The physical differences in Nikola Mirotic are subtle. He has the same thick beard and pale complexion, but he has added 23 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-10 frame.
Teammate Robin Lopez said he felt a difference in Mirotic during the Bulls' first practice on Tuesday morning.
"I rolled to the rim early on one play, and he stepped in and checked the heck out of me," Lopez said with a laugh. "I have to applaud him for it. He's ready to do that. He's very physical. He's always been a very savvy defensive player."
It's possible not everyone would agree with that last statement about Mirotic's defense. But after three erratic and mostly disappointing seasons with the Bulls, Mirotic has another chance at redemption. Just before camp began, Mirotic re-signed with the Bulls for a reported $27 million over two years. The second season is a team option.
Mirotic said he never spoke to other teams, though his agent may have. He wanted to stay because his wife and daughter are comfortable here.
The hills and valleys of Mirotic's NBA existence have been well-chronicled. He'll play like an all-star for a few games, then lapse into shooting slumps. He was benched three times last season.
One of his goals was to add strength, so he'll feel more comfortable going inside. Mirotic breaks out his post scoring skills on occasion, but he has been reluctant to spend time in the paint, particularly against physical teams like Boston in last year's playoffs.
"I finished (last season) at 237 (pounds) and am 260 now," Mirotic said at the Advocate Center. "I'm feeling good. I've never felt that strong in my legs. I'm feeling better with the rebounding, and I worked all summer in the low post, especially when I play that pick-and-roll and they switch me."
Mirotic, a native of Montenegro, has spent several years with Real Madrid and been a regular on the Spanish national team. Last year, he won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. He skipped the European championships this summer to stay in Chicago and focus on personal improvement.
"I worked on all my weaknesses," he said. "It's time to change some things. I'm in a place where I can improve and get better. It's more proving to myself than you guys."
Mirotic is the only player left on the Bulls roster who played for coach Tom Thibodeau during the 2013-14 season. Since February, the Bulls moved Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Doug McDermott, but chose to keep Mirotic.
Mirotic said he doesn't mind being the longest-tenured player on the roster. He's hoping the current group can fulfill coach Fred Hoiberg's vision of playing a higher-scoring style.
"There's no more like holding the ball, playing isolation," he said. "Now it's more free, like when we used to play with Rajon (Rondo) on that second unit. Just play free and share the basketball.
"This was the first practice and the team is looking good; competing and that's what it's all about. We have enough talent to score a lot, so we're going to be in good shape. I don't think we're going to be that bad like people are thinking."
All evidence suggests the Bulls are trying to be bad this season, or at least lose plenty of games. But if Mirotic finds a way to play at his peak level more often, the season could hold some surprises.
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