NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.
How last year went
Expectations were high for Lauri Markkanen after a stellar rookie season landed him on the NBA’s All-Rookie Team, a star-studded group that also included Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma. With a healthy Zach LaVine as a scoring sidekick and Wendell Carter helping him defend inside, the pieces were there for Markkanen to break out as a sophomore.
It didn’t exactly happen. It was a season of bookends for the 21-year-old Finnish forward. Two significant injuries – an elbow sprain and a rapid heart rate/fatigue – book-ended an otherwise productive 52-game campaign. Within the games he played, a solid December/January and inefficient March book-ended a February in which he was one of the game’s best players.
Markkanen showed off an even more versatile skill set, looked comfortable in high-leverage situations and showed increased passion and energy. Those are more than just buzz words; it was a sign of maturation and comfort that, if it continues into Year 3, could allow him to blossom as a legitimate star. It's also worth noting that in between his two injuries/illnesses, he didn't miss a single game.
Expectations for this year’s role
It’s likely Zach LaVine leads the Bulls in scoring for a second consecutive season, but Markkanen will be expected to be the team’s best player. It’s a tall order for a player who won’t turn 23 years old until after the season ends, but the NBA doesn’t wait around for rebuilds. The Bulls have won 49 games in two seasons and need the best efforts from their best players. That’s Markkanen, who will start at power forward and log 30+ minutes a night. He could see time at center thanks to the addition of Thaddeus Young and an offseason in which he appeared to have bulked up from a season ago.
Where he excels
Four players in NBA have history have made 2.0 or more 3-pointers per game in each of their first two NBA seasons: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Lauri Markkanen (Luka Doncic has a chance to join the list this season). It’s certainly a skewed statistic because of the uptick in 3-pointers over the last handful of seasons but it really puts into context how incredible Markkanen’s first two seasons have been. 2.0+ triples in Year 1 or 2 has only been done 35 times in NBA history, and Markkanen has two of the instances – and he's the only 7-footer on the list.
Markkanen is much more than a spot-up 3-point shooter, but it's his most important NBA trait. The Bulls want to run and push the pace this season - they draft ultra-quick Coby White and signed Tomas Satoransky, who ran the NBA's ninth-fastest offense - and, if their assistant coach hirings are any indication, shoot more 3-pointers. That's excellent news for Markkanen, who has made 36.2% of his triples through two seasons (including one in which he missed 10 weeks with a sprained shooting elbow).
Markkanen isn't a world-class defender (more on that later) but he's proving to be an outstanding rebounder. Part of this is scheme: From Dec. 1 on, Robin Lopez and Wendell Carter Jr. ranked 15th and 6th in box-outs per game. The strategy was to get the ball in Markkanen's hand to push the pace. Jim Boylen said as much late in the season. But Markkanen's rebounding numbers are still impressive. He converted 68.4% of his rebound chances last season, the highest mark in the NBA. The forwards below him? Aaron Gordon (65.8%), Giannis Antetokounmpo (65.0%) and Kevin Durant (65.0%). The best centers on the list? DeAndre Jordan (64.3%) and Andre Drummond (64.2%).
Rebounds per game is a rather antiquated stat - and rebound differential should never be used - but Markkanen's rebounding will be critical for a Bulls team that grabbed 48.3% of all available rebounds, 27th in the NBA. Even if Markkanen never becomes a lockdown defender, his commitment to the glass will make him a positive contributor. That matters.
Then there's The Lauri. At least, that's what Markkanen hopes his slow drag step leaner in the paint is one day called. Markkanen averaged 6.0 drives per game last season. Markkanen is also 7-feet tall. Those drives were the most by a 7-footer since the NBA began tracking them in 2013. The next closest was Joel Embiid's 4.8 drives last season. Markkanen's efficiency around the rim needs work - more on that in the next subhead - but the fact that he has such a skill set makes him a true unicorn. His offensive skill set is untapped.
Where he needs work
Lauri Markkanen shot 56.8% from inside 5 feet this season. That's the exact same percentage that Ryan Arcidiacono shot from inside 5 feet this season. Markkanen was one of five 7-footers to shoot below 50% from inside the 3-point line last season. His shot distribution has been fine: Per Basketball-Reference, 23.4% of his career attempts have come from inside 3 feet. That's a smaller percentage than some other bigs (Kevin Love: 29.1%, Karl Towns: 34.1%, Joel Embiid: 32.1%) but 44.2% of his shots have been 3-pointers, a much higher percentage than any of those players.
Markkanen doesn't need to be Love, Embiid or Towns around the rim. In fact, he won't be. But for a forward who drives as often as Markkanen does (more on those later) and is going to log a high usage rate, he needs to convert the easy ones. It could be the difference between a 19-point season and a 24-point season.
Whether the Bulls ever admit it or not, Wendell Carter was drafted for Markkanen. The Duke product has all the makings of a foundational piece for the Bulls defense and someone who can cover up Markkanen's weaknesses on that end of the floor. Even the addition of Otto Porter should make Markkanen a better defender by association. On-Off splits with the 2019 Bulls are just about impossible to analyze given how ugly the lineups were, but the Bulls were a better defensive team with Markkanen off the floor last season.
He has a career 1.0% steal percentage and 1.7% block percentage. Markkanen isn't overly athletic (think pre-ACL tear Kristaps Porzingis) but he moves well for his size and has good instincts. The reality is he probably should be a better defender, or at least have more of an impact on that end of the floor. Perhaps that changes under Boylen and with Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt as a mentor. Markkanen was 29th among power forwards in Defensive RPM and had 29 games without a block compared to 23 with a block last season. There's room to improve. The good news, of course, is that he's 22.
Best case/worst case
In a perfect world, Markkanen uses a healthy offseason and training camp to transform from nice shooter and rim attacker to versatile scorer and playmaker at all three levels. A full offseason with Jim Boylen – the head coach flew to Finland to spend time with Markkanen this summer – as well as big man assistant Roy Rogers and shooting coach Chris Fleming should have Markkaken in prime position to succeed. He lost most of the offseason muscle he put on after suffering the elbow sprain, but all indications are that he’s taken his offseason program seriously yet again. That added strength will give Markkanen a chance to see some minutes at center, thus giving the Bulls plenty more options on how to deploy their 2-3-4.
That added strength and comfort should improve Markkanen’s efficiency. He shot below 48% from inside the arc last season and hasn’t topped 50% in either of his two seasons. Though his drag step is an exciting work in progress and his free throw attempts improved from his rookie campaign, Markkanen still needs some more touch around the rim. An even more NBA-ready body should help him improve on some of those around-the-rim numbers. It’s also a near certainty that Markkanen will improve on his 3-point percentage in Year 3.
All those factors considered, Markkanen has All-Star potential as early as this season. It’s admittedly a long shot – the last players 22 or younger in Year 3 to make the All-Star Game were Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and Paul George – but the opportunity to post monster numbers is there. If the Bulls hover around .500 and Markkanen is healthy, he’ll get a look.
Speaking of health, it’s Markkanen’s worst-case scenario this upcoming season. He has already missed 43 games, and his setbacks – back spasms, shooting elbow sprain, rapid heart rate – have all been significant. It’s too early to label Markkanen injury-prone, but 7-footers are certainly more susceptible. If he plays 75+ games, the sky’s the limit.
One key stat
If Markkanen’s calling card is going to be versatility, it needs to include creating for others. Markkanen averaged 46.0 passes and 1.5 assists per game last season. To put that in context, 59 players averaged 40 or more passes per game last season, and Markkanen’s 3.2 assist-to-pass percentage (1.5/46.0) was second-lowest, behind only Houston’s Clint Capela. Given that Capela played in the most 3-point friendly offense in NBA history, Markkanen was last in points created off those 1.5 assists (3.7) among qualifiers.
Big men, of course, litter the bottom of this particular list (14 of the 18 players under 8.0% were bigs). Inbounds passes, passes off defensive rebounds and handoffs in halfcourt sets all make it more difficult to improve on bigs’ passing ratios. But consider that Markkanen was also last among 70 players as a rookie – 1.2 assists on 55.0 passes, a 2.1% clip – and it’s clearly something that needs improving. His potential assists weren’t better (70th of 70 as a rookie; 58th of 59 last season) so it’s not as if his assist numbers would have been all that much better with more talent around him.
Markkanen’s 2.9% assist percentage was also 94th of 94 players who averaged 6.0 drives per game. On one hand it’s a boon to have your 7-footer attempting six drives every night – Joel Embiid was the only other 7-footer to average even 4.0 drives per game. But if he’s going to use valuable possessions, there needs to be some versatility there. His pass percentage was 21.1%, fourth lowest of those 94 players, so – again – it’s not as if Markkanen is making passes and not being rewarded for them.
Fifty-one players had a usage rate higher than 24% and played in 50 or more games. Markkanen’s turnover percentage of 8.2% was 11th best among those players - his 7.0% assist percentage was also lowest among the 51 players, for more proof of his paltry passing numbers.
He isn’t a bad passer. He’s shown an ability to find open cutters and was particularly good in transition. Part of Markkanen’s growth will be taking more chances and finding more opportunities. The Bulls are fine if one more turnover trying to force the issue leads to three more assists and easy buckets for his teammates. Opponents will continue gravitating toward Markkaken; he’s got the height, length, and IQ to make them pay. Good players score. Great players create for themselves and others, too.