Nikola Mirotic might be the rookie of the year, but not the Rookie of the Year

Ball Don't Lie
Nikola Mirotic might be the rookie of the year, but not the Rookie of the Year
Nikola Mirotic might be the rookie of the year, but not the Rookie of the Year

His Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award for March all but wrapped up, Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic seems to be well on his way toward the Eastern Conference Player of the Month designation. Sound work for a guy that averaged just 14.3 minutes per game in February.

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It was that minutes mark that has Mirotic as a distant second or even third in the Rookie of the Year race, as other younger candidates have taken advantage of crummier teams and more opportunities per contest to ring up consistent stats night in and night out. Mirotic is making a case for himself with his standout play in March, however, play that includes a killer 28-point outing against the Charlotte Hornets from Monday night.

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That performance included the nasty dunk you see above, and this ridiculous step-back jumper from just a few minutes before:

Nikola scored a needed 14 points in the fourth quarter in Chicago’s win, dashing around a stout Charlotte defense while also pulling in eight rebounds in 31 minutes. As it stands, the rookie is still averaging single-digit points per game at 9.7 points in 19.7 minutes per contest. At first glance, as Chicago’s sixth-leading scorer, he doesn’t appear as crucial to the Bulls’ playoff drive as his teammates, and his shooting percentages (40 percent from the floor, 31 percent from behind the arc) to speak to some ironclad 25-point scorer in-waiting.

Then there is the matter of Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, overcoming a slow start to his season (duh, because he was 19 until a month ago) to average 15.8 and 4.3 rebounds a contest, consistent production for a player that seems like he’s two years away from scratching the surface, and seven years away from perhaps acting as this league’s best perimeter player.

(Assuming the NBA doesn’t just completely live on the perimeter in 2012, and that Anthony Davis wouldn’t be working as point guard by then for the Mizar-5 Space Rats.)

(I’m also assuming Adam Silver has expanded the NBA into other galaxies in this scenario, though he probably won’t do anything about the block/charge rule.)

Of course, Wiggins also plays over 35 minutes a game for a team that has been without usage hounds like Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin for long stretches. Then there is the curious case of Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel, who is turning in some baby-Hakeem Olajuwon like production on the defensive end of the court, running up nearly four blocks/steals per game in 30 minutes a contest, managing 13.2 points and 10.5 points a game in March.

Then again, Noel was drafted in 2013 and he got to practice against NBA-level talent (or, in the case of the 2013-14 76ers, something close to it) for an entire season while readying 16 months for his first NBA game. On the flip side of that is Mirotic, who is already 24 and has been playing pro basketball for a decade, and working in the big leagues since 2009. Shouldn’t the 2013 Spanish League MVP come into the NBA and immediately start playing like a vet?

Perhaps, but Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has struggled to find a consistent place in his rotation for Nikola – whether that is the fault of the coach or player is entirely up to you.

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Mirotic managed single-digit minutes in six of his first 10 NBA games, and as recently as Feb. 20 he played just under 10 minutes against the Pistons. Mirotic has done himself no favors with his performance as a starter, managing just a 28 percent shooting mark in three starts so far in 2014-15. One of those games, a loss to the lowly Lakers in late January, saw Thibodeau bench Mirotic for the remainder of the game after he missed his first two shots in 12 minutes of play.

What we’re getting at, for the second year in a row, is the Weirdest Rookie of the Year Race Ever.

As it was last season, only a guard from Orlando (last year: Victor Oladipo. This year: Elfrid Payton) is coming through with what seems to be an orthodox ROY run. The leading contender for the award, again, is a skinny fawn that may only be putting up good numbers because he’s getting all the chances he can handle on a terrible team.

Philadelphia’s top draft pick is once again sitting out the entire season, and Nerlens Noel’s official rookie season seems nothing like the killer half-rookie/half-sophomore season that won Blake Griffin the Rookie of the Year award in 2010-11. Mirotic’s Player Efficiency Rating far outranks other contenders (17.8 to 14.2 for Noel, 13.3 for Payton and 13 for Wiggins), but it’s not an absolute knockout.

Nikola Mirotic, averaging 21 points and 8.3 rebounds in only 31.3 minutes per contest, all reserve appearances, may end up winning the East’s Player of the Month award – and rare is the rookie Player of the Month that can’t take home the eventual top rookie award.

Still, despite all the caveats about Chicago’s crowded frontcourt, his goofball coach, and his inconsistent application, can you really give the award to a guy who entered the final four weeks of the season averaging single digit points on 40 percent shooting?

This isn’t an advanced stats vs. traditional markups situation. King Felix and Marc Gasol are not in this race. This is something altogether far stranger.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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