Nikola Mirotic had his stitches removed Wednesday, a small step that Fred Hoiberg said puts him "hopefully on the road to recovery now."
Mirotic underwent an emergency appendectomy on Jan. 27 and was expected to be out until after the All-Star break. But complications during the procedure required Mirotic to undergo a hematoma removal, a setback from which the second-year forward still does not have a timetable for his return.
The removal of the stitches should allow Mirotic to stand more upright, and Hoiberg said the next step of the process will be getting him into a hot tub or pool where he can begin his rehabilitation. But Hoiberg also said Wednesday before the Bulls' matchup against the Atlanta Hawks that Mirotic is still "in a lot of pain" and has lost about 15 pounds since the surgery two weeks ago.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
The injury came at a tough time for both Mirotic and the Bulls.
The 24-year-old had been mired in a season-long sophomore slump but was showing signs of breaking out, scoring 17 and 15 points in the two games before the surgery. It marked the first time since mid-December he had shot 50 percent or better from the field in back-to-back games. Mirotic's injury also came less than two weeks after Joakim Noah underwent shoulder surgery with a timetable for return at four to six months.
"It’s a tough blow for our team because I thought he was playing good basketball leading into that. The important thing is getting him right, now," Hoiberg said. "Hopefully we’ll get him back. I don’t know exactly a time frame on it, but in the stretch run where he’ll be very important to our team."
With Noah and Mirotic sidelined - as well as All-Star Jimmy Butler - the Bulls are relying heavily on Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol, who is dealing with soreness in his left hand. Both Gibson and Gasol averaged nearly 34 minutes per game during the Bulls' seven-game road trip, both up from their season averages.
And though the Bulls' shallow and veteran frontcourt will get a break with the upcoming All-Star break - the Bulls will have eight days between games - rookie Bobby Portis could see his name called more frequently as the first big man off the bench. Portis' continued improvement - in five February games he's averaged 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in 23.3 minutes - will be crucial as the Bulls await for Mirotic's return, which could last longer than initially expected.
"I thought Bobby had some really good moments in the last game (in Charlotte). There was an incident where he and Pau were having a pretty good discussion on the bench about a missed assignment and then I thought he was much better as the game went on," Hoiberg said. "His shows are getting better, he had a really nice rotation the other day. Just different things that you don’t really see much in the college game that Bobby’s getting better at. And that’s a great sign. He’s still out there playing hard, playing his tail off."