Is the kid from Real Madrid the real deal?


Oct 7

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Zach Randolph wasn’t ready for this.

First the kid popped to the top of the circle, the long spot for an NBA three, and effortlessly swished one. Then Zach went into the post and started backing him down with his big weight advantage. But the kid came around, poked the ball away and started a fast break. Zach tried again, but the kid moved his feet well and Zach settled for a fadeaway. Then the kid missed a three with Zach running at him. No one got back to help, leaving Zach running out with a fast break pass. The kid turned and hustled back to head off Zach and send the Grizzlies back into a half court offense.

“I was just asking Marc (Gasol) about him,” Randolph was saying after the game when I caught up with him in the Grizzlies locker room in a sort of a Butch and Sundance “Who was that guy?” tone.

“I like him,” Randolph said. “I told Marc he can shoot the ball. I was asking how old he was. He’s just 21. The kid’s got a real upside. He can play in the NBA.”

Nikola MiroticThe question is when, and it probably can’t be soon enough for the Bulls.

“I was really happy when the Chicago Bulls picked me,” Nikola Mirotic said through a translator late Saturday night as his Real Madrid team lost to the Grizzlies 105-93 with Mirotic getting 14 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes. “It is a club with a great history. After I was drafted, I have been following them more. They have a great player, Derrick Rose, one of the best players in the NBA, and maybe in the future I will have an opportunity to share a locker room with him.”

The real deal plays for Real Madrid.

I’ve seen the European players come to the NBA for almost 30 years back to Georgi Glouchkov and the first of the best ones, Sarunas Marciulionis.

This kid looks like he really can be one of the best.

I know everyone wants to compare great U.S. players to Michael Jordan and great Europeans to Dirk Nowitzki. But this kid does have Nowitzki kind of skills. Even his coach, Pabio Laso, when I asked him if Mirotic compares, say, to someone like Peja Stojakovic because of his great shooting range and face up game, Laso said no, that Mirotic is more like Nowitzki.

“Comparing him with the NBA, maybe he is most similar kind of player to Nowitzki,” said Laso. “He plays four, open to the basket, can shoot outside, put it on the floor. More Nowitzki than other Europeans that have come to the NBA. He has to work more inside. He has a good basketball head. He wants to get better and he shows that every day. He’s very important to us now.”

And probably for a few more years, which is the disappointment for the Bulls, if not unexpected.

When Mirotic was drafted by the Bulls in 2011 he simultaneously signed a five-year contract with Real Madrid. Given he came to play in Spain as a 14-year-old in a sort subsidy arrangement, it was time for him to make money. But his intentions were clear putting his name in the NBA draft at that time. He apparently was looking toward the NBA.

Realistically, he probably will play for Real Madrid through at least the 2013-14 season. Bulls executives John Paxson, Gar Forman and Ivica Dukan were traveling to watch Mirotic with Real Madrid in Memphis and Toronto on this trip. But it’s doubtful they have any more notion of Mirotic’s intentions. They declined comment.

Under NBA rules, since he was a low first round draft pick, Mirotic would be limited to that salary slot, which is far below his Real Madrid salary, for three years. After that, the Bulls could pay Mirotic if they are under the salary cap or with an exception. Since Mirotic is under contract with Real Madrid, there is a substantial penalty if he leaves early. But once a European club realizes a player wants to come to the NBA, they tend to negotiate. Once Mirotic is free of the three-year NBA salary slot, he theoretically could pay for a substantial buyout and still make money. Before three years he could not as NBA teams can only pay a limited amount of a potential buyout.

I asked Mirotic about putting his name in the draft when he did, and through the translator he talked about maybe being in the NBA three years from that draft date with Real Madrid. But as we know until something is done, it’s not.

“I am very happy with Real Madrid,” Mirotic said as he understood all the questions and chose to answer a few in English.

He then switched back to Spanish and said he didn’t know when he wanted to come to the NBA at this time, that he definitely wants to come sometime, but he always wants to be “completely ready to have an important role with the team” and to do that needs to “improve physically, be more regular and have more strength.”

He is listed at 6-10 and 210 pounds, though he looks bigger than that with broad shoulders. Most of the big Europeans we see are somewhat robotic. This kid is not. He’s smooth, runs the court gracefully as well as relentlessly like Joakim Noah. He’s athletic and can put the ball on the floor, though not practiced with multiple dribbles. I saw him struggle most with positioning on the offensive boards and being jostled out of the way and not always finishing strong at the basket on drives.

But he held his own against Randolph and later the Grizzlies put Rudy Gay on him after he drew some oohs from the crowd with a nice finish on a dive cut after setting a screen.

So is he that second star to support Rose?

I wouldn’t go that far. But he’s a really good player whom I think could start in the NBA today. Like it or not, the Bulls probably will get two more years of someone else training him. He should be ready to step in then.

And this hasn’t been an easy trip for Real Madrid, one of the top teams in Europe. They played two league games this week, and then flew to Memphis for Saturday’s game. They go to Toronto for another Monday and then start their Euroleague games next week.

But at 21, Mirotic seems to be enjoying it all.

His coach, Laso, said Mirotic is a hard worker, popular with his teammates and said he gave him his highest praise.

“The best thing I say is he is pretty normal (for a young star),” said Laso. “He always plays hard in practice, listens to the coaches, listens to his teammates since this is a team with veterans (Rudy Fernandez among them). They talk to him. On the floor, he doesn’t talk too much. He has very good relations with teammates. He is good for me. He listens, he want to play hard and when they go at him (outplay him) he wants to make corrections.

“He is very good outside the floor,” Laso said. “Normal, has a girlfriend. You see him around the city at the restaurants, the soccer games. He speaks to the American players. He gets along with everyone.”

Though he is not confident enough in his English yet for an interview, he was welcoming and happy to talk. I spoke to him before the game and when I came back afterward he went out of his way to find a translator so he could engage again. He joked as he understood the questions and answered in detail, suggesting both confidence and erudition.

Mirotic, like most European athletes, was a soccer player. But he had a growth spurt early in his teens and he said his parents urged him to try basketball, which he took up at 13. The family was working class, but the after effects of the war in the Balkans was tough economically. Mirotic played for a club in Montenegro and went to a camp in Spain and was recruited to play there. He moved there at almost 15 and pretty much began living on his own.

He led Spain to the under 20 European championship. Laso said Mirotic was the best player in the tournament and so good there was no second place the difference was that great. Mirotic also has been named the Euroleague’s rising star twice, which is unprecedented.

“He’s a very talented player,” Laso said. “His natural position is four. He is a very versatile player inside and outside. His body has to grow up. He is a very good shooter for his size. He has good moves in the post. Very complete. I think he is one of the best talents to play in Europe now.”

But Laso said Real Madrid also will do all it can to retain Mirotic as “the base of our team,” which I took to mean one of their core parts. He said Mirotic is vital to them and needs work, but said he also understands as a former player that players always wants to play with and against the best.

“I play power forward,” Mirotic said in English. “I like to play in the open court, play one and one and face (up), play in the low post.”

He then returned to Spanish and said he does try to pattern himself after Nowitzki.

Mirotic said he was pleased to be selected by the Bulls and was hoping to go to the Bulls or Lakers, the two NBA teams he followed as a child. He said his goal in games is to “create positive things for my team.”

I asked him about Chicago and I heard “frio,” which even I knew meant cold. But he said a friend told him Chicago is “big and beautiful with a lot of things to do.”

He said what he liked about the Bulls was they are “building a team for the future for a lot of success.” But he said his focus now is with Real Madrid, though one day he will play in the NBA.

He called the Grizzlies, who visit the Bulls Tuesday for the Bulls’ exhibition opener, “superior to us physically” and the NBA game intense. He said he felt he was “taking many positives from the experience.”

Said Gasol: “He’s a real good player. He knows how to play the game, understands how it works, plays the right way moving the ball. He’s a new version of the old stretch power forward in Europe with a post game as well. He’s a good shooter and you have to know where he is. If he comes over, he definitely has the talent.”

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