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Nikola Mirotic hoping growing pains are behind him as he enters Year 2

It’s hard to put Nikola Mirotic into a box.

Is the second-year Bulls player a stretch-four? Is he a big three? Is he a future All-Star?

“Niko’s a basketball player,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said, doing his best to try and end the debate of where the 6-foot-10 Mirotic fits on the floor. “And very versatile.

“I’ve been running him at the four and three. I think he’s more comfortable at the four right now because that’s where he was getting a lot of his reps early on, but we’ve been sticking around after [practices], getting together early, and putting him in that three spot so that he can learn that as well.’’

In other words, Hoiberg just wants Mirotic thinking about being a basketball player first-and-foremost. The rest will hopefully take care of itself.

Mirotic is all for that.

“Last year was a big adjustment,’’ the 24-year-old admitted. “Everything was new. New team, new city, new language too. This year, expectations are bigger. I just want to work hard to be one of the important players on this team. I think we can do something special. We’re full of talent, we’re talented. We just need work, me too.’’

Something Mirotic had no problem putting in over the summer. Mirotic joined Bulls teammate Pau Gasol on team Spain last month, as the two helped push their international team to winning the European Championship.

Along the way, they had a surprise visitor come in.

“Had a great dinner in Spain,’’ Mirotic said of Hoiberg coming over to check on both he and Gasol. “He saw a couple practices too. We just met there. We didn’t talk about our basketball. He just wanted for us to be honest, if we needed to say something to the team, and work hard. He didn’t say what he expected (from us), how our rules are gonna be. But we don’t need to be worried, we just need to work hard.’’

A message that Mirotic has embraced.

Not only has he been putting in extra time before and after practices with Hoiberg, but has been a solid scorer through the first two preseason games, averaging 18 points in 23 minutes of work.

He looks confident with what he wants to do – at both the three and the four – and he looks like a player who is ready to take that next leap.

“I think the biggest thing is that first year is such a steep learning curve,’’ Hoiberg said. “Going into it your second year, you’re so much more prepared. You know what to expect. He had a great summer playing against the top players in the world. But everything you have to learn going into that first season takes awhile to get everything down—the concepts, the different rules from what he’s been used to with the international game.

“He’s got all that down now. He’s got a lot of those growing pains out of the way. Now he can just focus on going out there and playing. Niko’s got the same type of skill set, but I think he’s a lot more comfortable now than he was going into his rookie season.’’

What will be interesting to watch the next two-plus weeks is can Mirotic fill that vacancy left by an injured Mike Dunleavy (back surgery) and actually start?

“I’m gonna be wherever they need me to be,’’ Mirotic said. “Depends what coach wants from me. I’m here to help the team. Even if I play 3-4, I know I have a position on the floor.’’

Spoken like a true basketball player.