The last 15 months have been eventful to say the least for Nikola Mirotic. The Montenegrin forward became a father in May last year and moved to the States soon afterwards to start what looks like a promising NBA career. Up next: His first big tournament with Spain – the Eurobasket. A good showing with the Spanish National Team could pave the way for a trip to the Olympic Games in Rio next summer.
He talked mostly about the Chicago Bulls in a sitdown with HoopsHype, though.
How tired were you at the end of the season after dealing with the NBA schedule for the first time?
Nikola Mirotic: Very tired, to be honest. But overall it was a good year for me. It was a year of adjustment to a new situation and also difficult in the first few months. At the end of the day, you’re a rookie dealing with a different routine even if you have played 5-6 years at the pro level. You start from scratch there. There were plenty of new things for me… New city, new language… It was a little complicated at the beginning, but I was lucky enough to find teammates and a club that had my back. After two or three months, I felt way more comfortable. Then when I got real playing time, I felt really important with the team and also felt respect coming from my teammates. There’s been ups and downs, but that’s normal. Overall it was a good year. Too bad we lost to Cleveland even though we had our chances, but that’s the playoffs. The expectations for next year are even bigger.
Where did you find the most support within the franchise?
NM: First of all, my teammates. When I came in, they knew about my track record. They knew I had been playing with Real Madrid. The Croatian scout Ivica Dukan had told them about me. Then I was fortunate to have Pau Gasol there. He was very important to me. And then Joakim Noah. I got along well with everybody, but those two… I really hit if off with them, perhaps because they are both European. We have a great team with great and supportive people in it. The atmosphere was very good. I think Chicago does a great job of putting together a team with people of character and easygoing. That’s key for someone like me going into a new place.
Joakim Noah is quite a character, right?
NM: Aside from being a great player, he’s a great person and a great teammate. He’s somebody you can learn a lot from. He comes in to work every day and puts his heart out on the court. He’s a very positive person and when you see how hard he works, you want to emulate that. He’s a motivator and a very important person in the locker room. There’s many positives with Joakim.
Your first year in the NBA was also your first year as a father. How was that?
NM: That’s been one of the hard parts. You come in with a newborn baby, just three months old, and you find yourself in a new city, new surroundings… It wasn’t easy. Those are the type of things that make you more mature and more responsible person. All in all, things have gone well. Although, again, it was hard with all the traveling and missing important moments with my child, like when he walks for the first time or his birthday or other celebrations. But that’s part of the job and my family understands.
Your life has changed immensely in just two years.
NM: It doesn’t make my head spin. It was very clear to me all along that I wanted this and had to take new responsibilities. I had tough decisions to make, but I was just pursuing my dream. I wanted to be in the NBA and wanted to be in the National Team. All I can say is I feel very happy both with my professional life and my personal life. I’m healthy, I have a great family, great support. I couldn’t ask for more.
Do you feel the timing to make the jump to the NBA was right? Or perhaps seeing how well you did your first season you think you could have gone earlier?
NM: The timing was right. I finished my season with Real Madrid and felt that it was in my best interest to make the jump to the NBA. I still had some room for improvement in Europe, but perhaps not as much as in the NBA. That was one of my motivations. Also I knew I was going to a great, storied team like Chicago… So I felt the need to change. It was three years since Chicago drafted me and I waited for the right time to make the move. You can tell the timing was right by the kind of season I had. Some people may have been surprised with my performance, but those who know me know the best Mirotic is yet to come.
Do you feel you have to be more aggressive offensively this year?
NM: Maybe. The expectations grow year by year, I know that. I have many things to improve, both offensively and defensively. But that’s normal for any young and ambitious guy is. I’ve always liked to put in the work and make strong decisions. Next year I guess I’m going to have more of a featured role with the team and that’s just another motivation to work extra hard so when the team needs me I’m ready to deliver.
Were you guys in the locker room under the impression that it was going to be the last year for Tom Thibodeau as Bulls’ head coach?
NM: We had a great group of people in Chicago with the players and the coaching staff. It always felt like family. We had good and bad times, but we were always together. When things were going badly, we never thought it was the coach’s fault or were thinking this could be his final year with the team. We have been very focused on the task ahead. We knew we had a good shot at the Finals. I can only say positive things about Thibodeau. He has helped me improve. He’s a difficult coach that perhaps doesn’t like to play the young guys much, but you learn from him and he makes you work hard. He got you ready for the time when that opportunity could come. Like I said, we’ve always been together in it and we never doubted one another.
You talked with new coach Fred Hoiberg a couple of weeks ago when he visited the Spanish National Team. How was that conversation?
NM: It was a very nice conversation. He’s a great guy that wants to be close to the players. It’s still very early to say how things will go, but we have big goals. We know he’s a very offensive-minded coach, which perhaps is what the team needed – to play with more freedom. We have very talented offensive players that can score in the open court. I’m personally looking forward to starting the new season with him.
There’s been a lot of rumors about the poor relationship between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. What can you say about that?
NM: (Laughs) Actually, I’m surprised that people write about it. Their relationship is very, very good. They are the leaders of our team and get along real, real well. You can see there’s very good communication between them in games and practices. There’s never been any problem between them that I have seen.
What kind of season are you expecting from Derrick Rose?
NM: I expect him to be healthy. We know him being with the team is key. If he’s healthy, he’s going to give us plenty of things. We dealt with many injury problems throughout last season and that took a toll on us. I just wish everybody gets back to Chicago healthy.
What do you think when you see the kind of deals players are signing in the NBA these days?
NM: It’s crazy (laughs). The numbers in the contracts of many players, many stars… It’s almost ugly… But that’s not something I should comment on. Anyway, the contracts they signed, well, they deserved them. Nobody is getting anything for free. They earned what they got. I’m just happy we were able to re-sign Jimmy Butler, who’s a very, very important player for us. So much upside too.
From a financial point of view, it’s a very good time to be an NBA player. Enes Kanter, who may not be a better player than you are, is going to make $16 million next year. Does your head spin knowing you could have access to that kind of money in a couple of years?
NM: That’s just one more motivation, but I have to stay focused on doing a good job the next two years. Anyway, the main thing for me has been to win titles. I won titles with Real Madrid and I left for Chicago because I know that with Chicago I’m going to have a chance to win big. When the time comes to talk about contracts, we’ll do that. It’s nice to see salaries growing and players doing well and knowing you can get there one day.