Bulls

Bernstein: What If Mirotic Is Great?

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Nikola Mirotic. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Nikola Mirotic. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

Dan-Bernstein Dan Bernstein
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since...
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By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) Bulls fans can be excused for their skepticism of European imports.

When Toni Kukoc arrived in 1993 after being selected three years earlier, it was thought that general manager Jerry Krause and trusted scouting lieutenant Ivica Dukan might have the other side of the globe wired, ready to connect a pipeline of talent to Chicago.

So the spigot turned, and out dripped Dragan Tarlac, Roberto Duenas and Dalibor Bagaric. Meanwhile and thereafter, the NBA internationalized entirely in both style and substance, the product of a shrinking world. At the start of last season, the league featured 92 non-American-born players from 39 countries and territories, and the idea itself of a “foreign” player from some faraway land is antiquated – the pro game has democratized to the point where talent is mined from the furthest reaches without it feeling like a circus act. It used to be funny long ago when David Stern laughed while struggling to call the name of Hidayet Turkoglu or Geert Hammink, but not anymore.

Now here comes Nikola Mirotic to Chicago, finally unveiled today alongside free agent signee Pau Gasol, and local reaction to his arrival still seems muted despite his impressive professional resume. It’s a strange contrast with the adoration for first-round pick Doug McDermott, the overachieving collegian.

Mirotic is only one year older and already has been named to two All-Euroleague teams, has won the Spanish league’s MVP honor and in 2011 was named Europe’s top player under 20 by FIBA. Already with five full seasons of pro experience, he arrives with the possibility of being something much more than just another name that takes care to pronounce.

Simply, if Mirotic fulfills his promise, it can change how we think about the near and medium-term future of the Bulls.

One scout already feels strongly that Mirotic is the Next Great Euro, mentioning him confidently in the same breath as Dirk Nowitzki. Respected scouting website DraftExpress.com says, “Nikola Mirotic has established himself as the best player in European basketball.” (Watch their 14-minute video breakdown of his game here.)

I know how unfair it is to use McDermott lazily as a foil for the evaluation and development of Mirotic in the NBA, but the juxtaposition of the two on this year’s Bulls roster is nonetheless fascinating in how we apply preconceptions. Both are frontcourt players lacking in exceptional athleticism, playing a crafty, high-energy style of below-the-rim basketball and best at facing the basket. One has been decorated with college awards after being pushed by his father/coach to maximize every last bit of his ability, the other groomed as a pro since the age of 15 and still filling out his frame. One more familiar and relatable, the other a greater curiosity.

McDermott was the consensus national player of the year in college, as were Jimmer Fredette, Evan Turner and Tyler Hansbrough. And others once mentioned alongside Nowitzki were Darko Milicic, Andrea Bargnani and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. This is to say that neither is in any way a sure thing.

Each player has a range of projections for their professional future, however, and that’s where there may be a key difference. It seems agreed upon by evaluators that McDermott’s floor is solid, in that he’s assuredly a good NBA player — and perhaps for a long time. His combination of measurable skills and personal makeup are considered plenty enough to offset the speed and explosiveness he lacks at the game’s highest level, ensuring effectiveness and value, if not stardom.

There’s a real chance that Mirotic could be better than that, gaining enough physical strength to become a genuine, multifaceted star.

In this case for now, the possible excites more than the probable.

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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