Nikola Mirotic, from Montenegro via Real Madrid to the Chicago Bulls, may deserve the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.
He averages 9.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and is shooting 41.1 per cent from the field, 30.3 per cent on three-pointers. While his numbers do not compare well with those of Minnesota’s rookie, Andrew Wiggins, Mirotic turned into an indispensable cog for a Bulls team still competing despite the latest scene from Derrick Rose’s Shakespearean injury saga.
Nonetheless, whether or not Mirotic wins the rookie trophy, his success in going to the United States bodes well for another Balkan prodigy starring in Europe for a Spanish powerhouse.
Mario Hezonja, just 20, should have no trouble landing in the NBA draft lottery, after the Euroleague season he’s had.
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The Croatia international has scored 8.4 points per game in 18 games for Barcelona, level atop their Euroleague last-16 group table with Madrid. He is shooting 42.2 per cent from three and 49.1 per cent overall despite being only 19 most of the season and playing against mature professionals.
Not long ago, European players were discovered by the NBA mostly on the basis of height. Anyone 7 feet (2.1 metres) or taller had a shot of getting drafted by an NBA team, whatever their basketball skills.
They rose up draft boards on whispers and far-flung scouting reports. They often failed.
Now we can better measure European players before they cross the Atlantic. Scouts can watch them more easily with their own eyes.
Hezonja is rangy. He has nice shooting form and great leaping ability. It might be tired, at this point, to compare every wing with good size and a nice three-point shot to Klay Thompson, but the 2.03m Hezoja has some of that in his game.
His Barcelona numbers at age 20 compare well with Mirotic’s Madrid statistics at age 22: 51.8 per cent shooting, 35.4 per cent from three. That was when Mirotic was one of the best players in Europe.
They are dissimilar players, but the skill of thriving against seasoned professionals should be one that translates.
Dominant college players are never a guarantee in the NBA. It is difficult to put their numbers into context; they usually face massively inferior competition.
Europeans once were the great wild card in the NBA draft. But if Mirotic is an indication, or Rudy Gobert, coming from a solid early career at Cholet, in France, it is the Euros who now may represent the surest value in the draft.
And Hezonja looks next in line.
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