Nikola Mirotic is still trying to live up to ‘core player’ label

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The stat lines haven’t been that sexy yet.

At least not for a player the Bulls franchise deemed “a key part of the new core’’ moving forward two seasons ago.

Yes, Nikola Mirotic is making strides in this his third year, but with his contract possibly up at the end of the 2016-17 campaign – he’ll be a restricted free agent – the front office has to decide if the former Euro League standout might be moving forward with another team.

What they have on their side is nearly six months still left to decide, and until then it’s up to the 6-foot-10 stretch-four to ease their minds.

After losing out to veteran Taj Gibson for a starting job, Mirotic came off the bench in the season-opening win over Boston to score 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, and maybe even more importantly grab nine rebounds.

In Saturday’s win over Indiana he was 3-for-9 from the field for eight points, grabbing three rebounds.

Mirotic, however, was expected to be an outside threat for the Bulls when the import finally came over to the states, and that’s where he seems to be frustratingly inconsistent.

In his rookie season, he shot just 32 percent from beyond the three-point line, but was given a pass. After all, he was a first-year NBA player in a new country. Last year he jumped up to 39 percent, but a lot of that work came over the last 22 games (45 percent).

So there was promise.

Then came this preseason, and it was the same inconsistent guy, as Mirotic shot just 24 percent from three-point range, losing out in the starting competition to Gibson.

That trend hasn’t changed much since the games started counting, and even though the sample size is so small, Mirotic has to be better than just 2-for-10 from long distance.

“I love how Niko played, his approach to the game,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said, pointing out that Mirotic’s all-around game is the focus right now. “He was 1-for-6 from the three-point line [in the win over Boston] but he did so many other things that had a positive impact on that game.

“He’s just bought into what we were doing. It just goes to show you even when your shot isn’t falling, you can still have a positive impact.’’

Hoiberg’s confidence in Mirotic is just not talk, either.

With the game against Boston still close late, Hoiberg’s closing lineup was Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Gibson, and Mirotic.

That closing lineup wasn’t necessary in the blowout win over the Pacers, but Mirotic’s understanding was it was still a fluid situation.

“It’s going to be game-by-game depending on how you play during that game and matchups are important,’’ Mirotic said. “But the good thing is I can play with all those guys. I don’t know how many minutes Taj and I have played together. That’s huge for me.’’

Now, if Mirotic can just get over not being a starter. While he says he is, it’s also admittedly still working through it.

“It doesn’t feel right to be honest, but no disappointment,’’ Mirotic said. “It is what it is. I want to not think and be focused and play my game. Now that I come from the bench, it’s like, ‘Alright, figure out how you’re going to do that, how you’re going to help your team and play well.’ It’s going to be a long season. But I told Fred, ‘It’s no problem. I respect your decision.’ Taj is an amazing player. He deserves to be the starter.’’

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