There's no better way to get your fix for the crippling symptoms of September basketball withdrawal than with EuroBasket 2015, the Olympic qualifying tournament that opened up in Germany earlier this week. The Bulls are well represented with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic starting for Spain, a world power that has finished runner-up behind the United States at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012.
Spain resumes group play at 2 p.m. CT on Tuesday against Italy after finishing the weekend at 1-1. Spain looked uncharacteristically sloppy in its opening loss to Serbia on Saturday, but bounced back with a forceful offensive performance on Sunday to blow out Turkey. It's been a mixed bag so far for both Mirotic and Gasol, but there's been several encouraging signs for each player.
After catching fire in the fourth against Serbia to bring Spain within one before Nemanja Bjelica happened, Gasol responded with a big-time game against Turkey. He was easily the best player on the floor and finished the game with 21 points and seven rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting. That included the type of low post work you would expect against the overmatched likes of Oguz Savas and Semih Erden. For example:
Gasol also went 2-for-2 on above the break three-pointers, which is a shot I'd like to see him take more often this season. He made 46.2 percent of the 26 threes he took last year, and made more than 48 percent of his two-point jumpers from at least 16-feet out. Gasol has only made 50 three-pointers in 14 NBA seasons, so it's foolish to expect him to turn into a high volume outside shooter, but he does have a nice stroke and is clearly capable of making shots from deep:
For Mirotic, a naturalized citizen of Spain, this is his first chance playing with the senior national club. Filling in for Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, both of whom opted not to play in this tournament, is a huge responsibility, and it's fair to call his first two games "up-and-down" thus far.
Mirotic, for all intents and purposes, got worked by Bjelica against Serbia. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but he shot only 3-of-10 from the floor and couldn't defend Bjelica at all. Bjelica -- who is similar to Mirotic as a 6'10 combo forward -- finished that game with 24 points and 10 rebounds, including a number of clutch shots late.
Mirotic bounced back the next day against Turkey, scoring seven points in the first five minutes of the game. He got his first basket by running the floor for a layup, his second by pump faking on the wing and driving to the cup for a lay-in, and his third by ripping a corner three. He only added two more free throws the rest of the way, but Spain was running away with the game and the reserves played most of the second half.
One nice play in the second half for Niko: running the break with Rudy Fernandez for an assist off a give-and-go:
I really enjoy watching this tournament. The announcers call the game like they're watching European soccer, Spain plays a beautiful and cohesive brand of basketball that is a joy to watch, and the in-game operations are sort of hilarious:
Things I'm enjoying about Eurobasket: a) the arena playing bad American music (Metallica and Kid Cudi), b) sporadic air horns.— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) September 6, 2015
Gasol is an all-time great international player, so it's fun to see him do his thing on a stage that's as big and meaningful as this one. Hell, he might be the best player in the tournament.
To me, there's a lot of pressure on Mirotic to play well. Spain is so deep in the front court that a poor showing could hurt his chances with the national team in the long-term. From the Bulls' perspective, it would seem hard to really project a breakout season if he's struggling in EuroBasket. The potential improvement of Mirotic is one thing that should unite all our optimism heading into the year, and this a good look at how he's improved (or hasn't improved) over the summer heading into his second season.