Lauri Markkanen is growing up.
Though he just turned 21 years old in May, he couldn’t be more different from the rookie who sat at the Advocate Center podium with Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the Bulls front office on June 27, 2017. Between that time and now the Finnish forward added 16 pounds of muscle, became a father, and most recently took an active stance through his social media channels on the dangers of global warming.
He also suffered his first long-term injury. Markkanen said last week in practice that sitting on the sidelines, as it so often does for injured players, gave him a different perspective on the game and how he’d eventually be able to help when he returned to the court.
In the smaller sense, that time has come. Markkanen is set to make his season debut Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, nine weeks and two days after suffering an elbow sprain on Sept. 28.
In a larger sense, another time has come. The Bulls are only in Year 2 of their rebuild, and their core has still only played 12 games together due to myriad injuries. Pieces will be added, and even more will be subtracted. There’s plenty of time to iron out the details of who will be around when the Bulls are again playing in May, and potentially June.
But at its very core, the fate of the Bulls’ rebuild, whether it succeeds and makes them contenders or has them mired in NBA purgatory, will fall on the shoulders of the 21-year-old Finnish forward.
He won’t be asked to do it alone. He isn’t LeBron James and this roster isn’t the 2006-2007 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Zach LaVine looks to be worth every bit of the four-year, $78 million contract he signed in July and will grow either into the Bulls’ primary scorer or secondary scorer behind Markkanen.
Wendell Carter Jr., who we wrote about in June as being the perfect complement to Markkanen, is entirely capable of being the defensive foundation every competing team needs. Any offense he can add, whether he becomes a rim runner like Clint Capela or is able to create on his own like a Jusuf Nurkic, will be an added bonus.
Questions remain on Kris Dunn – is he a starter or Marcus Smart 2.0? – and Bobby Portis – how much can the Bulls play a backup forward? It’s too early to tell what Chandler Hutchison will provide, but the Bulls have four years of a rookie scale contract to find out.
They’ll also add pieces in the coming drafts. Though they currently own the NBA’s third worst record, getting Markkanen, Dunn and Portis back will push them closer toward the No. 7 spot they’ve been the last two seasons than the top-3. Remember, they won’t be actively tanking like they were a year ago when Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne each averaged 23 minutes per game after the All-Star break.
But it’s not suddenly time to start expecting wins and playoff appearances simply because Markkanen is back in the fold. Even when they’re back to full-strength with Dunn and Portis, this is a team ranked dead last in offensive efficiency and whose five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 31-80; none are above .500. Basketball Reference has the Bulls’ 2019 playoff chances at 0.1 percent, and even that seems high.
Remember, the Bulls’ rebuild is exactly where it’s supposed to be 527 days after trading Butler.
Where it goes from here will be in large part up to Markkanen.
He is today’s NBA. Pardon the clichés and basketball buzzwords, but they all fit. The versatility Markkanen will provide for Fred Hoiberg’s (or [insert your future head coach preference here]’s) offense will be unlike any other player’s in the league.
When he takes the floor Saturday in Houston he’ll be the 39th 7-footer to play in a game this season, per Basketball Reference’s database. Just one of those 38 players, Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, has averaged more than the 2.1 3-pointers Markkanen made as a rookie. Markkanen's numbers will only improve as he continues to progress. In a league that is making and taking more 3-pointers than ever before, the Bulls have one of the most unique shooters in the game. And he’s 21 years old
The 16 pounds of muscle he added – and it was legitimate gain, not just a #MuscleWatch storyline over the summer – should do wonders for his interior game, where he struggled as a rookie playing at 225 pounds. He’s now closer to 240 and the difference is noticeable. And as the famous Al McGuire once said: “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” The baby face and peach fuzz facial hair appear to be here for the short-term, but from the neck down he's transforming before our eyes.
It’ll take time, but Markkanen will be able to score from anywhere on the floor. He’s that talented and is transforming a body to complement it. That goes for the defensive end, too, where Markkanen was better than advertised in terms of footwork and IQ, but found himself overmatched more often than not. That won’t be the case going forward, and Carter’s presence will only help.
He’ll also have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster. We’ve seen the toll LaVine’s numbers have taken being the only real trusted scorer; he’s third in the NBA in usage and shot 39 percent (and 25 percent from deep) in November.
And though Carter was outstanding playing with LaVine in pick and roll action in Friday’s loss to the Pistons, the aforementioned versatility Markkanen will bring will put Carter closer to the basket where he’s most effective as an offensive rebounder. Markkanen makes everyone around him better simply by being on the floor.
It’s asking a lot. There’s no denying that. But such is life in the NBA, where superstars win. Never say never, but the Bulls probably aren’t nabbing a Grade-A free agent in the coming summers. That puts the onus on Markkanen – with LaVine, Carter and whomever else around him – to make the rebuild work.
It’s tough to see the Bulls succeeding if Markkanen isn’t a major – if not the major – part of it.
The good news is Markkanen appears to be on the right track. It may not fully happen this year, and patience will be required, but everything is there for Markkanen to take the reins and lead the Bulls into the next phase of their rebuild.