It's one of the most pressing questions facing the Bulls' rebuild at present: What in the world happened to Lauri Markkanen?
After a second season that showed such promise, the 22-year-old Finnish forward has taken a step back in Year 3, averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8) while shooting just 42.5% from the field and 34.4% from 3-point range. In 50 games — he missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 24 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his pelvis — before the NBA suspended its season, he averaged just 0.1 more minutes than his rookie campaign.
Still, Markkanen's talent, tools and the potential he flashed in his first two seasons are too tantalizing to simply give up on — especially for a Bulls team that has invested so heavily in him. That makes finding the root of his struggles all the more important.
Over the course of a disappointing Bulls season, fans and media alike have flooded out of the woodwork to posit their own theories for the cause of Markkanen's regression. Former Bulls center and current Bulls radio color commentator for 670 The Score Bill Wennington added his opinion in a guest spot on a recent episode of SportsTalk Live:
I think we’ve (the Bulls) kind of limited Lauri a little bit in his skillset, what he can do, because we’re having him stand out just at the 3-point line, and that kinda takes away from his game just a little bit. And, hey, does he have to be more aggressive? Yes he does. Does he have to make a better effort rebounding, I’d like to see the rebounding come up. Yes he does.
But we also have to put him in positions to be successful as a player. Again, up until this season, everybody was loving Lauri. What’s changed? What’s different with his game now over the last two years where we thought, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got something good going on here.’
That critique points to the complexity of Markkanen's struggles. His spotty usage (he can't control his minutes) and meandering role in the team's offense can be in part attributed to the Bulls' schemes at times neglecting his strengths as a ballhandler and creator. But, as Wennington notes, Markkanen can do more to take his destiny into his own hands — the chasm between his second- and third-year rebounding numbers are an indicator of that, as is his deflated volume of shots.
"What Lauri is not right now is a strong, aggressive leader where he’s going to enforce his will upon other people. That’s not going to happen right now," Wennington said.
But that's not intended as to belittle Markkanen completely. Wennington, like many in the Bulls' organization and fanbase, believes things can turn back around.
"Can it get better? Yes it can. Do I want it to get better for Lauri? Yes I do," Wennington continued. "Lauri is a multi-faceted player that, as a 7-footer, can shoot 3s, and can put the ball on the floor and handle the basketball well for a 7-footer and can get to the rim."
So, how should the Bulls go about extracting Markkanen's maximum potential? Wennington drew on his experience with the Phil Jackson-era Bulls — an experience in which he earned three rings during the Bulls' second three-peat — to offer something of a solution.
"I like to use the analogy of me because I know me the best and I like talking about me more than anyone else," Wennington joked. "When I came to the Bulls, the triangle offense was run out of the center spot with Bill Cartwright as a center, or as a low-post passer. Phil Jackson integrated me into the triangle offense by using my jump-shooting ability. He tweaked the offense a little bit and made me run some screen-and-rolls from the outside and fade and pop a little bit, where he could take advantage of me hitting jump shots and spreading the floor a little bit."
Is Wennington suggesting the 2020-21 Bulls implement the triangle to assuage their offensive woes? Of course not. But with a bit of intentional gameplanning suited towards Markkanen's strengths, a dash better injury luck and a healthy dose of contract-year assertiveness, Markkanen could just be on his way to a bounceback in Year 4.