• Ryan Kelley

March is Mirotic Madness in Chicago

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*Photo via USA Today

It’s a classic storyline in the world of sports; a few important athletes suffer significant injuries, so their team must rely on the next man up to fill their shoes. Often times it doesn’t work out, but sometimes that next man up seizes his opportunity to shine and never looks back.

Rookie power forward, Nikola Mirotic has done exactly that for the Chicago Bulls. In the month of March, Mirotic is averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds in 13 games, shooting 43 percent from the floor and 83 percent from the free-throw line. Not only that, but Mirotic is leading the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring in March with 9.5 fourth-quarter points per game, quickly building a reputation as one of the most clutch players in the league.

In the previous months this season, the 24-year-old from Yugoslavia was averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game. However, injuries to Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah have allowed Mirotic to evolve from an average role player into a standout scoring option averaging more than 30 minutes per game. At 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, he has the size to get good looks in the paint and the ability to step outside and knock down jump shots.

Despite Mirotic’s increased minutes, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has continued to bring him in off the bench. Thibodeau most likely will not change that, as the role Mirotic is playing as the sixth man seems to be working perfectly. It also doesn’t appear as though his minutes will be reduced at all once their roster is back to full strength.

After missing 10 straight games, Taj Gibson returned to the lineup on March 20 and has averaged 20 minutes per game in the three games since. Jimmy Butler returned on Monday night after missing 11 games and played 40 minutes in the Bulls’ win over the Charlotte Hornets, in which Chicago clinched a playoff spot. Mirotic played 32 minutes in that game and led the Bulls with 28 points, 14 of which came in the fourth quarter.

Clearly, Mirotic’s stellar play in March has proven to Thibodeau that he is deserving of a significant spot in the rotation. With Pau Gasol having one of his most productive seasons ever, the Bulls might just have the deepest front court in the game now.

Mirotic is also beginning to be mentioned in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and he has a serious case to win the award. Prior to the All-Star break, everyone believed Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves would win Rookie of the Year running away. But in an extensive article by Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta, he describes why Mirotic deserves credit for his efficiency even though he has played far fewer minutes than Wiggins.

When you compare their overall statistics from this season as a whole, Wiggins’ averages are clearly higher than Mirotic’s because he has played more. But when you consider their stats per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions, Mirotic’s are far better. On top of that, Mirotic has a higher win share per 48 minutes, effective field goal percentage, Player Efficiency Rating, and true shooting percentage than Wiggins.

As Scaletta explained, it will come down to whether the Rookie of the Year award is intended for the player with the most total box-score numbers, or the one who makes the most of his minutes and means the most to the success of his team.

Mirotic’s development is monumental for the Bulls as the playoffs approach. If Rose can manage to come back healthy enough to perform well in the playoffs, this is definitely a team that can compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks and make it to the Finals.

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