Nikola Mirotic ready for prime time

With Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler out for a while, rookie forward Nikola Mirotic has played remarkably well the last two games for the Chicago Bulls. These don’t seem to be exceptions, however. It looks like “Niko” is ready for the spotlight.

The 2014-2015 NBA regular season has been quite the roller coaster ride for Chicago Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic.

After playing several seasons for Real Madrid over in Spain, including after he was drafted in the first round in 2011, Mirotic was brought over to the United States to begin his NBA career. Hailed as a talented sharpshooter who could help space the floor on offense, Mirotic started displaying his abundance of talent early on.

However, as they do for most rookies under coach Tom Thibodeau, Mirotic’s playing time began to vary. Some nights he’d play 30+ minutes, other nights he’d play less than ten minutes. Even with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson hobbled for much of the season and fighting to get healthy, Mirotic couldn’t seem to crack the rotation consistently.

Then, sadly, the inevitable happened, and Derrick Rose suffered a torn medial meniscus. And then Jimmy Butler sprained his elbow. And all of a sudden, the Bulls were left searching for answers on offense.

It seems like “Niko” has them.

Since the injuries to arguably the two most important playmakers the Bulls have, Mirotic has played remarkably well. Sure, it has only been a sample size of two games, but it would be quite easy for a rookie to fold under the pressure to create offense for his team. Not Niko.

Mirotic posted back-to-back 20+ point games for the first time in his young career – that too against two playoff contenders. He put up 29 points against the Clippers on 48% shooting while pulling down nine rebounds, and 23 points against the Wizards on 46% shooting while grabbing 8 boards. Impressive. The Bulls’ emotional leader, Joakim Noah, said the same thing.

“Niko’s a stud. Floor spacing is very important in this league. Niko can do that very well.”

Indeed. This aren’t the first flashes of brilliance from the Spaniard either. He played terrific basketball against some of the elite teams in the NBA in the Grizzlies, Rockets, and Trailblazers, while also dominating against other playoff teams in the Bucks and Mavericks.

While those results were scattered throughout the season as his playing time was inconsistent, the fact that Mirotic displayed the ability to dominate against playoff teams is a great sign for the Bulls. No Bulls rookie has played at a high level like Mirotic has displayed since Rose himself.

However, with Rose and Butler out for extended periods of time, Mirotic will need to continue his high level of play. Aaron Brooks believes that he will.

“He has been playing great, making the right reads. Every game, it seems he gets smarter. He has the game. It’s just adjusting to the NBA.”

The Bulls are a playoff lock and Mirotic will be asked to do a lot from now through when the postseason begins, as he should. The pressure to make up for Rose and Butler’s absence will be high; but, from what Niko has shown so far, he should be able to handle it well.

Feb 12, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports