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.

Markelle Fultz's contract option reminds Bulls fans of '17 draft night luck

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USA TODAY

Markelle Fultz's contract option reminds Bulls fans of '17 draft night luck

The 2017 NBA Draft class has started to show their true colors three seasons into their respective careers and we have a good idea of where each player stands with their franchise. The Orlando Magic have made a decent-sized commitment to 2017 No.  1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, exercising their fourth-year team option on the 21-year old guard. This keeps him under contract for the 2020-21 season for $12.3 million.

Bulls star forward Lauri Markkanen, drafted No. 7 overall in 2017, will likely have a decision made soon on his fourth-year option ($6.7 million), but his position with the Bulls was never in doubt, however, what the move by Orlando did was again bring to the forefront how impressive Markkanen has been as compared to the rest of the 2017 NBA Draft class.

Among the top 10 picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, Markkanen is second in win shares (6.1) to only No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum (12.0).

Markkanen was not a household name coming off of his lone year at Arizona and had the reputation of a floor-spacer who brought little else to the floor in terms of value, he quickly dispelled those notions, going on a historic tear that resulted in one of the best rookie campaigns in Bulls history.

He was the first Bulls rookie since Elton Brand to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds in a season, and before Markkanen none of the 107 players to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds had made 110 or more 3-pointers in their respective rookie seasons.

Unlike Fultz, who suffered to find his footing with a playoff-bound Sixers team and has yet to play for his latest team in Orlando, Markkanen's career was aided by the fact that the Bulls were thin on frontcourt depth right at the start of the 2017-18 season. Markkanen has not looked back since given an opportunity to be the Bulls starting power forward and has averaged 16.7 points and 8.2 rebounds for his career while shooting 36.2 percent from the 3-point line. 

Markkanen has become better in every aspect of his game and will need a similar sort of leap if the Bulls hope to turn things around in 2020. The Magic reaffirming their belief in Fultz is in no way shocking, but it should serve as a reminder to Bulls fans that the franchise made out quite well by selecting the Finnish big man back in 2017 amid the uncertainty surrounding the post-Jimmy Butler Bulls.

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Zach LaVine excited for Year 2 of Wendell Carter Jr. after injury limited his rookie season

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Zach LaVine excited for Year 2 of Wendell Carter Jr. after injury limited his rookie season

Zach LaVine is one of the faces of the Bulls and also isn’t shy about sharing his opinion.

LaVine did the rounds for a number of interviews for a promotion with CarMax and dished on several things Bulls related. One of the eye-catching quotes in an interview with FanSided was about Wendell Carter Jr.

“He was starting to get into a groove when he got injured man, that’s one of the worst things in all of sports,” LaVine said of Carter. ”He’s been in the gym working all year. He has great defensive intangibles as a rookie, especially for a big guy as a rookie. I feel like it’s always tougher for them, but he’s shown different little flashes to where he’s seemed above his experience level, so I’m really excited for him.”

LaVine himself has gone through a solid year-by-year progression in his career, with the exception of his injury-limited first season with the Bulls in 2017-18. If he thinks Carter can make the same type of progress, the Bulls will have a solid player soon enough.

Carter averaged 10.3 points and 7 rebounds per game before missing the second half of the season due to injury in mid-January. LaVine noted Carter’s defense, which was what impressed people most about Carter as a rookie. The next step will be improving his offensive game.

Carter is fully expected to start at center, especially considering he started all 44 games he played in as a rookie. Robin Lopez is gone, but Luke Kornet and rookie Daniel Gafford have joined Cristiano Felicio on the big man depth chart for the Bulls.

For more on Carter, check out our player preview for him as we lead up to the start of the Bulls season.