The fresh start that Lauri Markkanen sought landed him in Cleveland, which visits the United Center on Tuesday to face the Chicago Bulls in both teams' exhibition opener.
In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago after the three-team trade that netted the Bulls Derrick Jones Jr. and a first- and second-round pick became official, Markkanen admitted how moving from franchise cornerstone to reserve weighed on him.
"The last couple years have been mentally pretty tough,” Markkanen said in late August. “I’ve grown as a person because of that so I wouldn’t change it. I’ve learned a lot. But I just felt like I need to get back to the old me and how I know I can play the game. I think this is a good opportunity for me to do that."
Bulls coach Billy Donovan consistently praised Markkanen throughout last season and didn't change his tune following Monday's practice at the Advocate Center.
"He and I, it felt like had a really good relationship, and we communicated quite a bit. And we communicated quite a bit after the season and exit interviews," Donovan said. "I think it was pretty clear from what he felt, and he felt like he needed a change. Why or what, he never really got into that with me. I personally felt---and I told him this---with the trades and everything that happened after free agency, that there would be a real important role for him here. But I think probably there were things he maybe didn’t want to get into with me that maybe transpired over the three years before that, maybe leading up to this.
"Certainly I think the team changed quite a bit from a year or two ago to where it is today. I’m sure that maybe between his agent, his family, they talked about those things. He never really got into it with me. I always felt like I thought he was really reliable in game-plan preparation, game-plan discipline, scouting. Like he knew what he was doing, and he followed it through. I thought he was a good team guy the way he tried to play. I think because of his talent level, everybody always wanted a little bit more. But I always felt like what he gave our team, I really valued it. I thought he did a good job, and I felt like he and I connected and communicated pretty well."
Early in the offseason, Donovan even broached the idea of visiting Markkanen in Finland, according to sources. But Markkanen stayed consistent in his desire to find a fresh start, intensifying his role in trying to achieve that as the offseason advanced without him finding a new home. At one point, Markkanen directly expressed his desire to play elsewhere to management, which isn't first nature for someone as soft-spoken and team-oriented as him.
"From my experience last year, I don’t think there was any question that when his rhythm got broken with that shoulder injury and missing all the first half of the season and then coming back and having four-to-six games to maybe try and get back into a rhythm and then the trade deadline happened, and our team changed, he never, ever got back," Donovan said of Markkanen's final season with the Bulls. "And I don’t think all of that was necessarily his fault.
"I think I mentioned we ended up playing bigger. He moved to the small forward spot. He went from getting 18 points [per game] to maybe eight or nine points. A lot changed for him, and I really respected the way he handled himself because we’re all trying to make the best of the situation."