DeMarcus Cousins routinely gave the “they have this guy on me” look to Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen, as Cousins’ eyes were bigger than saucers while giving Markkanen his first taste of NBA basketball.
A couple duck-ins, some veteran hooks and some downright bullyball was in store for Markkanen, whose eyes were saucer-like for a different reason at times in the Bulls’ 108-95 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday night at the United Center.
Considering Markkanen has missed time with back spasms in training camp and battled it a bit since being drafted, one would think pitting him against the likes of Cousins wouldn’t be the best recipe for his short-term health.
But in the words of late Chicago comedian Bernie Mac, “they gotta learn, they gotta learn!” so it’s a bit of a conundrum as the Bulls want to develop him and give him as much playing time as possible without putting him in positions where he’ll be overwhelmed.
“He’s so strong and it’s fun to compete against him,” Markkanen said. “It shows I gotta work on some things, but good learning experience.”
When a reporter asked Markkanen about a spin move Anthony Davis unleashed for a 3-point play, the rookie was quick to point out playfully, “it wasn’t on me,” as Nikola Mirotic was victimized in that instance — although Markkanen will receive his lesson from some elite power forward at some point this season when the games do count.
Markkanen played 15 minutes Sunday, and upon his entrance at the start of the second quarter, the seven-footer launched a triple when he first touched the ball 11 seconds in.
It came up short, as did many of his nine shot attempts. His only field goal was a layup in semi transition in the second quarter as he grabbed three rebounds and scored four points.
“I’m confident,” Markkanen said. “Shots weren’t falling today but I just gotta go back to the gym. But I’m not worried about that.”
As for getting out on the floor, Markkanen said, “(It) felt good. Good training camp. We’ve been going hard at it, so it didn’t come as a surprise. I was pretty nervous sitting on the bench before I got in. But once I got in, I got to play basketball again. It was fun.”
Considering the Bulls have two rotation-worthy centers and power forwards, he’ll have to play both to get on the floor, but it would behoove the Bulls to keep him at power forward rather than center.
“Pretty much the same (responsibilities). Depending on who’s playing the four but it’s about the same,” Markkanen said. “It don’t matter to me but it’s more low post if I’m playing the five. I got some stuff to work on now, so…”
One of those things isn’t necessarily his feathery-soft jump shot, as he looks to have more than his share of friendly bounces because of how it can curl around the rim, as long as he gets it there.
He has the green light from Fred Hoiberg, something not many rookies can enjoy as soon as they step on the floor. Hoiberg’s favorite stat about Markkanen appears to be “FGA” as he’s routinely raved about Markkanen’s 0-for-10 performance in a summer league game because Markkanen kept shooting.
“That’s one thing everybody loves about Lauri,” Hoiberg said. “He didn’t make any of them, but he kept shooting and the next night he bounced back with a big game. We want him aggressive. When he’s open we want him shooting the ball. He’s one of the best shooters on this team.”
Even still, Hoiberg wasn’t discouraged by the stat line and knows Markkanen won’t be going against the likes of Cousins and Davis every night.
“Great first experience to get out there against two of the better bigs in the league,” Hoiberg said. “First time against an NBA opponent and hopefully we’ll build from here. Happy to see him continue to be aggressive even though his shot wasn’t falling.”
And if the small sample size holds true, the shots won’t stop coming, no matter where he’s playing.