Bulls

As he returns to the floor, Lauri Markkanen takes his place as most important piece of Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

As he returns to the floor, Lauri Markkanen takes his place as most important piece of Bulls rebuild

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.

Wendell Carter's begins rehab with positive outlook: 'I'm just looking at the long-term now'

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USA TODAY

Wendell Carter's begins rehab with positive outlook: 'I'm just looking at the long-term now'

When Wendell Carter Jr. tripped over Tyson Chandler early in the Bulls’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last week, he didn’t think much of his jammed left thumb. He had some soreness but wasn’t in much pain despite the thumb swelling. In fact, he was planning on playing Saturday after sitting out Thursday’s game as a precaution.

That’s when the roller coaster began. The Bulls reportedly had internal fear that Carter’s injury was significant, but a second scan showed that the ligament in his thumb was actually intact. But Carter saw a hand specialist back in Chicago and it was revealed that surgery was the best scenario. Both Joakim Noah (2010) and Kirk Hinrich (2008) had the same surgery.

“So many people have had this injury and they don’t get it taken care of and bones are coming out of their socket very easily,” Carter said. “I just wanted to eliminate all that. If I was to get in a cast and come back and the tendon didn’t come back out, then I’d have to wait another eight weeks and get the surgery. So I just went ahead and knocked it out to get it out of the way.

"It's all good. I'm just looking at the long-term now."

Carter underwent the season-ending surgery on Monday. He’ll be in a cast for 10 days and begin rehab on the thumb while wearing a splint. Though Carter never explicitly stated his rookie season is over, the Bulls have 11 weeks remaining in the regular season and will be in no rush to bring back their 19-year-old foundation piece.

Carter’s rookie season was typical but one that featured more good than bad. It took him just a few days to supplant Robin Lopez as the team’s starting center, a position he didn’t relinquish despite being one of the league’s youngest players. He averaged 10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 25.2 minutes.

He played multiple roles in his 44-game rookie season, acting as a third scorer and at times an initiator in the high post while Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn were sidelined early in the season. As the Bulls regained their health Carter was able to focus more defensively and work around the rim.

"That was something I always worked for ever since I was a kid, to be able to get to the NBA. Not just get here but also be a star in this league," Carter said. "Those games show the potential I have in this league."

Jim Boylen applauded Carter’s maturity in his rookie season and how he was able to bounce back from bad quarters by not letting it affect the rest of his game. His hard-nosed defensive principles certainly played to what Boylen looks for in a foundation, and Boylen was pleased with how Carter improved his shooting and decision making in the pain.

“I think he had a great learning curve in those 44 games and he’ll keep learning as he’s watching, things will make more sense to him now while he’s watching. And it’s not ideal but it is what it is.”

Carter will soak in as much as he can the rest of the season while he rehabs the thumb, and it’s Boylen’s hope that he’ll travel with and be around the team during the final weeks of the season.

“I like guys being around. (Denzel) Valentine’s been with us. I love Wendell’s spirit around this group. He’s got a great kind of swag to him and energy level to him, he likes being around the team so yeah I hope so.”

Wendell Carter Jr. endorses Zion Williamson as NBA Draft's top pick: 'No doubt about it'

Wendell Carter Jr. endorses Zion Williamson as NBA Draft's top pick: 'No doubt about it'

Wendell Carter knows a thing or two about elite Duke prospects. So it isn’t surprising that he, too, has become enamored with freshman sensation Zion Williamson. He also believes, like many others, that the latest in the line of five-star Blue Devils should be the first player called in June’s draft.

“He’s a for sure No. 1 draft pick. No doubt about it,” said Carter, who spoke with the media for the first time Tuesday after undergoing surgery on his left thumb. “I don’t understand how anybody can pass up his athleticism, his potential.”

Carter isn’t far off in his assessment. Williamson, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward, has taken college basketball by storm in his first season in Durham. He’s averaging 21.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 2.0 steals per game and is a nightly feature on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays for his gravity-defying dunks.

He’s arguably the best pro prospect since Anthony Davis in 2012, and he’s as unique a combination of size, strength and skill as the league has seen since LeBron James in 2003. Though his teammate, wing R.J. Barrett, has also solidified himself as a top 2 or 3 pick, there really isn’t anyone in the same ballpark as Williamson.

So it’s not just Carter showing a bias toward his Duke alums. Carter has never shared the floor with Williamson despite being just a year older than him, though he has seen the freshman play. Williamson also attended a Duke game last season where Carter and teammate Marvin Bagley were working toward solidifying themselves as top-10 picks.

Carter hasn’t played with Williamson, but maybe that’ll change in a few months. Even with Monday’s win over the Cavaliers the Bulls still sit at 11-36, the fourth worst record in the league and within shouting distance of Phoenix (11-37), New York (10-35) and Cleveland (9-39). The league’s three worst teams also hold the same 14 percent chance of winning the Lottery while the team with the fourth (12.5%) and fifth (10.5%) worst records hold slightly lower odds.

Whoever gets lucky on May 14 will have the right to draft Williamson, who Carter certainly has bought in on.

“That’s a freak of nature, a once-in-a-generation type player. I believe he’ll be No. 1.”