There’s a video---that really should see the light of social media---from Jim Boylen’s July trip to visit Lauri Markkanen in his native Finland.
It’s of the Bulls’ coach and one of the faces of the franchise’s rebuild running off a dock and cannonballing into a pristine blue lake with a green forest in the background on a picture-postcard-type day.
That splash speaks to Boylen’s commitment to his players. The franchise is hoping its commitment to Markkanen produces a splash of a different kind---namely, ascension to the NBA’s elite.
The Bulls’ offseason moves were designed to add veteran leadership, solid play and toughness. It’s also clear the additions of solid and selfless players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky were made to clear the runway for Markkanen and Zach LaVine to take off.
The big splash of All-Star appearances would be as welcomed as a breath of clean Finnish air.
“I don’t take any pressure from that,” Markkanen told NBC Sports Chicago of the Bulls’ offseason moves. “Obviously, that gives you even more motivation to work on your game to get ready for the season. And I know that as long as I put the work in, I’ll be fine. It feels good to hear that. It gets me to do a couple extra reps of everything.”
Markkanen’s relaxed demeanor can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of an Alpha-dog gene. But it’s clear in talking to the third-year forward that he not only understands the responsibility the franchise is placing on him and LaVine, he embraces it.
“I’m not running from that,” Markkanen said. “I think I got stronger this offseason. Weight-wise, I’m not that much heavier. But I feel stronger even than last year.
“On the court, I worked on my defense and some new ways to affect the game offensively.”
During the 2018 offseason, Markkanen’s added bulk---particularly in some social media photos of bulging biceps---created great anticipation for his second season. Then, a serious right elbow injury suffered during the second practice of training camp delayed his debut until a Dec. 1 road loss in Houston.
Markkanen took some time to find his game conditioning and offensive rhythm. In February, he authored a well-documented dominant month, averaging 26.0 points and 12.2 rebounds on shooting of 48.6%, 34.8% from 3-point range and 92.3% from the free-throw line.
His season averages of 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds over 52 games tantalize for more. And the biceps are big again.
“I don’t know if they’re as big (as last offseason),” Markkanen said, smiling. “But the strength is there.”
That will lend itself to Markkanen playing some minutes at center, an offensive look Boylen has talked about using. Markkanen said that hasn’t happened much during the team’s informal September workouts but that he’s “comfortable” there.
He’s equally at peace with the roster.
“I think (management) did a really good job drafting and getting high character free agents. Everybody is coming along really well in our workouts,” Markkanen said. “I’ve played against Thad. He’s a really good player. He’s very physical. And what he really does is lead vocally. I’ve really enjoyed talking to him and working out with him.”
Satoransky has recently joined the workouts following his strong showing for Czech Republic at the FIBA World Cup.
So, is this a playoff team?
“That’s our goal,” Markkanen said. “Personally for me, just missing the playoffs and having such long offseasons, that’s a bummer. I would love to be in the playoffs. We’re just focused on improving every day.”
That includes Boylen, whose passion hasn’t waned despite flying to Europe to visit Markkanen and Satoransky, the Bahamas to spend time with LaVine and various other trips to get to know his players better.
“We had a really good time,” Markkanen said of Boylen’s trip to Finland. “We talked about not just basketball but life. It’s good for your player-coach relationship. For him to see where I grew up and meet my family was important.”
And about that video of coach and player jumping into the lake?
“It’s in my phone,” Markkanen said, smiling again.
For now, that’s where it will stay. But the Bulls are hoping for similar splashes starting soon.