What a difference four months can make.
As training camp wound up for the 2020-21 NBA season, Coby White was preparing for his first season as the Bulls' starting point guard, long professed as a career aspiration. Lauri Markkanen and his camp were embroiled in negotiations to extend his rookie contract, which ultimately didn't come to fruition before the Dec. 22 deadline, setting up a prove-it fourth year for the forward once viewed as a cornerstone.
Now, both are coming off the bench. White took a backseat to Tomáš Satoranský -- who happily ceded him that starting spot in the offseason -- 13 games ago, while Markkanen has seen his role diminished with the acquisition of Nikola Vučević.
"They’re probably not going to be featured guys, just calling it like it is," head coach Billy Donovan said of White and Markkanen after Tuesday's 113-97 win over the Indiana Pacers. "But they’re very important pieces to our team, and we need them to play at a high level."
Though White came off the bench of most of his rookie year, that's a bit of a jarring omission about the former seventh overall draft selections -- two of only three draft picks of the previous front office regime left on the roster (along with Denzel Valentine) after the trade deadline saw Wendell Carter Jr., Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison leave town.
But it's also a candid one. Markkanen and White showed flashes, but struggled for consistency, when tasked with heavy burdens creating for themselves and others offensively. But both thrived in the Pacers win hunting shots and opportunities to contribute in the flow of the offense, rather than as initiators of it.
Markkanen nailed three of his four 3-point attempts en route to 15 points, and also snared six rebounds and blocked a shot in 22 minutes. After uncharacteristically bouncing in and out of the lineup over the past week, White posted his highest assist total since Feb. 24 with six and scored 13 points in 31 minutes. Both were instrumental to runs in the second and fourth quarters that helped the Bulls gain, and maintain, a stranglehold on the game.
"With those two guys, it’s ‘Just make good basketball plays,’" Donovan said. "It’s got to be a situation for both those two guys where they’re getting it offensively off of what we’re doing, and I think tonight they were able to do that.
"The ball found Lauri a couple of times on some cuts. It found him at the 3-point line. We posted him one time. He had a couple of good rim protections. Coby got out in transition. He got off pick-and-roll. He made a couple of 3s. The ball found him in a couple of situations. He had some good drives downhill. But I though they played within the framework of what we were trying to do. And I think that’s the growth of those two guys."
None of this, Donovan stressed, means there won't be moments where Markkanen and White are focal points. But it's a product of the team's shift to more post ups (an action that is most effective when surrounded by off-ball movement) and an overhauled roster that has more veteran talent post-trade deadline than it did beforehand, including a hub in Vučević.
For Markkanen, the playing-time casualty is more dire. Restricted free agency looms, and after a torrid-shooting start to the season, he's averaging less than 25 minutes per game since sliding to his reserve role. When Daniel Theis is in the rotation (he missed the Pacers game due to personal reasons), Donovan has deployed Markkanen at backup small forward -- hardly a position suited to his strengths, as evidenced by his breakout when returned to his more conventional frontcourt station against a shorthanded Pacers team.
Still, Donovan has continually praised White and Markkanen's demeanors during the transition. If the Pacers game is a harbinger of things to come, their scoring talent could give the Bulls a rare wrinkle off the bench for the stretch run of the season.
"They’ve been really good team guys," Donovan said. "They’re trying to do everything we’re asking them to do to put ourselves in position to win. But those two guys are important pieces for our team. If we can get those two guys to play the way they both did [against the Pacers], that’d be great."