When the Bulls made the draft night trade with Minnesota last June, it was obvious to everyone that Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen would be the foundation pieces in the rebuild.
Fast forward 9 months later, and we still don't know how well the three players will function together in the Bulls starting lineup. Because of LaVine's knee rehab and Dunn's mid-season concussion, the three have only been together for nine of the 63 games, and the early returns aren't all that great.
Here's a look at the numbers LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen have put up in those nine games, courtesy of our Chris Kamka.
LaVine Dunn Markkanen
MPG 27.3 29.3 30.3
PPG 14.8 10.9 11.9
FG% .370 .349 .402
3P% .357 .259 .364
RPG 2.8 4.4 7.2
APG 3.6 5.1 1.1
Granted, it's a very small sample size and the three young players will only improve as they get more minutes together. But clearly, something has to change in how they function in the half court offense, because their individual numbers are all better when they haven't played together, which covers a much larger sample size of 54 games.
LaVine Dunn Markkanen
GP 10 38 48
MPG 27 29.5 30.4
PPG 18.8 13.9 15.4
FG% .405 .439 .430
3P% .377 .344 .348
RPG 5.3 4.5 7.7
APG 2.6 6.2 1.2
Clearly, the final 19 games of the regular season will be about building chemistry and on-court efficiency with the Bulls new "Big 3." Leadership has also been an issue for one of the NBA's youngest teams since Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday were taken out of the starting lineup.
Dunn acknowledged that's an area he needs to improve on after Monday's 105-89 loss to Boston.
"I've got to be the leader of the group because I play the point guard position. It's my job to get everybody in the right position," he said. "It's my job to make sure everybody's competing and playing hard each and every minute on the floor. These next games, I'm definitely going to pick it up from there.''
Dunn has made great strides in just about every other area during his second NBA season. He's shown a better than expected outside shooting touch and has the ability to get to the rim with excellent quickness and strength. Defensively, Dunn already ranks among the best point guards in the league, ranking fourth in steals with just under two per game. Now, it's a question of getting a better feel where LaVine and Markkanen are most comfortable getting the ball in the Bulls' offensive sets.
LaVine is still trying to find his rhythm after missing nearly 11 months of game competition because of the ACL injury he suffered last February playing for the Timberwolves. The 4th year pro is averaging nearly 17 points a game, but he's only shooting 39 percent from the field, below his career average of nearly 44 percent. Still, LaVine is right near his career norm of 38 percent from the 3-point line, and he's getting to the free throw line more than he did in Minnesota (4.3 attempts per game vs. 2.7 with Timberwolves.)
Even though LaVine is well known around the league because of his two Slam Dunk Contest wins, he won't turn 23 until Saturday and has a lot of room for growth in the coming years. Right now, he often gets caught in between on his isolation moves and defenses are forcing him to settle for long jumpers. That should change next season as LaVine gets further removed from knee surgery and sheds any reluctance to make all-out attacks on opposing defenders. LaVine has already talked about looking forward to a full summer of working on his game without the burden of injury rehab.
Similarly, the sky's the limit for the 20-year-old Markkanen, who has an exceptionally versatile offense skill set for a 7-footer. Markkanen has conceded he's been battling the rookie wall lately, and he's also had a major lifestyle change with his wife giving birth to the couple's first child last month. Markkanen's shooting percentage has dropped to 43 percent and his 3-point percentage is now 35 percent after an ice cold February, but the last thing anyone's worried about is his ability to shoot the ball with range.
Markkanen has already proved to be a better rebounder and defender than some scouts initially believed and his work ethic will make him an even more dangerous scorer as he gets stronger and learns how to take advantage of switches against smaller defenders in the post. In some games, Markkanen will go through long stretches without getting many shot attempts, and as the Bulls continue to develop, it will be up to Dunn and the team's other perimeter players to make sure they're getting the ball to their biggest match-up advantage.
Fred Hoiberg and his staff will use the final 5 weeks of the season to figure out which plays work best for the 3 young core players and you can bet Hoiberg will spend the summer fine-tuning his offense to make sure Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn are playing with greater efficiency and production when the ball goes up in the air for the 2018-19 season.
NBA DRAFT NOTES
In case you haven't noticed, the New Orleans Pelicans are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Led by Chicago native Anthony Davis and former Bulls Niko Mirotic, Rajon Rondo and E'Twaun Moore, the Pelicans have moved into a tie for 4th place in the West heading into games on March 6th. That means the draft pick the Bulls acquired in the Mirotic trade that the front office hoped would move into the late lottery after DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury is currently 24th.
Granted, the talent level of players in the early 20's isn't all that different from the prospects in the 13-19 range, but you'd always prefer to have the highest pick possible, especially given Mirotic's emergence as a key factor in the Pelicans' charge to the post-season.
So, who will be available in the early 20's? You can start with the Duke trio of Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen. I know from my twitter mentions that Bulls fans don't like Allen, but don't be shocked if the Bulls give him some serious consideration with the Pelicans' pick, especially given his experience as a 4 year college player.
If the Bulls take a perimeter player with their 1st selection, they could go for a project center with the pick acquired from New Orleans. That group includes UNLV's Brandon McCoy, Michigan's Moe Wagner, North Carolina State's Omer Yurtseven or high schooler Mitchell Robinson, although Robinson showed extremely well in a recent workout and could gain momentum as a late lottery pick as the draft process continues.
There's also a chance the Bulls could try to package their 2 first round picks in the hope of moving up a few slots to get a player they covet in the top 6. Right now two distinct tiers have begun to emerge. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mo Bamba make up the 1st tier, with the next group including the likes of Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Wendell Carter, Kevin Knox and Miles and Mikal Bridges.
Unless they get some help in the May 15th lottery, the Bulls are probably looking at the 8th or 9th pick, which means they would need some additional trade ammunition to get into the top 6 and land a player from the first tier. So, given the youth already on the roster, maybe packaging the two first rounders to get a defensive anchor like Bamba or a 6'10" small forward prospect like Porter Jr would be the ideal play.
Jackson Jr. is an intriguing prospect, but he hasn't been featured in the Michigan State offense, taking less than 10 shots per game and averaging a modest 11.3 points, which ranks 5th on the team. The 6-11 power forward is quick off his feet and led the Big Ten in blocked shots, while also showing an excellent touch from 3 point range.
What is Jackson's ceiling? At this point, scouts aren't sure. His shot-blocking ability and athleticism remind some of Kevin Garnett, but not many players can match Garnett's fiery and combative nature which helped make him great. Jackson might wind up being more like Serge Ibaka or perhaps a more athletic version of Bulls' big man Bobby Portis, who's having his best NBA season in year 3 of his pro career. So, when you're watching Michigan St. play in the NCAA tournament, keep an eye on Jackson and small forward Miles Bridges. Either player could find his way to Chicago next season.
We'll all have a better idea after the exact order is announced on May 15th, a date which is shaping up as the most important on the 2018 calendar for the Bulls fans and the front office.
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