Nikola Mirotic: Changing perceptions with improved shooting numbers

Nikola Mirotic I Rachael

There isn’t a more polarising player on the Bulls roster than Nikola Mirotic. Some still believe he can become a quality rotational player, others are ready to move on. As divisive as he’s proven to be, everyone agrees the lack of consistency in his performance, stemming mostly from his poor shooting percentages from the three-point line, has been a problem.

Drafted and hyped as the stretch-four option the Bulls had been lacking, Mirotic has been wildly inconsistent year on year from three. After shooting a career high 39 percent from three last season, Mirotic has dived back down to 30.9 percent in 2016-17, a comparative number to his rookie season (31.6 percent).

As we tend to do with most young, jump shooting big men from Europe, a lazy assumption is made that only experience stands between a player eventually developing into an elite three-point marksman. As this is the expectation, Mirotic’s shooting performance from three this season is seen as a failure.

At present, Mirotic is the Bulls’ most prolific three-point shooter: he leads the team in three-point makes (76) and attempts (246). The volume is there, though the accuracy isn’t. Whilst a 30.9 three-point percentage can’t be masked as good, is it really as bad as it seems?

Using some simple — and favourable — maths, if Mirotic had made ten additional threes this season, raising his makes from 76 to 86, all on the same volume, his three-point percentage rises from 31 percent to 35 percent. 20 more threes would have Mirotic back to 39 percent, just as he was last season.

Over the course of an entire season, ten (or even 20) additional three-point makes is minimal. In 50 games played this season, ten extra threes is a 0.2 increase in makes per game. It’s a minimal increment, one we wouldn’t even notice if it were fact. Though a trivial number in a thought exercise, it’s an important concept when considering the perception that has formed around Mirotic as a prospect and his worth to the team.

The fan base is largely down on Mirotic, casting aside the third-year forward as another failed draft pick from the Gar Forman regime. His disappointing play has raised questions, and as a restricted free agent in the offseason, a separation between player and team would be welcomed by many.

As this may be the current state, it’s odd how a narrative surrounding a player can shift greatly with a few more made shots. Simplicity says it’s a make or miss league, and it is. But there also needs to be more nuance in evaluations of players.

The above example may be favourable for the player and overly simplistic, but it’s a worthy question: Do perceptions of Mirotic change if his season numbers read 35 percent from three, not 31 percent?

Most likely, yes. The Bulls wouldn’t be making him available at the deadline and fans likely have a different perspective of his abilities. If this is so, what we’re really saying is that 10 additional three-pointers over the course of the season is enough for us to move on from a player. In that context, it seems meaningless considering Mirotic has already proven that he can lift his shooting numbers in a hurry, particularly to close a season.

Holistically, we recognise Mirotic knocking down 39 percent of his threes last season as impressive, and use that performance as a baseline for the future. It’s a sound logic. Only problem is, Mirotic wasn’t a consistent shooter last season, even if his three-point percentage suggests otherwise.

Just as he’s done for the majority of this season, Mirotic shot the three-ball at a below average rate for two full months last season. In November and December 2015, Mirotic connected on 38 threes from 125 attempts, or 30.4 percent. That’s oddly similar to his current 30.9 percent average. Fortunately for Niko (and the Bulls), his shooting numbers took off into the new year, increasing every month until season’s end.

Fast forward 12 months and the same trend is emerging. November through January saw too little three-point makes to justify the inflated amount of attempts. Over 60 percent of his field goal attempts this season have been from three, which is far too many for a player shooting 30.9 percent on the season. But, as he showed last season, he’s capable of going on a tear, and may do so again. His numbers have already started to climb in February.

Will his numbers continue to rise as the season progresses? That’s unclear, but it’s certainly possible. It happened last season, it can happen again. The idea isn’t unfounded, and with an increased role after moving Taj Gibson at the deadline, Mirotic will have the opportunity to expand on his current output.

Assuming Mirotic hits 40 percent of his threes for the rest of the season on the same amount of per game attempts (4.9), he will finish the season as a 34 percent three-point shooter. While that’s still a reduction from last season, it’s a significant improvement on his performance to date.

Should this hypothetical transpire, do perceptions change once more? Does Mirotic see his tarnished image transform from an underwhelming draft pick who can’t shoot, to a capable jump shooting big man justifiably worth an eight figure salary?

Maybe. Perhaps the early portions of the season and a new, increased contract in free agency will continue to deter some. But if the last season is any indication, Mirotic will be judged by the story his basic statistics tell at the end of the season. As flawed and misleading as that can be, it will be interesting to see how perceptions alter if Mirotic streaks towards a gaudy three-point percentage, just as he did last season.

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