Lauri Markkanen

NBA Buzz: Big summer ahead for Bulls' young foundation players

NBA Buzz: Big summer ahead for Bulls' young foundation players

Even though the Bulls front office is hoping for the best possible draft position in June, the last thing John Paxson, Gar Forman and the coaching staff wanted to see was a prolonged absence for young foundation players Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.

Because of injuries and LaVine's ACL rehab, they had only played four games together before the All-Star break. So, when Paxson met the media after the break, he said the primary goal for the remainder of the season would be to try to build chemistry between the three, and all of them could expect to play 30-35 minutes a game to start that process.

I had a chance to sit down with LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen last week at the Advocate Center to do a feature interview for Bulls Pre-Game Live, and the players conceded their on-court chemistry is still a work in progress.

LaVine told me, "We're getting better day to day with it. Rome wasn't built in a day, that's what I keep saying. It's going to be tough getting everything down perfect, just like, championship teams weren't built in one day, one season, so we're building towards that, but each and every game we're getting more comfortable with each other."

Second year point guard Dunn added, "It's slowly going to come, like I said before we're all competitors so we're going to find a way to make it happen, but at the same time we're young, we're trying to find our way individually, and then, we've got to try to figure out how we can do it collectively. Once we do that, we'll get this thing rolling."

Unfortunately, all three are currently sidelined. Dunn suffered a sprained toe in last week's game in Memphis, while Markkanen is dealing with another bout of back spasms, and LaVine is experiencing some soreness in his surgically repaired knee. None of the injuries are considered serious, and the hope is they'll be able to resume their on-court chemistry project very soon.

Still, the summer ahead will be crucial for all three players as they try to take the next step from intriguing prospects to potential NBA All-Stars. LaVine can't wait to get back to work after missing 11 months of game competition following his ACL surgery.

"You've got to work to improve your game each summer" LaVine told me. "I think that's where NBA players make the biggest jump is in the off-season. You get your experience through the season, you build on what you want, and you go back and evaluate it. Me personally, that's where I put a lot of my work in. Obviously, last year, I didn't get a summer so I'm really looking forward to it. Me and Kris talk all the time, this is going to be a big summer, we're going to make a big jump, there's not going to be any messin' around. We're going to go to work."

Markkanen says he's hoping the Bulls three young stars can continue to develop their chemistry over the final three weeks of the regular season, but he knows the importance of continuing to put in the work over the summer.

"I think it's going to be a good summer for all of us. Personally for me, just the first summer in quite a while not having too many national team games and actually having time to work on my craft, so I'm look forward to it."

The players know expectations will rise next season with Bulls fans looking for the emerging "Big 3" to lead their favorite team back to the playoffs. It's a challenge all three men embrace. Dunn sees the championship banners hanging at the United Center, and hopes it won't be long before the Bulls are contending again. 

"We all showed flashes of what we can do individually and what we can do collectively. As far as chasing banners, we know how much hard work it is, it's definitely not going to be easy. There are so many good teams out there that you gotta be on your "A" game, and right now we're just trying to take steps. Next year, we're going to chase the playoffs, after that we keep going and going."

LaVine is also confident this young Bulls team can eventually contend for titles.

"It's going to be very special. We're building towards that. We have high expectations because this is one of the best franchises in NBA history. The fans got spoiled in the '90s, so we got to live up to the expectations of chasing those banners up there. We're building toward that, and I think we're going to get there sooner or later."

But leave it to the 20-year-old Markkanen to take a page out of LeBron James' infamous Miami Heat welcome rally when he talked about his hopes for the new Big 3.

"Of course, that's the goal of ours, not just one, but actually get multiple championships. Like Zach said in the beginning, it's not going to be an overnight thing. We're building towards it, and like I said, a big summer ahead of us. We just gotta get better and go from there."

Not one.... not two.... No, Markkanen wasn't trying to channel James with that quote, matter of fact he couldn't have said it in a more humble understated way. You can hear it for yourself when we bring you Part 2 of my interview with Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn Wednesday night on Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago.

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The season-long soap opera continues in Cleveland, where head coach Ty Lue is stepping away from the team for at least the next week while he deals with ongoing health issues. Lue told reporters, "I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is."

Lue was unable to coach the Cavs in the second half of Saturday's win at the United Center. It was the third time this season he had to leave a game early because of health issues. Assistant coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue's absence. Drew has previous NBA head coaching experience in Atlanta.

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Meanwhile, the Cavs did receive some good news with the return of All-Star forward Kevin Love. Love had been sidelined since fracturing his left hand January 30 in Detroit. He missed 21 games because of the injury.

Love's return gives the Cavs a second reliable scoring option behind LeBron James, who's averaging almost a triple double in the games Love has missed. Love is averaging almost 18 points and 9 and a half rebounds while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. Now the question is, can the Cavs get him integrated into the rotation in the remaining games along with the four players acquired at the trade deadline? (George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.) Something tells me Cleveland still is the team to beat in the East despite Toronto’s impressive regular season record.

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Out west, no team is hotter right now than the Portland Trail Blazers, winners of 13 straight games heading into action on Tuesday. All-star guard Damian Lillard has taken his game to a whole new level, averaging 29 points during the month of March. Lillard's running mate C.J. McCollum is also averaging over 20 points a game for the season, and Portland is now getting more consistent production from 23-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic, who's shown a lot more toughness inside than what we saw in previous years.

The Trail Blazers winning streak has lifted them to the No. 3 seed in the West, and NBA fans are already looking ahead to a potential second round series between Portland and Golden State which could provide some of the most wide open post-season offense we've seen in years. Blazers coach Terry Stotts doesn't have the deepest roster to work with, but the firepower of Lillard and McCollum should make for quite a shootout against the Warriors' "splash brothers", Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

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And finally, Houston still owns the best record in the West and should be a lock to nail down the No. 1 seed with all the injuries facing the Warriors right now. Chris Paul has fit in perfectly with NBA scoring leader James Harden, and the three-point happy Rockets have also benefitted from the improvement of young center Clint Capela.

Paul has never been one to back away from a fight, and Sunday night he was pushed to the floor by Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng after a foul in the fourth quarter. Paul's teammate Gerald Green came charging in to push Dieng from behind, bringing players from both sides together for a little shoving match before order was restored.

Paul said afterwards he would pay any fine that Green receives, and that sort of one-for-all mentality should serve the Rockets well as they attempt to dethrone the champion Warriors in the playoffs.

Zach LaVine doesn't give a damn about ESPN's new list

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine doesn't give a damn about ESPN's new list

Zach LaVine was noticeably absent from ESPN's list of best 25 players under the age of 25, which came as a bit of a surprise to him.

"Did it have something to do with my injury?" he queried, referencing to the ACL injury he suffered last February as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The list was published last week and based on future potential, not necessarily on accomplishments to date.

Lauri Markkanen made the list at No. 19, but the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade didn't make any of the three panelists' Top 25.

Usually cool, LaVine flashed a little bit of incredulousness once he had a chance to gather his thoughts.

"You guys (media) don't think I'm better...Top 25 players under 25? If I'm not in the Top 25 of that, then I obviously haven't done what I'm supposed to be doing out here," LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. "I don't worry about that. I know I'm a lot better than what they think. Random people talking."

MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis headlined the list, followed by Joel Embiid, one-time LaVine teammate Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic rounding out the Top 5.

"I don't give a damn, man," LaVine said. "I motivate myself. I go out there and play for my team and family. I couldn't care what they think. There's a lot of people that know what I do."

Former teammate Andrew Wiggins also made the list, tied at No. 23. As a third option last season before his injury, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and 39 from the 3-point line. This season, LaVine is averaging 17 points and nearly four rebounds with three assists in 27.5 minutes for the Bulls, having played in 22 games since making his debut in January. 

His shooting this season is down — at 39.5 percent — as he works himself into a new system on a changing team in addition to feeling out his body.

"Zach, right now, he's still working himself back into shape," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "Having a year off, I don't think people understand how hard it is to get back into top form when you're almost off for a calendar year. He's shown some really good flashes and played really good basketball."

He's had some signature games, such as outdueling Butler last month in a 35-point showing that capped off a career-best streak of four straight 20-point games. There's been games where he looked dead-legged, an expected side effect from his recovery.

He called the 1-for-11 showing against the Boston Celtics last week "the worst game of my career."

"The Minnesota game was cool. I was just hyped for that game," LaVine said. "I felt good in the Portland game, I felt good in the Sacramento game. There's games I came out and felt really good. And then games I haven't, where it was like 'this is bad.'"

At his position, Washington's Bradley Beal (No. 8), Utah's Donovan Mitchell and Phoenix's Devin Booker (tied at No. 9), Denver's Gary Harris (No. 11) and Boston's Jaylen Brown (No. 22) checked in ahead of LaVine. 

Beal is blossoming, leading the Wizards in the absence of John Wall. Mitchell is a sensational Rookie of the Year candidate, helping Utah surge toward a playoff spot in the West. Booker had a 70-point game last season, but Phoenix is the league's second-worst team. Harris doesn't wow anyone statistically but is a darling of the advanced stats crowd and solid across the board. Brown has helped the Celtics thrive in the absence of Gordon Hayward.

LaVine is getting his first real chance at being a starter, and has had to do it under the circumstances of an injury recovery for a team that is looking toward the long play as opposed to contending in the moment.

"I'm just trying to get in a rhythm and get better," LaVine said. "Each game I try to go out and do better than I did the day before."

Considering he's up for restricted free agency this summer, he's had to resist the urge of going stat-hunting to stay inside the construct of Hoiberg's system, while at the same time trying to find his new footing.

"You have to be (aggressive). Sometimes, it gotta come within the flow of the game," LaVine said. "We have so many different lineups out here, it might not be your night, too. It's gonna be a process going forward with it."

Already supremely motivated, LaVine probably found something else to guide him for the rest of the season and beyond.

Mutual respect tug of war between Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn shows conflict is coming

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USA TODAY

Mutual respect tug of war between Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn shows conflict is coming

Things are very polite in the Chicago Bulls locker room, but conflict is coming.

No matter whether Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton walks through that door to help this ailing team, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are due for some uncomfortable moments.

They both know it, too.

Someone will have to take the lead for the Bulls and a pecking order must be established. This isn't conflict that will lead to fisticuffs but competitiveness will overflow.

“It's gonna be a tug of war, a tug and pull between somebody,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com Monday night. “That's for us to figure out. It's either with somebody's play or mentality-wise; we have to be better with that.”

LaVine wants to take the reins.

"Can't be friends with everybody," LaVine said. "That's just the way it is sometimes."

He says he's ready.

"If you put anybody in that right mindset they can turn into that dude," LaVine said.

Even with a disaster like Monday where the Bulls were run out of the United Center by the Boston Celtics, down by as many as 37 points, everyone is still getting by under the cover of being a young team trying to find itself.

Friday’s win against Dallas, where LaVine, Dunn and Lauri Markkanen all made big shots late, is the outlier.

Expectations for all will rise next season, and with them some natural friction will develop. Right now, everybody’s being nice.

“We're young. Right now, nobody wants to step on each other's toes,” Dunn told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We're still learning how to win. Each and every game you gotta bring it.”

LaVine agreed, and said nobody has said a cross word to a teammate yet.

“We all take responsibility. We're in the huddles talking and encouraging each other,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. “It's gotta be more than that. It's gotta come from each person to police themselves and push themselves and hold themselves accountable.”

The usually affable LaVine was highly irritated by his own performance against Boston, when he went one-for-11, even airballing a wide-open corner three in the second half. Being unable to stop the Celtics from embarrassing the Bulls early was his biggest annoyance, but he said if this is March of 2019 and he's the established figure he expects to be.

"You have to be more vocal,” LaVine said. “You have to be more assertive. You have to be in that role. Whether I'm 1-12 or 10-12, I gotta be that dude to do that. Or somebody has to do that. There's no way you can be a contender or winning team without that type of personality.”

LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen have all surpassed the modest individual expectations coming into the season. None has intersected with the other.

LaVine wanted to get back on the floor, fully recovered from his ACL injury. Check.

Dunn wanted to wash away his dreadful rookie season and reclaim his pedigree as a top-five draft pick. Check.

Markkanen is a rookie who's still figuring out the NBA game but has surprised with his skill level and acclimation, particular amongst the team's early drama. Check.

Hence, the honeymoon period of the young team.

“I'm pretty sure you can't show me too many teams that have so much high talent that don't go through growing pains. It's tough,” Dunn said. “Trying to figure out how many touches people are gonna get, who's gonna be aggressive."

“I'm not worried about it. We have to keep bringing it every day. The harder you go, it settles itself out.”

While that’s true, it’s where head coach Fred Hoiberg’s job becomes a lot more difficult next season. He’ll have three guys, along with two first-round draft picks, looking to establish themselves further. Or in LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen’s case, looking for their place in the hierarchy of the franchise and the league.

“I don't worry about that. I don't get into that — who's the best player and all that,” Dunn said. “We all have to be leaders for this team. We have to be leaders in different ways. It's a matter of time to see how we jell out. Right now we just keep playing.”

The talent level between the three is obvious. The Bulls got it right on the Jimmy Butler trade, and Dunn and LaVine each have had a moment as the go-to guy late in games.

But remember, Dunn’s run in December — illustrated by his big game against the Utah Jazz where he lit up anybody defending him, yelling “(bleep) him! (bleep) him!” to nobody in particular after hitting a clinching jumper — occurred when LaVine was weeks away from his season debut.

And in LaVine’s signature moment — outdueling Butler in Chicago for a 35-point performance in early February—he was caught by cameras yelling, “This is my (bleep). This is my (bleep)” to a raucous crowd at the United Center — Dunn was out recovering from a concussion.

So while Hoiberg’s belief that playing together is important, what’s more critical is a level of mutual respect that won’t truly be established unless those uncomfortable moments happen.

“We're all grown men at the end of the day,” Dunn said. “If you can't take criticism for the better then this is not the sport for you. It's gonna come. I'm not worried about it. The coaches are doing a good job; they're gonna figure it out for us too.”

It feels as though the Bulls offense is equal-opportunity, which can lead to confusion and a general lack of internal accountability.

“It takes time,” Dunn said. “It's tough when there's so many talented players . … A lot of high talent who can score at any given moment. Get 20 at any given moment."

"You gotta find the balance."

Dunn plays the position most would define as one of leadership, and Hoiberg wants him to be more vocal.

Markkanen has the higher ceiling but is less likely to be vocal given his personality, and down the line will have the greatest mismatch for Hoiberg’s offense to exploit.

LaVine is the most accomplished of the three and will be rewarded with a long-term contract this summer, while also having an offseason when he won’t have to rehab.

He's also been waiting for his voice to carry considerable weight. Having played with No. 1 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, he admitted to being vocal but stopping himself given his lack of pedigree.

“In Minnesota I was a vocal guy, but I was just in a different role,” LaVine said. "But coming into this situation, I didn't play half the year. It's tough to do that. I'm not the type of dude to come in and control things. So I gotta let my play and my work speak for itself.”

Each player will eventually have the opportunity to make his case — on the court and off — to lead the Bulls.

“The season's too far ahead,” LaVine said. “We'll figure this (stuff) out in the summer. It comes out. I'm a very likable guy, but you can change your entire personality on the court.”

Conflict is coming, but hopefully it'll be constructive.

“It's gonna come,” Dunn said. “It comes. I've been on plenty of teams like this. It comes. We're young. We're not trying to step on each other's toes but eventually it will come.”

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