Billy Donovan opened the Bulls’ third preseason game with a designed play-call to free Lauri Markkanen for an open, above the break 3-pointer. It clanked, and a 4-for-15 shooting night ensued.
Friday, Markkanen scored the Bulls’ first points, but did so a tad more serendipitously. After tracking down a trickling offensive rebound on the Bulls’ first possession, he spun a handoff to Coby White into a quick pick-and-pop. White pounded two dribbles downhill, dragging both Lu Dort and Markkanen’s defender, Darius Bazley, into the lane, then snapped a hook pass back to the top of the key that hit Markkanen square in the numbers.
Set. Shoot. Splash.
That make ended up being a harbinger for Markkanen’s night. Three minutes later, he sprung off a Wendell Carter Jr. pindown screen and stroked his second 3 of the game. When he first checked out of the game roughly eight minutes into the first quarter, he had eight points, four rebounds and an assist to his name.
Two quarters later, he finished the night with 26 minutes played and 22 points scored on 9-for-17 shooting (4-for-10 from deep) with five rebounds and a block and assist apiece. The process wasn’t tremendously different from game three, when, despite his shooting woes, the intention to generate good looks off of drives was apparent.
But when the shots fall, everyone shines a little brighter.
“It feels good obviously to finally make a couple shots,” Markkanen said. “I think that's the level I can play every night, and that's where my expectations are.”
Markkanen’s confidence remains high that more nights like these than the second and third preseason games are ahead under Donovan. The Bulls’ new head coach has implemented a fresh offensive system in his first season with the team, predicated on cutting and ball and player movement that Markkanen sees himself as a fit for.
“I feel like it’s night and day from last year,” Markkanen said of his role. “Being in down-screens and being on the move the whole time… I’m really liking the offense so far. We just got to keep getting better at it.”
As Markkanen alludes to, when the minutes mattered, the Bulls’ team-wide returns left much to be desired on Friday. When Donovan retired his pseudo-seven-man rotation that included the starters plus Otto Porter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and dashes of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Gafford after the third quarter, the Thunder led 90-71. That’s the headline, regardless of the reserve romp that later ensued.
“As a coach, it’s hard to control the ball going in and out of the basket. And I think it’s hard as a player to control that,” Donovan said. “The challenge for us is the consistency part. And we just were not consistent tonight to how we need to play, on both ends of the floor.”
But it’s hard not to be encouraged by Markkanen’s play. Yes, because his looks were falling. But also because of the diversity in the ways he was finding them.
“He’s getting it in a lot of different ways,” Donovan said of Markkanen. “We’ve got him coming off of pindowns. He played in some pick-and-roll. I really liked him in pick-and-roll with Wendell (Carter Jr.). He got some pick-and-pop, catch-and-shoot situations. He had some drives. I think he had the same kind of shots he had the last few games. The ball just didn’t go in the basket. Maybe that helps him and gives him the confidence of seeing the ball go in the basket.”
Indeed, as Donovan has promised, Markkanen looked like far more than a “catch-and-shoot forward” on Friday, a characterization that fit him for most of his down third season. He served as the ball-handler in multiple pick-and-roll possessions; on one occasion, resulting in a steam-headed drive and finish over Al Horford. He took a defensive rebound coast to coast, then through Mike Muscala’s chest, for a lay-in in the second period. In the third, he juked his way to a baseline cut and alley-oop finish, delivered with precision by Carter.
“We played four different preseason games, and I think you saw a little bit of everything of [Markkanen] popping and doing some in transition, being able to post up a little bit,” said Zach LaVine. “You see some of his playmaking ability. We’re running some 4-5 screen and rolls with him, and he’s looked good with it. Today he got it going and we’ve got to look for him. That was the main thing. We put the ball in his hands and let him create and try to get that rhythm.”
“Of course I had some plays last year, but I do feel like I was a little more spacing the floor last year more than now,” Markkanen said. “On the move more, all the cutting and coming off pick-and-roll… There’s times I’m spacing the floor, too, but I’m liking it so far.”
Donovan even jumbled his rotation to get a longer look at Markkanen at the center spot, a configuration he’s frequented this preseason.
“It's a little bit different than what I've been used to, but I'm getting more comfortable with it,” Markkanen said of those minutes.
The elephant of the room, though, is the floor-spacing point: 29 of Markkanen’s 50 field goal attempts this preseason were of the 3-point variety -- good for a 0.58 3-point rate that far trounces last season’s 0.536 mark. He made just 31 percent of them. In the middle two contests, he shot 5-for-25 from the floor.
That element of his game isn’t diminishing in importance. On nights where the shots fall -- like Friday -- it unlocks avenues for the ancillary components of Markkanen’s game to shine. On others -- like the last two games, when he shot a combined 2-for-14 from deep -- it’s a different story.
The more the former occurs, the better off the Bulls will be.
“He (Markkanen) was getting good shots throughout the whole preseason. It’s just a matter of if he was making them or missing them,” said LaVine. “He can’t put his head down on those. He seemed lively in the locker room. That’s what we expect from him. It’s a good thing to see him bounce back and get ready for the regular season.
“He’s just got to keep his confidence. And we’re all on him to make sure he’s taking those shots, because we need it.”