Bulls Insider

Markkanen's aggressive play a revelation for Bulls

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Bulls Insider

Coby White sees it.

“His aggression,” White said, when asked what is behind Lauri Markkanen’s resurgence. “He’s not just picking and popping. He’s putting the ball on the floor, getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line, getting ‘and-ones,’ creating for others, getting downhill.”

Is that all?

The box score from the Bulls’ 110-102 victory over the Knicks Monday night shows that only two of Markkanen’s 30 points came from the free-throw line. But they followed one of the more aggressive drives you’ll see from the mild-mannered Finn.

There also was a ferocious dunk attempt that Nerlens Noel blocked and a drag-step, one-legged bank shot he knocked down following another attack. The six 3-pointers in his second straight 30-point game -- and second straight game in which he posted a 23-point half -- didn’t look too shabby, either.

Yes, there’s a lot to like from Markkanen right now.

“When Lauri is aggressive, he can’t be stopped,” White said. “Last year, I think a lot of people gave up, except his teammates. I think he took it as a lot of people doubting (him) and this year, (he’s) going to prove that (he’s) still Lauri Markkanen from (his) first two years.”

You remember that guy, the one that drew favorable comps to Boston Celtics’ star Jayson Tatum in hypothetical 2017 redraft conversations. Such talk disappeared completely last season, one in which Markkanen labored through injury, inconsistency and ineffectiveness attached to usage questions.

 

But after a strong start to a season that got derailed by a trip to the league’s health and safety protocols, Markkanen has caught fire in his last eight games since returning. He’s averaging 22.1 points and 6.1 rebounds with shooting splits of 52.4 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 90.9 percent from the line.

“Getting good looks. My teammates are doing a good job,” Markkanen said. “I’m trying to be active, just being off-the-ball active too. Giving myself up on a cut that might get someone else an open shot if I just go to the hoop hard even when I don’t have the ball.”

Markkanen joked afterward that he has to attack the rim hard on his dunk attempts because he “can’t jump that high.” But anyone who has seen highlights of him trying dunk-contest-ready attempts in layup lines or after practice knows that’s not true.

What’s also unassailable is how important an aggressive Markkanen is to the Bulls’ fortunes.

“He can dribble. He can rebound. He can spread the floor like a guard,” Zach LaVine said. “And on the defensive end, he can guard different positions and play through the post. So he brings a lot of different things to the game where when he's clicking, it's gonna be tough to guard us.”

The arrival of Billy Donovan can’t be overlooked or overstated. The coach not only has placed Markkanen in positions to succeed -- even complimenting his physical defense on Julius Randle on Monday -- but given him confidence to take advantage of those positions.

“I think he’s probably heard, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to get more physical. You’ve got to drive the ball more. You’ve got to play with contact. You’re going to have to get in there and rebound,’” Donovan said. “He’s capable of doing it. And I think he’s basically trying to carve out an identity for himself offensively.

“But since I’ve been with him, I haven’t seen any of that. He’s been great from Day One. He’s been both feet in, very aggressive, trying to drive it, being physical.

“We’ve tried to put him in some pick-and-rolls. I’d probably like to do a little bit more with that. He’s done pretty good there. I think he’s posted up maybe a little bit more. He’s getting some 3s. He’s shot-faking and driving. He’s making some extra passes and getting guys shots. So I think he’s played really, really well, and he’s played very efficiently.”

And at an opportune time, too. It’s well documented by now how badly Markkanen wanted to sign an extension of his rookie contract before the season. When it didn’t happen -- and the two sides weren’t close -- Markkanen was privately disappointed.

But as a restricted free agent this offseason, he's channeled that disappointment into a positive.

“With Lauri it's all about confidence,” LaVine said. “We all understand his situation. He's going out there proving what he's worth. And we like that chip on his shoulder.

 

“I've been with him through the ups and downs, and we all have ups and downs. But we're here supporting him and how aggressively he took the challenge. We need that from him.”

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