Nikola Mirotic, the overseas gem that our very own Chicago Bulls unearthed as the 23rd pick way back in 2011 (a pretty fruitful draft for us, since we also flat-out stole Jimmy Butler at #30), is the best rookie playing in the NBA this season, hands-down. Sure, guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins may project to be better players later, but (a) they're not better players now and (b) Mirotic projects out to be pretty darn great himself. Everyone can see it, but it looks like most media members are going to give the award to the guy who's... playing the most minutes and averaging the most points. Yes, they are meaningless minutes, and they are meaningless points, on a decrepit Timberwolves squad. But, you know, still. Or so the reasoning goes. Beyond just being the Rookie of the Year, Mirotic's play, especially over the last two months, makes quite the case for his 6th Man of the Year contention. He's got a real shot at that, but there are other good players on other good teams logging more time over the course of the entire season vying for the prize, too. His chances there seem slimmer.
A note on the 2011 draft: Bill Simmons wrote a really sweet draft reappraisal way back in June of last year, and even then had Butler at #11 in a 2011 re-draft. Were that draft to be re-done right now, you'd objectively have to say that Butler goes no lower than 4th (he is quite possibly this season's Most Improved Player, after all), after Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson. Personally, I'd take Butler over Thompson -- yes, Thompson is a sharp-shooting Splash Brother on the league's best team by record (I'm still riding with the Spurs for actual best-2015-team honors, 'cause hot damn), and his defense is solid. But Jimmy Butler is an absolutely spectacular defender. Fine, he can't always stick point guards on switches, but he's pretty darn great in covering wings. And his 3-point shooting has returned to awesomeness this year (37.2% son!). I'd even consider taking Butler over Kyrie since he's a two-way player who can shoot and handle now. He's Scottie Pippen Lite! That could be my Bulls bias talking, though, so I'll leave him at #3 for now.
Niko's projected future glories are probably unfair to take into account when determining a 2011 redraft today, but it's clear he has serious All-Star potential. He can handle, he's very clever in creating contact and getting to the free-throw line, his defense has looked way better than we'd have had any right to anticipate coming into this season, and you just know he's going to get acclimated to the NBA 3-pointer with a little off-season work. Even rookie-Mirotic would definitely be a top-10 pick in a 2011 re-draft. Fuck it, here's a re-ranking of Simmons' re-rankings (but I'll go all the way up to #15), given what's developed with everybody this season. Again the caveat is that I'm including Mirotic based on where he'd rank TODAY, not where he'll rank in the next couple of years (anywhere from 2nd-5th).
1. Kawhi Leonard (15th pick, Finals MVP, All-Defensive 2nd Team, All-Rookie First Team, would've been an All-Star this season if healthy, possibly All-NBA this year)
2. Kyrie Irving (1st pick, 3x All-Star, FIBA World Cup MVP, 2012 Rookie of the Year, possibly All-NBA this year)
3. Jimmy Butler (30th pick, All-Star, All-Defensive Second Team and will definitely make All-Defensive Team and possibly All-NBA this year)
4. Klay Thompson (11th pick, All-Star, All-Rookie First Team, definitely All-NBA this year)
5. Nikola Vucevic (16th pick)
6. Chandler Parsons (38th pick, All-Rookie Second Team)
7. Nikola Mirotic (23rd pick, possible Rookie of the Year, possible 6th Man of the Year)
8. Brandon Knight (8th pick, All-Rookie First Team)
9. Isaiah Thomas (60th pick, possible 6th Man of the Year, All-Rookie Second Team)
10. Markieff Morris (13th pick)
11. Enes Kanter (3rd pick)
12. Kemba Walker (9th pick)
13. Donatas Motiejunas (20th pick)
14. Jonas Valanciunas (5th pick)
15. Tristan Thompson (4th pick, possible 6th Man of the Year, All-Rookie Second Team)
Damn, that was a good draft! My top 15 didn't even include Kenneth Faried, Ricky Rubio, Iman Shumpert or Reggie Jackson (who's been a pretty bad team player, though his stats are sick). Faried, though he made the FIBA team last summer, never took that leap this year, and is a fairly lax defender at power forward, the position he more of less needs to play due to his mediocre shooting (he's a great slasher). ALSO, had Mirotic been drafted in this much-ballyhooed 2014 draft that's been more bust than beastly, it goes without saying that I'd have pegged him at the #1 pick over Wiggins, Parker, Payton and Clarkson (that'd be my top in an early 2014 re-draft, but obviously it's a bit early for a legit ruling). Let's get into the why's a bit more, shall we?
It's criminally insane to this writer that Mirotic is NOT the odds-on favorite to nab the Rookie of the Year award. For instance, Zach Lowe has Threekola as the RoY runner-up and NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper has him at #4 due to a confounding player minutes fetish. The rationale for this is that playing 20 important minutes on a 49-win (and counting?) contender, while averaging 10.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 80.1% charity stripe shooting, and an okay 31.7% from deep, somehow pegs our Montenegrin stretch-4 below one or two guys playing big, meaningless minutes for two of the three worst teams in the NBA by record, and somewhere in the same vicinity as a guy who plays for the team with fifth-worst record league-wide. Mirotic has actually helped a good team WIN games against important opponents. He racked up 20+ points in bundles as the Bulls handled playoff teams like Washington, Toronto (twice), Indiana or Brooklyn (depending on who makes the cut tonight), and Memphis.
Damn it, the guy is CLEARLY the best actual player right now! Shouldn't that count for something, minutes be damned? If you extended Mirotic to, say, Wiggins' minutes over the course of an entire season, he'd be averaging a rookie-best 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Mirotic would also average the exact same amount of assists as Wiggins (2.1) -- and he handles the ball way less than the Canadian shooting guard/small forward even in extended playing time; Wiggins' assist percentage currently ranks 10th among all rookies, by the way. Mirotic also LED the NBA in 4th-quarter points scored during all of much.
The knocks on Niko, ironically, come with his shooting. He is averaging a scant 40.7% from the field and the aforementioned just-okay 31.7% from 3 (13th among rookies), numbers you'd have to think he improves upon this summer, after logging serious burn in the weight room and on the Advocate Center's practice courts. That being said, he also hits a legit 49.5% of all his 2-point attempts to go along with that 80.1% free-throw shooting (5th among rookies), really solid for a big guy. And even with limited minutes, Mirotic's actual numbers are still pretty sweet among rookies. His ppg average ranks him at #4 among rooks, his rpg average comes in at #6, his FT percentage is #7, and his blocks per game (0.63 per, translating to a good 1.1 per 36 minutes) slot in at #5. AND, while we're at it, Niko is the 3rd-leading rookie in total double-doubles notched this year. It's not just the stats, though. Mirotic's ability to handle has created numerous isolation opportunities in the post, from which he can effectively either pass out, draw contact for fouls, OR go up and just finish over his defender. BEHOLD HIS FEATS.
Andrew Wiggins is averaging 16.8 points (leading all rookies), 4.5 rebounds, and an underwhelming-for-a-wing 2.1 assists per game in 36.2 minutes, his Minnesota Timberwolves have the single-worst record in the league (worse than the record of a team that's actively trying to lose as many games as possible). He doesn't have much of a handle, the much-vaunted defensive presence he was purported to bring hasn't really been there, and, again, he doesn't actually help his team win games yet. He's basically just being reward for scoring a lot of points on a bad team. He is shooting a solid 43.2% from the field overall, 75.7% from the free-throw line, and 31.5% from outside. But he's only shooting 45.2% from 2-point range. And if you look closer, the numbers there aren't too great, outside of looks at the rack. He converts on a sick 66.4% from within three feet. Yes, he's super-athletic and a great dunker. So what? Winning matters, and he's only won 16 games this season.
Nerlens Noel is a one-way player on the 3rd-worst team in the NBA by record, and has only been grabbing 14.3% of Philadelphia's total rebounds. This number is good for the 78th best team rebound percentage in the NBA, tied with Jon Leur and the rebound-averse Brook Lopez. His only competition for said rebounds has been Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, and Thomas Robinson. So... yeah. In 30.8 minutes per game (i.e. 10.8 more minutes than have been allotted to Niko), Noel is averaging 9.9 points (#6 among rookies), 8.1 boards (#1 among rookies), 1.8 steals (#1) and 1.9 blocks per game (#1), plus connecting on 66.2% on shots taken within 3 feet of the basket. He's shooting an OK 46.2% overall (basically, he can't really shoot beyond three feet), which puts him at #5 on the rookie leader board in that category. Again, all these impressive stats must be taken with a grain of salt, because Nerlens Noel plays on a team whose second-best player is Ish Smith.
Elfrid Payton, who is Robin Lopez's single-biggest threat to claiming the NBA haircut that most resembles Sideshow Bob's haircut, has mainly cracked a lot of prospective ballots due to back-to-back triple-doubles. The 6'4" Payton is a high-level passer, averaging 6.5 dishes a game (1st among rookies by 3 assists) and rocking the 15th-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. He's averaging 9 points per in 30.2 minutes (7th among rookies), pulling down 4.3 boards (tied for 8th), and picking off 1.7 steals a night (2nd). But he's a middling shooter, even though his 42.7% field goal percentage is 12th-best among rookies. His free throw shooting, however, stands at a horrible 55.7%. I mean, it's kind of hilarious how awful he is. At 25-56 thus far (in the East, damn it! The East!), Payton's Orlando Magic have actually under-performed this season, at least considering some of the high-caliber talent on their current roster (Payton, Victor Oladipo playing his natural position at the 2, Nikola Vucevic feasting on double-doubles, Evan Fournier proving the Magic's swapping-out of Arron Afflalo was the smart play, Tobias Harris putting up sweet numbers once again). I know Jacque Vaughn bungled some stuff, but still -- this squad should've been better in an inferior conference (they certainly manhandled us a few times).
Granted, there is a small media contingent (Tim Legler and Michael Wilbon chief among them) Mirotic is your Rookie of the Year, media voters. I mean, come on, let's be real about this.