Lauri Markkanen was every bit as good as advertised in his second season with the Bulls. He made improvements, proved he can be a No. 1 option and oftentimes looked like the best player on the floor.
If anything, the only complaint about Markkanen's first two seasons is that he hasn't been on that floor enough. Including Tuesday’s home finale and Wednesday’s season finale, Markkanen will have missed 30 games this season after missing 14 as a rookie.
Markkanen’s injuries aren’t to suggest that the 21-year-old is injury-prone: he suffered his elbow sprain attempting to grab a loose ball in a scrum in practice and his extreme fatigue, for now, appears to have been an isolated incident. He’s been able to participate in non-contact portions of practice and work out with the team while wearing a heart monitor.
But the Bulls have asked, and will continue to ask, for plenty from the cornerstone of their franchise. Such is life for a rebuilding team with a talent as good as Markkanen, and he understands that it will require him to continue building up his body to withstand the rigors of an 82-game schedule.
“I want to play a long 82-game season and hopefully a long postseason, so I definitely have to work on it,” Markkanen said before Tuesday’s game. “Just being able to get hit all the time and nothing happening. I think a lot of it is strength.”
While missing 10 weeks wasn’t optimal to Markkanen’s growth in what could have been an even more impressive sophomore season, it wasn’t entirely a lost cause. Markkanen said he gained perspective on what the Bulls needed from him once he eventually returned.
He was also able to take a step back and watch the game from a critical angle, noticing how successful certain forwards were when they rebounded the ball and pushed pace. It wound up being one of Markkanen’s best traits once he returned.
“You’re a part of all those film sessions and all the practices from the sidelines,” Markkanen said, “so you kind of learn what the guys like to do. Even when you’re sitting out you can build chemistry by seeing what they do, so just trying to see how you can help the team better.”
Once he returned, Markkanen was the Bulls envisioned him being after an All-NBA Rookie Team campaign, and then some. He finished the season with averages of 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 3-pointers – just the fifth time those thresholds have been reached in NBA history. Over a 10-game span in February and the first day of March, Markkanen averaged 26.5 points and 12.6 rebounds and was a finalist for Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
Markkanen knows he needs to improve defensively, admitting he had ups and downs on that end of the floor much of the season, but did say that he plans to work on his lateral quickness. He also mentioned how a full offseason to study and work on what Boylen is asking on the defensive end will only help him. That added versatility will allow Markkanen to see more time at center in small-ball scenarios - "I think it’s a good look and it’s tough for matchups, too. It’s just there’s a lot of things you have to learn how to play the 5 but I think it’s a good look."
When he's not in the weight room, improving his lateral quickness or adjusting to an additional position, Markkanen said he also has something in store for his patented drag step move. It took a life of its own during Markkanen's incredible February, with the 7-footer gracefully driving to the paint before using two long steps and a fadeaway that finished off the glass in the paint.
Markkanen said while he’d love to take credit for the move, he actually discovered it on accident one day in practice. It was only then that he realized the move could be a successful one. He’s had a few people back home in Finland ask to teach him the move and said there’s other variations he plans to add this offseason – he wouldn’t divulge on what those might be.
Markkanen doesn’t have a name for the drag step yet but wouldn’t mind if it caught on.
“When someone hits a fadeaway jumper they say, ‘That’s the Dirk right there,’” Markkanen said. “So maybe I’ll get the drag step being ‘The Lauri’ someday.”
For now, Markkanen will have to settle for being the face of the Bulls rebuild. The expectations will get steeper and the potential for a postseason berth in a weak Eastern Conference will only fuel the work he puts in.
"Nobody wants to miss the playoffs and I’m definitely looking forward to next year," he said, "using that as motivation to work on my game and work on team stuff as well."