to-option. Now in his third full pro season with Real Madrid, Mirotić is displaying a combination of versatile allround-game and relentless motor that is difficult to find elsewhere.
Granted. He’s always been good.
Mirotić, a Real Madrid junior team player since 2005, announced himself to a broader spectrum of basketball followers by winning the prestigious L’Hospitalet MVP award in 2008 as a 17-year-old, turned that into back-to-back MVP titles in 2009 (thanks to a massive 35 point, 23 rebound outing), made the under-20 Eurobasket All-Tournament Five in 2010, cracked Ettore Messina’s Real Madrid rotation in 2010/11, took under-20 Eurobasket MVP honours in 2011, played his way into Pablo Laso’s starting five in 2011/12, grinded hard all summer in 2012 and then came up with a historical performance in ACB Week 2 versus Valladolid for the start of the 2012/13 season.
The Podgorica native performed on an elite level per-minute right off the jump ball, finishing 8th in the ACB and 18th in the Euroleague in PER in his first full pro season (2010/11; had played only sporadical minutes for Real Madrid during the 2008/09 season before going on loan to LEB Oro affiliate Palencia during 2009/10), followed by 16th and 10th, respectively, in 2011/12. His two-year Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) ranks 13th in the Euroleague for 2010/11 and 2011/12 combined. Only once did Mirotić drop below 60 percent in True Shooting (ACB 2011/12 – 57 percent) in the process. He shot 38.6 percent from long range through 55 ACB & Euroleague games in 2010/11, followed by 40.3 percent through 58 games in 2011/12.
Thriving in non-finesse areas
Embedded in a three-deep power forward rotation alongside Felipe Reyes and Novica Veličković, however, Mirotić played just 20.5 minutes a game during the 2011/12 ACB/Euroleague season while taking an important- but never a lead role on a roster that featured plenty of scoring options. As Real Madrid fired their way to a ACB-1st & Euroleague-2nd offensive rating, Mirotić had 71.4 percent of his 2011/12 Euroleague field goals assisted. Laso called for other post options – Ante Tomić on the five, Carlos Suárez and Kyle Singler on the two/three – to create offense.
Six games into the new season, and Mirotić’s minutes per game have jumped to 25.8 – about as much as you will get in an eleven-deep rotation. He is finishing 13.7 team possessions per game, and there is a lot to like about the way he has earned and used those.
The 21-year-old is far too skilled to dispose of the “finesse player”-tag that inevitably drops on every multitalented European power forward prospect, but all its negative connotations are entirely misplaced in Mirotić’s case. Go call him soft, but don’t expect your opinion to be respected. He’s the exact opposite.
In an admittedly small sample of six ACB & Euroleague games so far this season, Mirotić has been crashing the offensive glass with reckless abandon, ranking at 83 percent (see chart above) when comparing his offensive rebound percentage to those of over 600 power forwards from the 2011/12 season’s 12 top European leagues, the NBDL and the NBA (the 0-100 percent range’s maximum & minimum excludes the top & bottom three percent for every category). Furthermore, putting the ball on the floor and drawing contact like few other fours, Mirotić’s 5.2 made free throws per 28 minutes rank in the top three percent of all power forwards in the database. His free throw attempt per field goal attempt ratio stands at 0.725, versus 0.333 in 2010/11 and 0.457 in 2011/12. His long range shooting has been on target as well, netting nine of 19 three pointers in ACB & Eurolague so far while taking 37 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc. It is his ability to enter the game’s high-percentage areas – close range, free throw line, three point range – that powers his excellent 1.14 points per team possessions finished.
Running the floor like a deer in transition, spectacularly on display in his 26-point outing in Valladolid, Mirotić is a massive threat on the fastbreak and in early offense. On defense, though not overly physically gifted, the Montenegrin/Spaniard is an active, mobile off-ball defender in a league where stretch fours far outnumber inside-minded power forwards. Putting up a fairly power forward-average 2.4 block percentage in 2011/12 and a likely-to-drop 3.3 percent this running season, Mirotić is not a shotblocking force but not to be disrespected either.
Mirotić’s poor assist numbers (just two so far this season) may be influenced by a number of factors: Firstly, while he looks neither selfish nor like a poor passer to me, his passing skills certainly don’t match Erazem Lorbek’s, let alone Viktor Khryapa’s at this point. Secondly, his assist numbers were at circa 40 percent on the power forward scale in both ACB and Euroleague last year. Should he continue to not register assists, the lack of a post presence on this year’s Real Madrid roster (apart from Mirotić himself) may be an important factor: While Lorbek (Tomic/Jawai), Panko (Schortsanitis) and Khryapa (Krstic) all have inside scorers to pass to in high-low action, neither Marcus Slaughter nor Mirza Begic provide this option. Thirdly: Performance fluctuation.
Real Madrid versus Panathinaikos findings
Mirotić had 18 points and 8 rebounds in Real Madrid’s hard-fought Euroleague opening win over Panathinaikos, a game he started on two missed midrange jumpshots in post up play, scored just two points in for the entire first half, but eventually finished with twelve free throw attempts.
Charting the game for the location of his catches combined with conventional boxscore data allows for good insight in Mirotić’s role within the Real Madrid offense. The chart on the left excludes offensive rebounds (he had four, scoring a tip in on one occasion, getting blocked on another and drawing a shooting foul on a third) and transition plays (just one, aforementioned tip in) and concentrates entirely on catches in halfcourt play. Here are four things we can take from this:
Firstly, for 31 minutes on the floor, his touches appear to be rather few. Not all too surprising, however, considering Real Madrid plays a transition-oriented offense and operates with only few passes even in half court, where sharpshooters Rudy Fernandez & Jaycee Carroll like to let it fly early on the clock.
Secondly, in one particular play Mirotić operates as a top-of-the-key passer where he’s asked to hand the ball off to a teammate in a non-scoring position up high outside the three point arc (happened five times – see black crosses top of the key).
Thirdly, and that is where it gets interesting, apart from this one play mentioned above, Mirotić is used exclusively as a screener and finisher. Only on three additional catches, Mirotić proceeded to pass the ball to a teammate. Those were: Number one when he was handed a pass right after a teammate rebounded the ball on the offensive end. Mirotić elected to pass the ball outside again to reboot the offense, the only reasonable decision in his position. Numbers two and three occurred in the final minute, as Panathinaikos were chasing the ball and Real Madrid were looking to milk the shot clock. On the 12 remaining catches, Mirotić shot the ball seven times, drew a shooting foul once (on a three point shot), turned the ball over once (landing with his foot on the sideline on the catch) and drew non-shooting fouls three times. In other words: whenever there was the slightest chance of making a scoring play, he did.
Fourthly and equally important, look where those catches took place and which areas he took his shots from: The aforementioned eight catches in non-scoring situations excluded, he caught the ball in the lowpost four times, had a simple screen and roll layup once and caught the ball outside the three point arc seven times. Yet he took only one shot from beyond the arc. While not representing his usual inside-outside scoring balance and while Panathinaikos were eager to run a 40-plus percent shooter off the three point line, there were occasions where Mirotić could have taken the shot but elected to fake the defender off his feet and put the ball on the floor, including a play that led to Mirotić’s and-one dagger versus Andy Panko late in the fourth quarter.
Even if his offensive rebounding numbers in particular are unlikely to stay on their current elite level (but will likely remain above last season’s numbers), Nikola Mirotić is in for a MVP-type season with Real Madrid in both the ACB and the Euroleague. Now the far & away best post player on his team and finally freed for 25-plus minutes per game, Mirotić now has the opportunity to showcase the well-developed arsenal of post moves that had already been so spectacularly on display during his 2011 under-20 Eurobasket MVP-winning performance.
Always a high-efficiency long- and mid-range scorer, Mirotić’s ability to get to the free throw line is his game’s most underrated feature. Already in the top 15 percent of power forwards in per-minute free throws made last season, he has been camping at the foul line in six games played so far this season.
Mirotić’s game is characterized by far more than just finesse: out-sprinting opponents in transition, playing through contact without the slightest bit of complaining, crashing the offensive glass and playing active off-ball defense all go along with his outstanding technical skill set.