Bulls

How Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen can bounce back after down third season

Bulls

NBC Sports Chicago is breaking down the 15 full-time players on the Bulls' roster. Next up is Lauri Markkanen.

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2019-20 Stats

14.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.5 APG | 42.5% FG, 34.4% FG, 82.4% FT | 20.9% USG

Contract Breakdown

Age: 23

July 2017: Signed 4-year, $20,389,668 rookie contract

2020-21: $6,731,508 | 2021-22: RFA (QO: $9,026,952)

(via Spotrac)

Strengths

Lauri Markkanen obviously took a step back in his third season. We’ve written about it enough. But let’s take a few moments to focus on the positives of his game, because there remain plenty.

Even after a down shooting season, the marksmanship he’s shown at his size — and age — is historic. Markkanen is one of five seven-foot-or-taller players in league history to shoot better than 35% from 3-point range (min. 100 3PA, 2 3PA/g) in his first three seasons, and did it on by far the most attempts. At age 23, he finds himself in the top 10 of 3-point attempts and makes in Bulls history. That’s obviously a product of his era as much as anything, but he’s a better-than-average threat in most every shooting context, nonetheless. At his position, that’s incredibly valuable.

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And he’s nimble with the ball in his hands, too. Jim Boylen was widely derided for hinting that Markkanen pound the defensive glass for more opportunities on the offensive end, but Lauri’s grab-and-go fastbreak ability is one of his more unique talents. When he’s on the move, his craftiness around the basket (do we have a name for his trademark one-legged, off-balance floater? The Lauri Lean?) and some sneaky playmaking ability shine. He’s a tremendously skilled, versatile offensive big. 

The first game of the season, when he posted season-highs in points (35), rebounds (17) and field goal attempts (25), still endures as the most sterling example of all of the above from 2019-20. That his jumper wasn’t falling in this game made it an all the more encouraging start:

Areas to Improve

The problem was, in a third season that began with high hopes, moments of that skill set flashing through were few and far between. Markkanen’s touches tanked (66.2 per game in 2018-19 to 45.3 in 2019-20), playing time fluctuated (his 29.8 minutes per game average is just a hair above his rookie year) and he struggled to find his comfort zone in the Bulls’ new offensive system — one that, on paper, once appeared perfectly suited to his talents. In practice, he spent too many nights an ancillary component. Markkanen posted career-lows across the board — except in 3-point volume, 53.6% of his shots were 3s — and was assisted on 73.3% of his baskets, a mark on par with more low-usage lob-catchers and spot-shooting role players than franchise cornerstones. A hot December was swallowed by otherwise inconsistent production.

The root of Markkanen’s regression lies in the eye of the beholder. If you believe the source of his struggles was a lack of intentionally spotlighting him in the team’s gameplan, or sporadic minutes, you’re not wrong. If you believe Markkanen could have been more assertive taking his destiny into his own hands, and that the blame for shooting slumps should fall primarily on the player, you’re not necessarily wrong there, either. Injuries — oblique (soreness) and ankle (sprain) issues, and a stress reaction in his pelvis that sidelined him 15 games — nagged him, as well; he’s appeared in 102 of 147 possible games in his last two seasons.

But the sanitation of his shot profile clearly sapped some of his offensive versatility, and his overall game suffered for it. Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate — once thought of as a strength — plunged from 35.1% (68th percentile) to 29.5% (52nd) between his second and third seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. He didn’t make strides as a perimeter or interior defender in a hyper-active defensive system that often left the Bulls’ bigs scrambling — of 48 players this season who defended more than five field goal attempts per game inside six feet (min. 30 games), Markkanen ranked 46th in defended field goal percentage (64.3%). Though a career-high 35% of his field goal attempts came at the rim on the other end in 2019-20, per Cleaning the Glass, his 63% conversion rate ranks in just the 29th percentile for his position. His 0.91 assist-to-turnover ratio equals Carmelo Anthony’s.

The hope is an extended offseason could serve as a much-needed recharge. If/when the Bulls next play, staying healthy, finding consistency shooting the ball, getting on the move on the offensive end, and rebounding are prime areas to watch for a Year 4 resurgence. Mixing up his shot profile a tad — or at least, how he’s getting his looks; e.g. he was used as a roll-man in pick-and-roll 0.8 possessions per game less in 2019-20 than 2018-19, and his drives dipped by nearly two per game — could help on a few of those fronts. The rest will follow.

Ceiling Projection

The sky can still be the limit for Markkanen. He’s just 23, after all, and bursting with promise, especially on the offensive end. Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis have always been popular comparisons, but thus far, it actually seems Markkanen is more agile than both when he’s humming — though he’ll likely never match Dirk’s shooting, nor Porzingis’ two-way presence around the basket.

Year 3 was a wakeup call, but it can also serve as a springboard for a bounceback, especially given the Bulls new front office regime’s stated focus on getting him back on the right track. Extension talks loom. In the East, All-Star potential still exists. His work is cut out for him.

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