Commentary

Kukoc: Mirotic set up to succeed

Former Bulls great believes rookie will have easier time adjusting to NBA

Updated: August 4, 2014, 2:26 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

MiroticAP Photo/M. Spencer GreenNikola Mirotic's versatility and shooting ability gives him an advantage in his transition to the NBA game, according to former Bull Toni Kukoc.
Toni Kukoc has never met Nikola Mirotic, but he knows enough to be fairly certain Mirotic's transition to the NBA will be easier than his was 21 years ago.

From adjusting to the game itself, to finding acceptance with his new teammates and a happy home life in Chicago, Kukoc, one of the first European players to leave a starring role there and find success in the NBA, can give the new Bulls rookie and former Real Madrid star a few tips.

Arriving on the very day of Michael Jordan's retirement as a 24-year-old in 1993, Kukoc had the added pressure of winning over a team already tired from the buildup by then-general manager Jerry Krause.

[+] EnlargeToni Kukoc
MPS/USA TODAY SportsToni Kukoc faced plenty of skeptics on his own team when he joined the Bulls in 1993.
"Now the front office, coaches, players, they know the players coming in way better than people in my time did," said Kukoc, 45. "I don't think Phil Jackson ever saw me play and obviously, none of my new teammates other than Michael and Scottie [Pippen], who played against me in the Olympics, saw me play. So I was an enigma from that standpoint.

"Also, coming into the world champion Bulls, when they just won three titles in a row, they're going to question: 'Who is this guy? How is he going to change us? We're world champions.' There is none of that pressure on Mirotic right now. This team is so young except for [Pau] Gasol and have none of that [championship] experience, not even of getting deep into the playoffs. So anybody who brings fresh stuff is a welcome addition. ... They also never seem to be a group divided inside the team."

Many on the 1993-94 Bulls felt Krause's attitude toward Kukoc's arrival was not respectful of what they had just accomplished. This Bulls' front office, which includes vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, who played with Kukoc that season, is not making the same mistake with Mirotic.

"I thought at the time that it was unfair to Toni to be built up in a way that initially he could not live up to the expectations," Paxson said. "We talked a lot about bringing Nikola over and not building him up, that he was going to have to develop and earn his place as a player. Plus, with Joakim [Noah], Taj [Gibson] and Pau now, he won't be asked to do the things Toni was asked to do right off the bat."

Kukoc earned his place the hard way; having played only point forward (Pippen's spot) and never the 4 or 5 positions in Europe, despite his height (6-foot-11). He had to develop a post-up game with the Bulls, which he also did not possess.

"But I needed to make it happen in order to play and once I did, then I started feeling comfortable at that position on the floor," said Kukoc, who averaged 10.9 points as a rookie during the 1993-94 season.

It was hard for [European players] back then because there were only a couple of us [in the NBA] and I remember Vlade [Divac] and Drazen [Petrovic] would spend time talking to many of us on the phone after each game and trying to figure out how close they were to establishing themselves in the NBA.

-- Toni Kukoc
As for Mirotic, Kukoc said he can see a Yugoslavian influence in the Montenegro native's play.

"He knows basketball; he knows the fundamentals well," Kukoc said. "And it's an advantage for him and the Bulls that he can play a couple positions, can shoot the ball as a fairly big man (6-10) and has some post-up game, though that's going to have to improve."

Mirotic is one of several key offseason moves made by the Bulls after they came up short in their bid to land free agent Carmelo Anthony this summer. They signed four-time All-Star big man Gasol, who came over from Spain 13 years ago; traded for the draft rights to college player of the year Doug McDermott; signed veteran guard Aaron Brooks; and brought back Kirk Hinrich.

Then there is Mirotic, who has spent the past three seasons playing for Real Madrid after the Bulls traded for his rights during the 2011 NBA draft. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Mirotic averaged 12.4 points in 31 games with Real Madrid of the Liga ACB last season, shooting 46.1 percent from 3-point range. He was widely considered the best player in Europe, and ESPN's Fran Fraschilla said recently on ESPN Chicago 1000's "Waddle & Silvy" show that Mirotic would have been a top-four pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

The Bulls signed the 23-year-old Mirotic to a three-year, $18 million contract, with the Bulls permitted to give him $600,000 to help pay off his buyout from Real Madrid, sources told ESPNChicago.com.

"I felt this was the adequate moment was right now, this year, both for me personally and especially because I would get a chance to improve more as a basketball player over here and because I was absolutely sure I could adapt to Chicago Bulls and the NBA game in the first year," Mirotic said July 18 during his introductory news conference.

One major advantage for Mirotic, both Paxson and Kukoc agreed, is his familiarity with the NBA. Not only has he been able to watch the Bulls and others on TV, but his Real Madrid team played exhibition games in Memphis and Toronto in 2012.

[+] EnlargeNikola Mirotic
Aitor Arrizabalaga/EB/Getty ImagesNikola Mirotic (front) shot 46.1 percent from 3-point range with Real Madrid last season.
"But the thing he will draw on more than anything," Paxson said, "is that this past year he played with two guys, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez," who played four seasons in the NBA before playing with Mirotic for Real Madrid.

"Just the fact that they had been been here and played NBA basketball and could have discussions with him about that [is helpful]. The European players have grown so much since Toni came over. Now, European players are drafted every year ... and young players have access to our game that Toni did not growing up."

Indeed, Kukoc said it will be easier for Mirotic to measure himself according to those he played against in Europe.

"It was hard for [European players] back then because there were only a couple of us [in the NBA] and I remember Vlade [Divac] and Drazen [Petrovic] would spend time talking to many of us on the phone after each game and trying to figure out how close they were to establishing themselves in the NBA," Kukoc said.

Kukoc, who among his other nicknames while playing for Benetton Treviso was "White Magic," recalled it being frustrating trying to figure out simply how good he really was.

"We were all good, but you needed the games," said Kukoc, who played seven of his 13 NBA seasons with the Bulls. "You can't compare yourself just by watching tapes or NBA highlights from Michael, Larry Bird, Magic and Isiah and saying 'Oh yeah, I can do that so I'm just as good as those guys.' But then I noticed I needed to get my speed up and learn to play with my back to the basket if I played the 4 or 5 spot.

"If you can admit to yourself what you are really missing, that's the best thing. I wanted to be as good as I could be. Mirotic is like that too, I hear."

Mirotic may have raised some initial concern among fans when he said in his introductory press conference that he was going to work this summer with his personal coach in his native Montenegro. But Kukoc, who also worked with his trainer a month before camp (though in Chicago), said Bulls fans need not worry about Mirotic putting the team first.

"The players in Europe are way more team-oriented than thinking about their own stuff," he said. "We're differently programmed when it comes to that. When [Mirotic] said 'Whatever the coach wants me to do,' he didn't say it just to sound good. He really meant, 'If the coach wants me to come tomorrow, I'll come tomorrow because the coach said so.'"

Once in Chicago, Kukoc said the biggest advantage he had was that Bulls supervisor of European scouting Ivica Dukan and his wife, Gordana, befriended him, as well as his wife, Renata, and their baby, Marin.

"We were teammates in Split," Kukoc said of Dukan, who scouted and recommended Kukoc and Mirotic to the Bulls. "So having him there was basically like having an older brother look out for you. There were others in Chicago from our country, but that was really crucial to feel safe, secure and at home. And then obviously over time, we met other people and everything worked out to the point where we call Chicago home now more than Split."

The Bulls are counting on Gasol to translate English into Spanish for Mirotic, if necessary. The team is also trying to get Mirotic and his wife, who have an infant son, in touch with people in Chicago's Serbian community. But Paxson said once again, Dukan will be a huge help.

"Ivica and Gordana are like family to Nikola and his wife," Paxson said. "I can't overstate how important Ivica has been throughout this whole process, identifying him, fostering relations and getting him here. [Dukan] has been invaluable, and the comparison to what he did for Toni is very similar to Nikola. He will help Nikola a lot in making this transition."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


MORE NBA HEADLINES